RIP to George Kernek, a first baseman who played for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1965 and ’66. He died on August 14 at the age of 82. Following his playing career, he had a long career running his own insurance agency.
George Boyd Kernek was born in Holdenville, Okla., on January 12, 1940. As a student at Holdenville High School, he was nearly 6’3″, which made him a natural as a guard on the school’s basketball team. He was able to dunk the ball with either hand. He was also a football and track star in high school, as well as a straight-A student, according to the Lawton Constitution. He was picked as part of a statewide basketball team that challenged a team of Texas high school basketball stars on August 20, 1958. Oklahoma won the “Oil Bowl” 70-58, though Kernek’s role was limited. When he graduated, he accepted a scholarship to attend the University of Oklahoma and play basketball and baseball.
“I really needed the scholarship, and OU was the school I definitely wanted to attend,” Kernek said.
Kernek was a big part of the Sooners basketball squad. In 1960, he sank a game-winning shot against Minnesota and was the driving force behind a 60-56 win over Brigham Young University. His basketball career overshadowed his baseball career in college, but he was no less successful as a first baseman than he was a guard. Though Holdenville High didn’t always have a baseball team and Legion ball was similarly sporadic, Kernek became a starter for the Sooners. He led the team with a .346 batting average in 1961 and was named to the All-Big Eight team. In June of 1961, he signed a contract with the St. Louis Cardinals, courtesy of scout Fred Hawn. He played the ’61 season with Tulsa and Winnipeg and batted .221 with each team.
Kernek played on two teams each season from 1962 through 1964, moving from the Class-C teams like Billings and Winnipeg to Triple-A Jacksonville. Along the way, his hitting improved, and he enjoyed several half-seasons of hitting over .300 before moving to the next team. He also started to add a little power, with 10 homers in 1963 (2 in Tulsa, 8 in Billings). He also drove in 80 runs that season and hit .300, establishing himself as a reliable run producer. While Kernek was no speedster on the bases, he could reach double digits in stolen bases as well.
Kernek got his first taste of Triple-A baseball at the end of the 1963 season and started the ’64 season in Jacksonville. The 25-year-old first baseman was up to the challenge and hit .295 with 86 RBIs, making the International League aAll-Star Team. Despite his increasingly impressive defense at first base, the Jacksonville Suns used him most frequently in the outfield. He slammed his 19th home run of the season against Toledo on September 1 to tie the game, and the Suns eventually won 6-3 in 13 innings. He attributed his increased home run power to using special weights to strengthen his forearms and wrists. He also switched to a lighter bat in late 1964. The model he was using was a 29-ounce Stan Musial bat. “I hit five home runs with the Musial bat in the last two weeks of the ’64 season,” he said.
Within days of his 19th homer, Kernek was brought to the majors by the Cardinals. He made his major-league debut on September 5 against the New York Mets. He singled off starter Rob Gardner in the bottom of the fifth inning for his first big-league hit, advanced to third base on a Bob Uecker single and scored the first run of the game on a squeeze bunt by Cards pitcher Ray Washburn. The Cardinals won 3-0. By September, the Cardinals were just under .500 and were deep in the second division of the National League, so manager Red Schoendienst went with a youth movement that gained Kernek some playing time at first base, over an injured Bill White. He started all four games of the team’s final series against the Houston Astros and delivered 7 hits and 2 walks in 19 plate appearances. He pounded out 2 doubles and a triple and scored 5 runs. Kernek’s hitting spree against the Astros left him with a .290 batting average and .452 slugging percentage in 10 games in the majors.
That October, the Cardinals general manager Bob Howsam decided to make some significant trades to radically alter the team. Ken Boyer was traded to the New York Mets, and first baseman White, Uecker and Dick Groat were all traded to the Philadelphia Phillies. The departure of White left first base open for competition. Kernek performed very well in Florida winter ball to stake his claim on the position. He went into spring training knowing how significant it was to his career. “Man, I’m in a heck of a spot,” he said in January of 1966. “I’m sure they’ll give me a chance, if I come along, and I think I’ll come along.” Kernek realized that he would have a difficult time replacing the popular White in the hearts of Cardinals fans. “He’s really a great guy. When I came up at the end of the season, he gave me some really good pointers,” he added.
Kernek became the Cardinals Opening Day first baseman for 1966 and went hitless in 2 at-bats against Philadelphia on April 13. He then cracked 3 singles against Pittsburgh on April 15 and drove in 2 runs in a 9-2 Cardinals win. Through the end of April, Kernek batted a decent .256, but he only had one extra-base hit – a triple. The Cardinals began to look for a first baseman with a little more power, and the team found him in San Francisco’s Orlando Cepeda. The Cardinals acquired the future Hall of Famer on May 8 for pitcher Ray Sadecki. By then, Kernek had been benched in favor of Tito Francona and was reduced to a pinch-hitter. On the same day as the Cepeda trade, Kernek struck out as a pinch-hitter against, coincidentally, the Giants. The trade was announced after the game, and Kernek was optioned to Triple-A Tulsa. He did not return to the majors.
In parts of 2 seasons with the Cardinals, Kernek appeared in a total of 30 games and slashed .259/.318/.346, with a .664 OPS. He had 21 hits that included 3 doubles and 2 triples. He drove in 6 runs, scored 11 times and took 6 bases on balls. He also stole a base and had a .984 fielding percentage at first base.
Kernek spent the rest of 1966 with Tulsa and batted .265 with 18 home runs. He played four more seasons in Triple-A, with the Cardinals, White Sox and Reds organizations. He joined the White Sox in a move that sent first baseman Jim Hicks to St. Louis on October of 1967. The trade allowed Kernek to spent the 1968 season playing for the Hawaii Islanders, and he hit 14 homers there. However, his batting average had begin to tail off, and he hit just .239. He also swiped 15 bases in 19 attempts. “I’ve been stealing more this year because I haven’t had as many extra base hits,” he commented.
Kernek only spent one season in Hawaii, but Honolulu Star-Bulletin and Advertiser columnist Ferd Borsch never forgot him. Kernek lived at the Ilikai Hotel during the season, which had parrots in bird cages in the lobby. “After each game, Kernek would return to the hotel and, without fail, pause at each cage to utter an x-rated two-word suggestion. The birds became apt pupils,” Borsch wrote. “I understand that shortly after the 1968 season, the parrots and their expanded vocabularies were no longer living in the lobby of the Ilikai.”
Kernek continued to tinker with his swing to improve his hitting, and the work resulted in an improved .263 mark with Tucson in 1969. However, he chose to cut down on aiming for the fences, and he hit just 9 home runs. He finished his playing career with the Indianapolis Indians in 1970, working as a player-coach. He elected to retire at the end of the season to go back to his farm in Oklahoma. In 10 seasons in the minor leaguers, Kernek hit .270 with 97 home runs.
Kernek attended classes at the University of Oklahoma in the offseasons as a ballplayer and graduated with a business degree. He did some farming as a ballplayer in Oklahoma, including growing peanuts. He took the player-coach role in 1970 with the thought of staying in baseball as a coach or manager. His career went in a different direction, but he was satisfied with his baseball career. “I think I probably would have played whether I made it to the majors or not,” he said while playing for Indianapolis. “I enjoy athletics. I have a college education and could go to work making more, but this is what I like to do.”
Kernek went to work for several insurance companies in Oklahoma and eventually started his own Kernek Insurance Agency in Purcell. He retired in 2009. He and wife Joyce, a former champion barrel racer, lived on a ranch near Purcell. They traveled frequently, especially to Brazil where Joyce held barrel racing clinics. George Kernek remained a vibrant part of his community, serving as president of the Purcell Chamber of Commerce and teaching Sunday school. He is survived by Joyce and a large extended family.
Source: The Purcell Register