With all the posts I’ve done on the early days of the Mets, I never once mentioned the name of Rod Kanehl, who in his way symbolized the 1962-64 Mets as much as anyone else. If Marv Throneberry and Choo Choo Coleman represented Mets’ ineptitude, then Kanehl was the embodiment of the every-man quality that helped to popularize the Mets.
For those of you too young to remember Kanehl, he was the all-purpose utility man for the early Mets, who played every position except pitcher and catcher, and no doubt, would have played those, too, if only he was asked.
Kanehl hit the first grand slam home run in Mets history on July 6, 1962 in a 10-2 win over the St. Louis Cardinals.
How good a ballplayer was Rod ? Well, let’s just say if he was a better hitter, a better fielder with a better arm, and a better baserunner, he might have been Joe McEwing. That might be a little unfair, because Kanehl was actually a pretty good baserunner. But so are a lot of guys who never get the chance to play pro ball.
Rod’s “best” position was second base. Unfortunately, he never mastered the double play pivot, which is fairly important for a second baseman. He also played a lot in the outfield where he would pursue flyballs with reckless abandon. In fact, that’s what made Casey Stengel notice him in the first place.
Kanehl spent several seasons in the Yankees’ organization, mostly at the lower levels, but one year in spring training camp, he impressed Casey with his constant hustle. So, it was on Stengel’s recommendation that the Mets drafted Kanehl for their AAA team prior to the 1962 season. Every knowledgeable baseball man, including Mets’ President George Weiss saw Kanehl as no more than minor league fodder, but he hustled his way on to the roster with Casey’s support and hung around for three seasons.
What endeared Kanehl to Mets’ fans was his genuine “regular guy” quality. Today, with even utility infielders making a million dollars a year, it’s tough for the average fan to identify with any big league player. But Kanehl, who was probably making no more than the average school teacher, cop, or truck driver, was truly the ordinary guy who happened to be playing in the big leagues. Kanehl would ride the New York subways and buses, and converse with fans on a man-to-man basis without any condescension whatsoever. Rod would hang out with fans all the time. He appreciated their support and they appreciated his hard work, hustle, and desire, even if you got the feeling that maybe the fellow who played shortstop on your weekend softball team was just as good a ballplayer as Rod Kanehl and maybe he was.
Kanehl was certainly grateful for the opportunity to play in the big leagues. Had Stengel not brought him north, he no doubt would have been doomed to a lifetime in the bushes. In appreciation, Kanehl attended Casey Stengel’s funeral, reportedly the only ex-Met player to do so.
“Do you know that the very first banner the fans hung up in the Polo Grounds had my name on it?” Kanehl told Sports Illustrated in 1966. “We hadn’t played a game there yet, but there it was. It said: ‘We love the Mets.’ And under that, ‘Rod Kanehl.’ ”
Sadly, Rod Kanehl died from a heart attack on Dec. 14, 2004. He was 70 years old. In spite of his limited ability, Kanehl will always have a place in Mets’ lore.