Kanehl spent seven years in the Yankee chain, the last three of them convinced there would one day be a job for him as a manager. He didn't know how he knew, he just knew. (Later, when asked if Kanehl had a right to this assumption, Johnny Johnson, the Yankee farm director, replied that he did indeed. "Kanehl is a type," he said. "When this type starts to slow up they make up for it with hustle and understanding of the game and by helping the manager. They begin to show signs of leadership. After a while you just know they're the kind who can manage.")
In the meantime, the Yankees were trying to make a shortstop of him. It was hopeless. "I was a terrible shortstop," says Kanehl. He was less than sensational at a lot of other positions, too, but when he was asked how good he thought he was as a player, he laughed, winked the Casey Stengel way and said, "How good—or how valuable?"
He pointed out that he had played second base for the Mets and wound up in the middle of more double plays than the team had ever made before. But because he never had the grace to make a leaping pivot, he paid a terrible price. While he was playing second base there was a raw-hamburger look to his legs. "There isn't anything to the pivot if you have guts enough to stand there," Kanehl says.
He had guts enough. He was the only player who collected on Stengel's standing $50 offer to anybody who got hit by a pitch with the bases loaded. ("Let him hit ya," Stengel once shouted at Elio Chacon. "I'll get ya a new-neck.") But no matter how much guts Kanehl had or how valuable he was, he found himself, in 1965 at the age of 31, out of a job and out of baseball. It was a sudden thing and, although he tries not to. he resents it.
"I thought there would be a place for me in this game," Kanehl said, the laughter suddenly gone. "I thought there would always be room for a guy who knows the game and has some intelligence. I know the game from underneath. I know what goes on in the mind of a mediocre ballplayer. I know what it's like to be a bad hitter. I know what it's like to have to battle every time you go up to the plate. I think the Mets were stupid for not keeping me. And you know what hurt most? They gave away my uniform number even before spring training started. They couldn't wait."
If baseball was ready to drop Kanehl, he was not ready to drop baseball. Although he lives and works in Springfield, he flies to Wichita to play for a semipro team called the Dreamliners. The vision of hypodermic fantasy this name calls forth is altogether appropriate. On one level a Dreamliner is merely a sleek, air-conditioned bus owned by Wichita Transit Incorporated. On another it is a deliciously apt symbol of a lost world sought by men who would cling forever to their boyhood.
The Dreamliners are sponsored by a portly, doll-like man named Bernard E. Calkins. It costs him about $10,000 a year, and until recently Calkins thought it was worth every penny of it. Calkins used to own the local bus line—then called the Rapid Transit Company of Wichita—but four weeks ago, plagued by complaints from citizens that service was not as good as it might be, he decided to sell out. In the meantime, Calkins continues to hold on to the Dreamliners, and it gives him a chance to be Walter O'Malley, to make clubhouse speeches enjoining his men to light, fight, fight.
In his relentless search for low-priced talent with a high-priced past. Calkins has gathered about him not only local men with a bit of minor-league experience in their dossiers, but a core of once-talented ex-major-leaguers who make the Dreamliners the most feared hired bats in the Midwest. These men play a schedule of more than 60 games a year under conditions that would have made them cry when they were in Class D and for rewards which are, by the usual standards of baseball Hessians, insignificant.
The reason they do it is simple: they like to play baseball. The game gets into some men like a cinder in the eye, and it won't wash out. Once they have been paid to play baseball, they can be insulted, disgraced, have their uniforms stripped off them, be cast aside like so many empty, sticky boxes of Cracker Jack; and they will stagger off, tears rolling down their cheeks, looking for a pickup game on some sandlot.
They are Dreamliners—Rod Kanehl, Charlie Neal, Jim Pendleton, Bob Boyd—names forgotten now by all but the true fan. They play baseball, though, and they win games. Their record was 56-5 last season, and they won the Kansas State National Baseball Congress championship and then the national title. They shared $15,000 in prize money for all of this, or about $1,000 a man.