PEELER: Reunion Week Altered, But On-Going
BY TIM PEELER
RALEIGH, N.C. This past week was supposed to be a happy reunion for Bob Kennel and a half-dozen long-time friends from Australia. They met some 50 years ago, when Kennel was a Rotary International Fellow at the University of Melbourne, working on his masters degree in nuclear engineering, and they were members of the university’s first-tier baseball team.
Kennel, a three-sport peformer at NC State in the 1950s, played both baseball and basketball for Melbourne, helping the baseball team win the first of three consecutive inter-varsity national championships.
But the reunion hasn’t exactly worked out as planned. Kennel, a constant presence at NC State athletics, academic and social events since retiring with his wife Elaine to Raleigh in 1998, was hit with a mild heart attack last Thursday while doing yardwork, followed by a second more serious heart attack on Sunday while still at Wake Med Hospital in Raleigh.
Doctors found a blockage that needed a stent, and Kennel is still recovering from his surgery.
“We are all devastated that he is in his position right now, and can’t participate more,” said Bob Ferris. “It’s shattering for us. But we have enjoyed the opportunity to be here and see American baseball.”
Five former players third baseman Ferris, pitcher Alan Davies, second baseman Bill Saggers, outfielders Jeffrey Bird and Greg Mundy joined team manager Kevin Hince for the reunion.
Kennel, who invited all of his teammates from the 1959 team to the United States for a 50th anniversary reunion, hopes to be released from the hospital on Friday, in time to join his friends for their last full day in the States. Tonight, they will all be recognized during the NC State baseball game against Campbell at Doak Field at Dail Park. First pitch is slated for 6:30 p.m.
Kennel, a two-time All-ACC catcher for the Wolfpack, still owns the single-season school-record for the highest batting average (.415 as a sophomore in 1956). He also played football and freshman basketball for the Wolfpack, while maintaining a perfect grade point average in nuclear engineering. The latter earned him the nickname “Slide Rule” from his teammates.
He was twice drafted by the Baltimore Orioles, turning down a $29,000 bonus offer after the 1957 season. He signed the next year for $9,000.
“I might have come the closest to playing major league baseball than anyone who never made it to the majors,” Kennel said. “I went with my father to New York to see the Orioles play a double-header at Yankee Stadium. Lee MacPhail, the president of the Orioles, offered me a signing bonus that day and said I could start in the second game of the double header.
“But I told him it wasn’t the right time.”
By turning down the offer, Kennel returned to school to play his senior season for Earle Edwards football team, which featured backs Dick Christy and Dick Hunter. That team won the school’s first ACC football championship.
Kennel was a finalist for a Rhodes Scholarship following his senior year at NC State, and was actually told he would be offered a scholarship. But one member of the screening committee, an English professor from Davidson College, asked Kennel what he would do if he was offered a huge signing bonus of $125,000, which would have been the largest ever offered to an amateur baseball player.
“I’d have to think about it,” Kennel said.
Kennel was not selected for Rhodes, and to this day an NC State graduate has never received the prestigious award. Instead, Kennel accepted a Rotary International Fellowship. He had hoped to go to Cambridge University in England, but was instead give his second choice, the University of Melbourne.
“That turned out to be the best year of my life,” Kennel said.
He went to Australia to find a dedicated group of baseballers, eager to learn more about the game from an experienced player.
“Bobby was the best thing to ever happen to Melbourne baseball,” said outfielder Jeffrey Bird.
Baseball was introduced to Australia by American sailors in the 1850s and remains third in popularity in team sports behind cricket and football (soccer). And just because the water swirls the wrong way and they drive on the opposite side of the street doesn’t mean Australian baseball players go from home to third to second to first. The game is just played in the fall and winter, when a good day to play two might be 65 degrees and drizzly.
The first Australian-born major leaguer played for the Cincinnati Reds in 1900, and there are currently a half-dozen Australian natives playing in the major leagues.
But in the 1950s, it was still a developing sport, an opportunity for camaraderie for the first-generation college students who were enjoying the post-World War II Golden Age. Many of the students at Melbourne were similar to Kennel’s classmates from NC State, from rural backgrounds.
“We were just a close knit group of college kids,” said Hince, who served as the team manager.
The structure then, as now, is quite different for Australian baseball. Back then, only four universities competed for the national inter-varsity championship. But there were at least eight teams on each campus, with the teams competing against each other to earn spots for inter-varsity competition. The No. 1 team from each school faced off against its counterparts for the national title.
After Kennel arrived in late 1958, he helped educate and organize his team into a national force. He only played one year, helping the team win the first of three consecutive national titles.
Kennel lost touch with his teammates after he left Melbourne, but reconnected when he was in Australia in 1993 and showed a slide of the 1959 national champions. Within three days, the whole team came together for a reunion.
Kennel, who attended the team’s 35th, 40th and 45th reunions, has been talking about hosting the 50th reunion for quite a while and had a full itinerary of activities, including a trip to the beach, some golf, shopping and a Durham Bulls game Thursday night.
Kennel had planned to spend the time with his long-ago friends, but has been at Wake Med Hospital since last Thursday. Instead, his wife Elaine has taken over his hosting duties, while their four adult children Phyllis Kennel, Susan Bull, Philip Kennel and Robin Miller have stayed with their dad at the hospital.
But he plans to be out for the reunion’s final day.
You may contact Tim Peeler at firstname.lastname@example.org.