Dave Kingman, wearing the dreaded late 70's Cub road pajama-style road uniforms, unleashes one of his monster swings. No way of knowing whether this was a home-run swing, or a massive strikeout swing.
In an age where it seems at times as if a majority of professional athletes are self-promoting jerks, it is hard to think back thirty years or so and look at a player like Dave Kingman, who was viewed this way -- and really, he was only seen that way because he had an introverted personality and couldn't deal well with the adulation he received, particularly during his time as a Cub.
Kingman was born December 21, 1948 in Pendleton, Oregon, although he grew up in the Chicago area and went to Prospect High School. He first came to baseball scouts' attention with a stellar college career at USC, where he pitched as well as hit. During college he played, as many college players still do, in the Alaska Summer League. He was the first pick in the old "secondary phase" of the amateur draft in June 1970, by the Giants. Rocketing through their system, he was in the major leagues the following year, where he would hit prodigious home runs and strike out just as prodigiously (example: 29 HR and 140 strikeouts in 472 AB in 1972, and this in a lower-strikeout era than we know today). He could barely keep his batting average above .230 (his highest season average before his Cub tenure was .238).
Further, the Giants couldn't really figure out a position for him -- they tried him at third base, where he was terrible; the outfield, where he was somewhat less terrible; and first base, where the best thing that you could say about him was that he was below-average. He even pitched two games for the 1973 Giants. With his size -- 6-6, 210 -- he might have made a good major league pitcher had any team decided to convert him and really had him work on it. But it never happened.
Without a position or a good bat, the Giants gave up on him and sold him to the Mets in February 1975 for the then-somewhat princely sum of $150,000.
You can imagine what a man like this would do in the bright lights of New York. Shy to begin with, he was described by one of his Mets teammates as "having the personality of a tree stump". But oh, those home runs. As a member of the Mets on April 14, 1976, Kingman hit what is generally acknowledged to be the longest home run ever hit at Wrigley Field, a 600-foot shot (the Retrosheet box says 530-550, but it was likely longer) that bounced off the front of the fourth house on the east side of Kenmore Avenue, the street perpendicular to Waveland behind the left-field bleachers. For many years a red "X" on the sidewalk marked the closest public spot to where it hit. In June of that year he had a three-homer game at Dodger Stadium.
And yet, the batting average and the strikeouts and his attitude made him persona non grata in New York. With the Mets on the downslide, they finally traded him to the Padres on June 15, 1977 (the old trading deadline) for Paul Siebert and a man who would one day become the Mets' manager, Bobby Valentine.
Kingman lasted about twelve weeks in San Diego -- during his tenure there one of his highlight games was on August 5 at Wrigley Field, where he hit two homers including a monster grand slam off Paul Reuschel to lead the Padres to an 11-6 win -- and the Padres waived him on September 6. He was claimed by the Angels (odd, as the Angels were far out of pennant contention). They liked him so much in Anaheim (ten games, .194 BA in 36 AB) that nine days later he was shipped to the Yankees for Randy Stein. In so doing he became the first player to play in all four divisions which then existed in the same season.
The Yankees liked him so much that they let him go to free agency (even though he had hit four home runs in 24 at-bats for them).
That's where the Cubs came in -- Kingman was one of the first "big name" free agents signed by the Cubs, though it's debatable how "big" a name he was at the time. At age 29, he had hit 176 career home runs, and struck out 853 times. And the Cubs already had a good first baseman -- Bill Buckner.
But they signed Kingman anyway, to play left field. He was an adventure out there. With the stringy long hair of the time flapping around under his cap, I can remember him often attempting to surround a fly ball hit to him. Sometimes, he even caught it. He hit better -- .266, a career high, and hit 28 HR even though he missed 43 games with an injury in 1978. He had another three-homer game against the Dodgers in Los Angeles on May 14, 1978, prompting a hilarious profanity-filled tirade from Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda when asked his opinion of Kingman's "performance".
And then came the year, 1979, that cemented Kingman in Cub lore. Suddenly, he was healthy. Suddenly, he could hit singles as well as home runs -- he hit a career-high .288, scored 97 runs, and hit forty-eight home runs, the most by a Cub since Ernie Banks' 47 twenty-one years earlier, and, at the time, second in club history for a single season. He was a god -- it seemed there was nothing he couldn't do. He had two three-homer games -- one in the legendary 23-22 loss to the Phillies on May 17 and another against his old Met teammates in New York, in another loss on July 28, the day after he hit a pair, thus tying the major league record for HR in consecutive games.
He hit his 41st HR on August 24 at Candlestick Park off Vida Blue, and the Cubs' 4-1 win put them only four games out of first place. There was brave talk, with thirty-eight games remaining, of a playoff run and perhaps a Kingman run at sixty homers, or at least Hack Wilson's club record of 56. But Kingman hit only seven HR the rest of the way and the '79 Cubs, never really that good, faded to a 79-83 finish.
At one point, someone advised him that to cash in on his popularity, he should open a restaurant of some kind trading on his name. Not a bad idea, but it was poorly executed. He decided to open a nautical-theme ice cream parlor called "Kingman's Landing". It might have worked had it been near the ballpark. Instead, he rented a cheaper storefront about two miles west of Wrigley Field. The shop opened, and just about as quickly, closed.
The following spring, hopes were high, but just as the 2006 Cubs started well and flopped, the 1980 Cubs had a good beginning -- but with Kingman constantly injured and other players having terrible years, the team lost 98 games. Early in that year, WMAQ-TV produced a documentary on Kingman, due to his terrific season the year before. Not used to the spotlight, Kingman cooperated only reluctantly, at one point taking producer/director Sandra Weir out on his boat, then throwing her into Lake Michigan. When Kingman played in Oakland, he sent a live rat to a female sportswriter who had written not-so-nice things about his performance. He apparently thought these were practical jokes. In reality, they just made him look like a boor.
After the 1980 season, where he spent several stints on the DL, the Cubs had had enough and traded him to the Mets for Steve Henderson, whose main claim to fame was that he had been acquired by the Mets for Tom Seaver. This trade was made only a month after Cubs GM Bob Kennedy vehemently denied any plans to trade him -- obviously, some things in baseball never change! Returning to the Mets returned Kingman to his .210-level batting averages. In 1983, he hit only .204 while hitting 37 HR and driving in 99 runs -- one of the worst averages ever for someone with those sorts of "counting stats".
So, in 1984, long after he might have been a truly productive hitter had he had to think only about hitting, he finally signed, at age 35, with an American League team, the Oakland A's, to be their fulltime DH. He had three decent years (the best being 1984, where he hit. 268, slugged .505, and hit 35 HR with 118 RBI, his career RBI high). After the 1986 season, despite another 30-HR season, even the A's tired of his act and they let him go.
His baseball-reference.com transactions show that he signed a contract with the Giants on July 11, 1987, but he never played a game with them. He did play briefly with the Giants' Triple-A team, then retired. Since retirement, he has lived in the same sort of seclusion he would have prized as a player.
His 442 home runs rank third among retired players (Fred McGriff, 493; Jose Canseco, 462) who are eligible for the Hall of Fame but have not been elected. Kingman won't ever get in -- all he could really do was hit home runs; the rest of his game was replacement-level. But oh, many of those home runs were memorable enough to speak of even today. In this sense, Kingman's Cub career is similar to yesterday's profilee, Rogers Hornsby's -- one monster season, having the most Cub home runs in a year between 1972 and 1987, being 22nd on the team list for career HR. The only real difference -- no postseason for Kingman.