George Kernek was so highly regarded by the Cardinals they chose him to replace Bill White as their starting first baseman and issued him the uniform number previously worn by one of the franchise’s best players, third baseman Ken Boyer.
Kernek was the Opening Day first baseman for the 1966 Cardinals, but the rookie held the job for less than a month, was sent back to the minor leagues and never played in the majors again.
Awarded a key position with a storied franchise just a year removed from a World Series championship, Kernek represented one of the biggest misjudgments made by Bob Howsam during his tenure as St. Louis general manager.
After the 1965 season, Howsam shocked St. Louis fans by breaking up his all-star infield. He traded Boyer to the Mets and sent White and shortstop Dick Groat to the Phillies.
News reports speculated the Cardinals might try to acquire a veteran first baseman such as Joe Pepitone of the Yankees, Donn Clendenon of the Pirates or Gordy Coleman of the Reds. Instead, the Cardinals indicated they preferred Kernek.
A former basketball and baseball standout at the University of Oklahoma, Kernek, 6-foot-3 and 170 pounds, signed with the Cardinals in 1961 and was assigned to Class C Winnipeg of the Northern League. As he worked his way through the minor-league system, Kernek developed a reputation as an opposite-field hitter with little power. In his first four minor-league seasons, the left-handed batter averaged about six home runs a year.
Before the 1965 season, Fred Hawn, the scout who signed Kernek for St. Louis, told him he needed to hit with more power to reach the big leagues. Kernek began a weight-training program, focusing especially on strengthening his wrists. He also switched to a lighter bat, at one point using a Stan Musial model. With the increased strength and lighter bat, Kernek began to consistently pull the ball.
The results were dramatic. Playing for Class AAA Jacksonville in 1965, Kernek led the International League in total bases (244). He hit .295 (149 hits in 134 games) with 19 home runs and 86 RBI. The Cardinals rewarded Kernek with a call to the big leagues in September 1965 and he impressed with a .290 batting average (9-for-31) in 10 games.
Howsam believed Kernek could be St. Louis’ everyday first baseman in 1966. He wasn’t alone. In November 1965, after White had been traded, The Sporting News reported: Vice-president Stan Musial insists that the Redbirds are not concentrating on landing a first baseman. The Man feels that there’s a good chance the first-base job will be in good hands with George Kernek, Bob Tolan and veteran Tito Francona available.
The Cardinals sent Kernek to their Florida instructional camp that winter. Though Kernek primarily had been a first baseman during his first four seasons in the minor leagues, he played 109 games in the outfield (and only 35 at first base) for 1965 Jacksonville because of injuries to regular outfielders.
Cardinals instructor George Kissell worked with Kernek on fielding at the instructional camp. Kernek’s daily program included making 25 throws to the pitcher covering first base, 25 throws to the second baseman on double-play attempts and 25 throws to home plate.
Kernek needed no instruction on hitting. Said Cardinals hitting coach Dick Sisler to The Sporting News: “I certainly like the way Kernek swings. There’s no use in fooling around with him.”
On March 4, 1966, the Associated Press reported from the Cardinals’ spring training camp at St. Petersburg, Fla., that manager Red Schoendienst had tabbed Kernek, 26, the favorite to win the first base job. But on March 7, during a rundown play in a practice session, Kernek twisted a knee. He would sit out a week before making his exhibition-game debut on March 15.
A day later, Kernek, using a Bill White model bat, hit a three-run homer off Orlando Pena in a 4-2 Cardinals exhibition victory over the Tigers.
“He’s a better hitter than people give him credit for being,” Cardinals coach Joe Schultz said of Kernek to The Sporting News. “He has good power.”
But troubling signs soon emerged. Kernek completed spring training with a .224 batting average. In the season-opener at St. Louis against the Phillies, Kernek made an error, went 0-for-2 and was lifted for pinch-hitter Mike Shannon with two on and one out in the seventh. Boxscore
Adding to expectations, Kernek was assigned Bill White’s locker and given the uniform number 14 previously worn by Ken Boyer.
Displaying almost no power, Kernek wasn’t mistaken for White or Boyer. He remained the starting first baseman through May 1. Then Schoendienst benched him. For five games, Schoendienst went with a platoon of Tito Francona and Phil Gagliano. Howsam went searching for a trade partner.
On May 8, the Cardinals dealt pitcher Ray Sadecki to the Giants for first baseman Orlando Cepeda, a right-handed slugger.
“We needed somebody at first base, a big guy who could hit the ball,” Schoendienst told The Sporting News.
Said Howsam: “Now we have a balanced attack.”
In 20 games, Kernek had hit .240 (12-for-50) with no doubles, no home runs and three RBI. Six of his 12 hits had come in two games. He was sent to Class AAA Tulsa on the same day the Cardinals acquired Cepeda.
Kernek never played in the big leagues again. He spent the remainder of the ’66 season and all of the 1967 season at Tulsa. Though he had solid numbers (18 homers, 84 RBI for 1966 Tulsa and 14 homers, 68 RBI for 1967 Tulsa), he no longer fit in the Cardinals’ plans.
After the ’67 season, Kernek was sent to the White Sox organization in a swap for outfielder Jim Hicks. Kernek spent 1968 and ’69 with White Sox Class AAA clubs.
In 1970, Howsam, then general manager of the Reds, brought Kernek into the Cincinnati organization. Kernek finished his professional career that year with Class AAA Indianapolis, managed by one of his former Cardinals instructors, Vern Rapp.