Kanehl likes to kid about playing for the Dreamliners. "No strain, no pain, no batting practice, nobody gets hurt, and you usually play only seven innings." he says. "That's the way to play baseball." There is more to it for him. though, and later on, in a less flip mood, he tried to explain it. "I have a different image here," he said. "With the Mets I was a guy that got a lucky hit. or caught somebody asleep and walked away with an extra base. Here I'm a good player. A man's goal in life is to be depended on. In Wichita, they depend on me."
Also dependent on Kanehl is his wife, Shirley, a charming young woman who is called " Big Red" because of the color of her hair and the tempo of her personality. The Kanehls live in a modest four-bedroom country house that Rod built mostly himself. Everybody uses the back door, and the large, comfortable kitchen is the center of activity. The living room is usually empty. The house is two years old but barely landscaped as yet, except for a yellow rose bush Shirley planted when they moved in.
The Kanehls have four handsome children—Phillip, 12, Dave, 10, Leslie (a girl), 8, and Tom, 5—alert, bright youngsters who show no signs of having been hurt by living the nomadic life of baseball brats. "I don't think I made a good baseball wife," Shirley Kanehl says. "It bothered me to have Rod away so much." Still, there were compensations. The Kanehls used New York. The kids learned the subway system, went to the museums. Their parents saw the top shows. They consider themselves better, broader people than they would have been had they never left Springfield.
One thing they did not get out of baseball, though, was money. Kanehl was paid $9,000 his first year with the Mets, $12,000 after a holdout his last season. This was supplemented each winter by the $2,000 or $3,000 Kanehl made pouring concrete. "It was just enough to keep us poor," he said.
Kanehl is bothered by the inequities of baseball, the mindless injuries it metes out, the enemies it graduates from its ranks each season just by doing things the baseball, or blockheaded, way. He spoke of Sherman Lollar, a local man who was a catcher for the White Sox for 12 years. "When they let him go," Kanehl said, "they sent him a pink slip in the mail. That's how he found out."
Kanehl's experience with the Mets was no less heartless. After his first season, for example, the Mets asked him to stay in New York to have an operation on his knee. Kanehl said he had to go home and pour some concrete during the autumn or his family would starve that winter, but he added that he would stay in New York for the operation if the Mets put him on the payroll for, say, a modest $400 a month. The Met management was shocked. George Weiss said the Mets did not pay people for going to the hospital. So Kanehl had the operation late in the winter and, of course, was hampered in the spring.
The penultimate injury to Kanehl was delivered in the mail after his three glorious years with the Mets. It was a contract to play for Buffalo at a salary of $8,500. There is no legal reason why the Mets should not have done this—except that for those who march to the drums of the Mets, there was always something special about Kanehl. From the day in that first spring-training camp when the veteran Richie Ashburn called for a fly ball in the outfield and then let it drop, only to have rookie Kanehl snarl at him, "If you call for it, goddam it, catch it," everybody knew he was going to be a bird of a singular feather. And to those who understood the Mets ("The owners didn't," Kanehl says. "They were unconscious") he always was. It was Kanehl who strolled to second base on the Giants when the infield forgot to pay attention to him, Kanehl who scored from second on a short passed ball, Kanehl who, as a pinch runner, scored the winning run in nine of the first 12 Met victories, Kanehl who played seven positions (all of them the Mets' way—not well, but with a certain �lan) and Kanehl who was Casey Stengel's good-luck charm. He deserved, if not better, at least different treatment. That he was not invited to the Mets' training camp in 1965 shocked even Stengel, a man used to being discharged from ball clubs.
The final indignity was yet to come. When the Yankees heard that Kanehl was at liberty, Johnny Johnson called and offered him a choice of two jobs: third baseman and coach at Toledo, or manager of a rookie league team in Florida. Kanehl was torn. His construction business was going well, and he knew the Yankees were not about to pay him important money. After a week of soul-searching he phoned Johnson, planning to say thanks but he couldn't think about baseball unless there was $15,000 a year involved. He never got the chance. As soon as Johnson answered the phone he said, "Rod, I'm sorry. Weiss wants two players for you. We can't do that." Career over.
Although he had made up his mind to separate from baseball, Kanehl had not quite decided on a divorce. To have the other side file the papers was a blow. And what would Weiss get if Kanehl stayed home? Just what he was entitled to—all the free water he could drink.
Kanehl's private history of baseball abounds with such decisions. In 1959, after five years in the game and a .295 batting average the year before with Dallas, Kanehl was invited to spring training with the Yankees. He had his bags packed and the wife and kids in the car when the letter from Bill McCorry, then the Yankee road secretary, who was nicknamed Mom, for "mean old man," arrived. It advised Kanehl that the Yankees prohibited rookies from bringing their families to camp. Kanehl filed the letter in an empty cement bag and set out with his brood for St. Pete. His first day there McCorry berated him loudly in the middle of the crowded clubhouse. Kanehl listened for a while, then said, "Either you were gonna get mad at me or my wife was gonna get mad at me, and I got to live with my wife." As McCorry sputtered, the Yankee players laughed.