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Greg Prince and Jason Fry
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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The First Patron Saint of Ridiculous Causes

Welcome to A Met for All Seasons, a series in which we consider a given Met who played in a given season and…well, we’ll see.

When I first encountered Rod Kanehl, it was as an example of what not to be.

The story is famous in Miracle Mets lore: After the Mets ascended to the lofty heights of .500 in late May of 1969, the latest they’d ever managed mediocrity, the beat writers entered the locker room expecting a celebration, only to find business as usual. When he figured out what the scribes had expected, Tom Seaver was contemptuous — in his usual indomitable, slightly imperious way.

“What’s so great about .500?” he asked. “I’m tired of jokes about the old Mets. Let Rod Kanehl and Marvelous Marv laugh about the Mets. We’re out here to win.”

As a Met-obsessed kid learning the franchise history through books, I loved that story. I loved what it said about Seaver and standards and winning, which is the context in which it’s usually presented. I also took away from it the thoroughly mistaken idea that every player was intimately aware of his franchise’s past. But it left me wondering: Who were Rod Kanehl and Marvelous Marv, anyway? In time, I’d figure that out — and given more time, I’d discover that Seaver’s name-checking Kanehl wasn’t as random as it sounded.

But let’s not get ahead of the story.

Marvelous Marv — that would be Marvin Eugene Throneberry, he of the initials M.E.T. — got more ink when tales of the early Mets got told and retold, but in my opinion it was his roommate Roderick Edwin Kanehl, AKA Hot Rod, who really embodied those teams, and the reason Casey Stengel‘s Mets had been beloved instead of booed.

Rod Kanehl 1964 cardKanehl played baseball hell for leather. Fans loved that. He also played it intelligently, with sound instincts and a hunger to learn. His teammates and coaches respected that. The problem was that for all his verve and brains, Kanehl didn’t play baseball very well. He saw time at seven positions in ’62, a sign of admirable versatility … except for the fact that he somehow made 32 errors playing those positions. Herein lies a question to ponder: Is a utility player who can’t actually play any position still a utility player?

If that sounds philosophical, well, Kanehl was at least a utility-player-level philosopher. “The line drives are caught, the squibbles go for hits — it’s an unfair game,” he once observed, which strikes me as an essential baseball truth and is one of my favorite lines. Which was another reason I came to love Kanehl — he was the first in the franchise’s line of self-aware ironists, guys who demonstrated that they were in on the joke, even when an unfair game meant it was on them. In that sense, Ron Swoboda, Tug McGraw, Robin Ventura, Cliff Floyd and Noah Syndergaard are all descendants of Kanehl.

Kanehl grew up in Springfield, Mo., where baseball took a back seat to track — he was a star runner, high jumper and pole vaulter in high school and college. But he also played pickup games of “Indian ball” in the neighborhood, as well as American Legion and semi-pro ball. His speed prompted Yankee scout Tom Greenwade — who’d signed Mickey Mantle — to take a chance on him, signing him for $4,000. Kanehl debuted in the Class-D Sooner State League alongside Mantle’s twin brothers Roy and Ray, putting together a 32-game hitting streak. But his real break came two years later, when he attended an instructional camp in St. Petersburg, Fla., overseen by Casey Stengel. Kanehl, not far removed from days when losing a single ball meant the end of the game, leapt a five-foot fence topped with barbed wire to retrieve a home run before ball-hawking local kids could get it. As a former high jumper, Kanehl knew the fence was no obstacle, but Stengel was impressed: “Anybody who can save the club $2.50 on a baseball like that can play for me.”

But by the end of 1961, it looked like that would never be the case. Kanehl had learned to play shortstop — a move driven in part by Stengel’s love of versatility — but he’d spent eight years in the Yankees system without a callup. In an odd foreshadowing of Seaver’s arrival, he became available to the Mets because of a commissioner’s ruling. Syracuse, then a Twins affiliate, selected Kanehl in the 1961 minor-league draft, but the Twins switched Triple-A allegiances to Vancouver. The Mets signed an affiliation agreement with Syracuse, raising the question of which club got Kanehl. Commissioner Ford Frick, presumably not picking from a hat, ruled for the Mets.

Kanehl knew expansion had given him a shot at being a big leaguer, and he made the most of it. As he recalled later, “I was 28 years old. I either make it, or I go home.”

And this time he had an advantage, one he wasn’t about to surrender: Stengel knew and trusted him. Kanehl had been through years of Stengel’s standardized workouts and instructional boot camps, which the Ol’ Perfesser brought to the Mets. When Stengel wanted to show his new charges how to take a lead or bunt, he frequently chose Kanehl to demonstrate — Kanehl, the Double-A player without so much as a day in a big-league clubhouse.

That rankled the veterans, who saw Kanehl as Casey’s pet — Richie Ashburn was only one of the best bunters in the game, after all. In an early bunting drill, Roger Craig knocked the rookie down with a fastball below the chin. Undaunted, Kanehl sprang to his feet and told the veteran, “get it over, Meat.” But unlike other managers’ pets — hello, Gregg Jefferies! — Kanehl was accepted by his teammates. He won respect with his fiery play, but also because he had the brains to hang around the veterans’ clubhouse skull sessions, listening attentively as Gil Hodges and Don Zimmer and Gus Bell and Ashburn discussed their craft. In short order, they treated him like one of their own.

Kanehl also had an undeniable flair for the dramatic — and after eight years of toil, his luck was turning. One day in spring training he was asleep at the end of the bench after a too-late night when Stengel called on him to pinch-hit. Kanehl made his bleary way to the plate to find the Mets down by two, with runners on second and third (he had no idea how they got there) and Sandy Koufax glaring at him from the mound. He barely saw the first two strikes and tried to pull his bat back from a vicious curve ball ticketed to be strike three. It hit his bat and flared over the infield for a game-tying two-run double. Felix Mantilla then drove Kanehl in with the winning run. The game was televised in New York, where eager Mets fans saw a potential folk hero.

Stengel saw it too, and won a showdown with GM George Weiss. Weiss was well-acquainted with Kanehl, and wanted no part of him, but Stengel loved the player he called “Kanoo” or “my little scavenger,” observing that he “busts his ass for me.” The manager got his way: Kanehl hit .440 in the spring and won the backup-infielder spot over Ted Lepcio, a slow-footed veteran. Hot Rod was headed to New York.

And he kept getting lucky. He survived cutdown day by starring in a doubleheader against the Giants while playing first base, a position he’d never played before. On April 28, he scored from second on a wild pitch — the winning run in the Mets’ first home game. In another game, he walked, noticed none of the infielders were paying attention, and hurried down to second base. Ralph Kiner and Bob Murphy had taken advantage of a station break to get water, and had no idea how Kanehl had wound up with an extra base, or what to tell listeners.

Maybe they concluded Kanehl was magical. Because he kind of was — or at least as magical as a guy who hits .248 with a dismal fielding percentage can be. Kanehl hit the first grand slam in club history on July 6, a game where Stengel had exhorted the troops to do their best because Joan Payson had just returned from the famous trip to Europe where she’d amended her instructions to only receive telegrams when the Mets won. That feat earned Kanehl a place in the record books and 50,000 King Korn trading stamps, which he traded in at a store in Chicago for “a living-room suite, a Deepfreeze, an end table — a lot of junk.”

He also embraced the city where he’d hoped to play for so many years. Kanehl became an expert at navigating the subway, earning the nickname “the Mole” from teammates. But once again, he impressed the old hands: After games at the Polo Grounds, veteran Mets liked to repair to the Silhouette, a former Dodgers hangout in East Flatbush. (Which is an awfully long way from Coogan’s Bluff, but that’s habit for you.) Kanehl would take the subway instead of traveling by car, and routinely be on his second or third drink when his teammates arrived.

(Credit where credit is due: Kanehl is a major character in David Bagdade’s A Year in Mudville, one of several books I leaned on for the above, and which would make an excellent addition to your baseball library.)

The good times were not to last. Weiss kept trying to replace Stengel’s little scavenger, bringing in Ron Hunt for 1963 and then Amado Samuel and Charley Smith in ’64. 1964 is the year to which this profile nominally belongs, but by then Kanehl’s star — never all that bright to begin with, if we’re being honest — was waning. He slumped for much of the summer and struggled with injuries, and the Mets no longer wanted to be seen as the scrappy, scruffy team of the Polo Grounds. They’d moved to jet-age Shea and wanted to emphasize youth. When Kanehl didn’t make the Mets out of spring training in ’65, he said no to a minor-league contract.

Kanehl would never play another professional game, but neither his baseball story nor his part in the Mets’ tale had ended. He went back to semi-pro ball, suiting up for the Wichita Dreamliners. At the time, semi-pro and amateur leagues played for the National Baseball Congress championship. In the ’65 semi-finals, Kanehl’s Dreamliners faced off against the Alaska Goldpanners, a pitching-rich club whose starting staff included future Mets Danny Frisella, Al Schmelz and Tom Seaver. Seaver started against Wichita and imploded in the sixth; Kanehl stole home as part of a triple steal. The Goldpanners lost, 6-3, and if you think Tom Seaver forgot that, think again.

Kanehl hoped that season would earn him a look as a coach or manager, and he had every reason to think it might. He’d been offered a Class-D managerial job back in 1960, Stengel had used him as a de facto bench coach, and he’d been sent out to coach first at the tail end of the ’63 season. For whatever reason, the call never came. Years later, Kanehl told Sports Illustrated that “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.”

Kanehl was in the Mets’ clubhouse after the team won the division in 1969. As the Champagne fountained, he introduced himself to Tommie Agee. The young outfielder chatted genially with his visitor, then turned to ask a bystander, “Who is that?”

Seaver could have told him. So could many a long-suffering Met fan. Kanehl knew the game from underneath, which is a wonderful phrase. He also knew this soon-to-be-miraculous franchise from underneath. The Mets had been his ticket to the big leagues, at long last, and he was savvy enough to know they would be his meal ticket as the legends thickened around Marvelous Marv and Stengelese and the strange events witnessed in the last days of the Polo Grounds and the first days at Shea. He exemplified those days — the futility, sure, but also the raffish exuberance and the roll-your-eyes irony and the crazy, cockeyed hope that could never be extinguished in spite of it all. And while Kanehl didn’t get to manage — which would have been a treat for a new generation of fans — he never forgot to give thanks for what had come his way. In 1975, when Stengel died, Kanehl was the only ex-Met at his funeral.

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1969: Donn Clendenon
1972: Gary Gentry
1973: Willie Mays
1982: Rusty Staub
1991: Rich Sauveur
1992: Todd Hundley
1994: Rico Brogna
2000: Melvin Mora
2002: Al Leiter

7 comments to The First Patron Saint of Ridiculous Causes

  • TomM

    Loverly. A prime reason why the Mets are so endearing.

  • Dave

    “Is a utility player who can’t actually play any position still a utility player?” Perfect. Hot Rod was first in a line of so many Mets position players who were one position short of really being a position player.

  • Tim Bergan

    I’m currently halfway through my 10th Mets book this quarantine covering different eras of our history and I dig these posts through history that fill in a lot of the gaps in between them all.

  • eric1973

    Seaver could be as condescending as they come, and the part where Kanehl stole home off him was the perfect puzzle piece to cap that stoty.

    Wish we’d seen more of those original Mets during telecasts through the 80s and 90s. Would have been a thrill.

  • bruce g

    Thanks for a really enjoyable read. Hot Rod may not have been a standout player, but from all I have read about him he was a good human being. The sport can be very cruel.

    If you are considering another piece, how about doing one on Greg Goosen?

    He had more talent than Kanehl, but his career never quite made it either. He did have some moments in the game. Casey Stengel once said of him “We got this kid Goosen. He’s 20 years old. In ten years he’s got a good chance to be 30”. It turned out that Casey was right

    After baseball, Goosen worked with his brothers training boxers. Doing that he met and became good friends with Gene Hackman. He ended up being his stand in and played some bit parts in most of his movies including the Clint Eastwood Oscar winner Unforgiven.

    • The roster for the remaining Mets for All Seasons shall be revealed in time, so no spoilers from me.

      There’s a snapshot of Goossen posing with a vendor from ’66 or ’67 that just popped up on eBay. It’s a wonder he wasn’t a movie star himself. He’s honestly a lot better looking than Hackman.

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