“I always felt he was the spirit of the Mets and that they would try to keep him around, because he made the other players feel that spirit.” – Ken MacKenzie
“He played the game with such delight, and there was always that smile on his face, the same smile you see in the stands at Shea Stadium, and you felt there had to be a place in baseball for the Rod Kanehls, who come along all too seldom.” – Dick Young
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Roderick Edwin “Hot Rod” Kanehl was born on April Fools’ Day 1934 in Wichita but grew up in Springfield, MO. He graduated from Springfield High School and went to Drury University in Springfield, too. The Yankees got wind of his superior defensive skills at seven different positions, signed him as an amateur free agent, and sent him to McAlester, OK for the 1954 season. He hit well enough, .313, in rookie ball, so he was allowed to move up the chain.
What caught notice, however, was his ripped pants. On the first day of spring training, a ball was hit over the fence at Miller Huggins field. Kanehl, playing center, jumped the fence to go get it. “I was way out in centerfield and the ball went under the fence. I hurriedly climbed over it to get the ball before some kids got to it.” That’s when Stengel noticed him. “Mr. Stengel was way off in the corner of the dugout talking to some writers. I don’t see how he could have seen me, but he did. In getting back, I tore my pants. So, I have to saddle back to the clubhouse.”
In 1955, it was Monroe in C Level ball where he was teammates with Mickey Mantle’s twin brothers Roy and Ray. Midway through the 1956 season, he was in B level Winston-Salem. He opened 1957 playing B level ball in Peoria and played in Hattiesburg. Moved to Dallas, he hit .295 and led the Texas League in stolen bases with 28 in 1958. That gave him a ticket to spring training with the Yankees in 1959. He didn’t make it – and after a season hitting .230 with Houston and Richmond at the AAA level, he became a bit of a minor league nomad, but never gave up. As he told one writer, “Somebody’s going to stumble on to me someday.”
He spent time at Nashville, Dallas-Fort Worth and Amarillo in 1960 before he was drafted out of the minors by the New York Mets organization. The Mets wouldn’t be ready for play until 1962, so Kanehl spent 1961 in Nashville doing everything for that team. In one game with Nashville Ed Stogoski, the second string catcher, was warming up a pitcher when he was called on to pinch hit. So, Kanehl “vaulted off the bench, rushed down the leftfield line, and took over Stogoski’s job of warming up a relief pitcher.”
Rod explained his hustle this way. “It’s a job to me. If I didn’t get paid enough I would not play baseball. Since I do get paid, I want to do the best job I can. Don’t you like to do the best you can in your work?”
Kanehl’s minor league run lasted a long time – but he got the chance to play in the majors because of expansion. First, the American League added the Minnesota Twins and Los Angeles Angels. The next year, in 1962, the National League added the Houston Astros and the New York Mets.
He finished the 1961 season in Nashville with a .304 average and 72 RBI, but it wasn’t enough to earn a ticket to spring training with the Mets in 1962. However his energy did. His hustle got Casey Stengel’s attention back in 1954. In fact, at every spring training, Casey would remind writers (and Kanehl) about how Rod tore his pants going over a fence on the first day in camp. Now, the Mets were being run by Stengel. Stengel was happy to have his “scavenger” on the Mets – and Casey made a “noisy, public fight to keep him” even though “the verdict was that Kanehl, despite his versatility and hustle, couldn’t hit major league pitching.”
Stengel won. Within two months, the guy that “…looks awkward at the plate [was] leading all the Mets in batting with 14 hits in 37 times at bat for a .378 average. He looks crude in the field, but so far he’s filled in at first, second, third, short, left, and right field.”
Most of the time, Kanehl played second base even though some thought he was more naturally suited for centerfield. “When I was at Dallas in 1958,” Kanehl remembered, “my manager was Davey Williams who used to play second for the Giants. He worked with me at second base for a while, but the owner of the club didn’t like me playing the infield.” The position stuck, though. He said his arm was strong enough to play the left side of the infield because “…when I was younger I had a really strong arm, and I’d throw the ball into the grandstand a lot.” He didn’t have that problem at second base. And he wasn’t afraid to deal with the pivot on double plays.
Kanehl kept his job on the Mets through the 1963 and 1964 seasons, though his batting average fell a few points each year (in truth, he was a light hitting singles hitter with some speed and really good game awareness). His hustle and versatility kept him on the team through some lean seasons.
Kanehl is the answer to a handful of Mets trivia questions. For example, who was the first Met to hit a grand slam? Kanehl hit his against the Cards (and Bobby Shantz) in the old Polo Grounds on 6 July 1962. He also served as Marv Throneberry’s roommate, and was the last guy to get a pinch hit at the Polo Grounds.
Kanehl held out in 1964 and was able to work out a raise to $12,000. In 1965, though, Kanehl wasn’t happy with his contract. He was not just getting a cut in pay (from $12,000 per year to $8,500) but he wasn’t even invited to spring training. He was going to be sent down to AAA Buffalo prior to spring training and work out there.
So, he quit the game he loved so much and took up concrete and construction as a full time career in Springfield, MO. He had a family to care for and he had his pride. “I figure I rated at least an invitation to the Mets’ camp, and then if they wanted to ship me out to Buffalo, at least they’d have done it big league. When they didn’t ask me to camp, I realized I was in the wrong business.”
In addition to his concrete business, Kanehl worked as a safety engineer. For a few years, he played on a ridiculously talented semi-pro team called the Wichita Dreamliners, who won the National Baseball Congress tournament in 1965.
He married Shirley Toler and they had four kids, Phillip, Dave, Leslie, and Thomas. Leslie was named for Leslie Turner, who provided a home for the Kanehl family and became a close friend of the family when he played in Hattiesburg, MS in 1957. Rod and Shirley divorced after twenty years, and he remarried two other times.
Kanehl died 14 December 2004 following a heart attack he suffered days prior. He was living in Palm Springs, California at the time, retired but occasionally working as a caddie.
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The Mets opened the 1965 season without Kanehl, and the fans noticed. A banner hung from the second deck in left field that said: “The Mets Look Odd Without Hot Rod.”
SABR Bio (David E. Skelton) – It’s a well written piece.
Young, Dick. “Young Ideas”, New York Daily News, 16 April 1965, Page 53.
Williams, F. M. “The Sports Showcase: Baseball Needs More Gardners and Kanehls”, Nashville Tennessean, 22 August 1961, Page 14.
“Rod Kanehl”, Indiana Gazette, 30 December 2004, Page 4.
Napier, Regiel. “Napier’s Sports Nosings”, Hattiesburg American, 30 August 1966, Page 9.
Mahnken, Don. “Talkin’ Sports”, Springfield Daily News, 3 November 1960, Page 21.
Reichler, Joe. “Ex-Vol Rod Kanehl Latest Stengel Pet”, Nashville Tennessean, 05 June 1962.
“Mets Turn Mean Image to Cards”, Terre Haute Star, 07 July 1962, Page 8.
Ellison, Jack. “Sports Downbeat”, Tampa Bay Times, 24 February 1958, Pages 1C and 3C.
“Hustle Gains Kanehl Role”, Baltimore Sun, 31 August 1962, Page 19.