The King and I
The King and I – Remembering and Writing About Dave Kingman
This past March, I saw Dave Kingman at a table signing autographs at a spring training game in Arizona. I introduced myself to him as a fan, and also as someone who has done some writing about him over the years. I mentioned some of the occasions when we had met before, citing very specific times and places that we had been in each other’s company. He was cordial enough, but he acted like he didn’t remember me.
But I think he did.
It’s become a running theme throughout my life, as the occasions increase year after year, each time unfolding exactly the same way every time that we’ve met on the Cactus League autograph circuit for the past four or five years. But it really started more than 30 years before.
Although I did not pay the $20 fee for his autograph, he did agree to be photographed with me. Famously large in his playing days, Kingman was referred to by the nicknames “Kong” and “Sky King” and is still a towering figure who cast a tremendous presence during my formative years as a Mets’ fan. When I stood next to him for the picture, my photographer friend John asked if I would like to stand on a chair.
My fascination with Kingman was fostered when I was growing up a Mets’ fan in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was my first exercise in masochism. The “Ya Gotta Believe” team that went all the way to the seventh game of the 1973 World Series but lost to the Oakland As was only a tease that introduced the masochistic cravings to follow.
There is an inherent fatalism in being a Mets’ fan, which is the defining element of the team’s lovable losers’ charm.
Coming just four years after the “miracle” of 1969, the brief period could almost be described as the franchise’s salad days; two National League pennants and three third place finishes in five seasons with a composite 431-372 win/loss record, the best five year stretch in the team’s brief 12-season history and lofty heights of Mets fandom to date, but during the decade to follow the team would post just two winning records while attendance at Shea Stadium plummeted.
The relatively successful Mets teams of 1969-1973 were mostly the result of a talented home-grown pitching staff, boasting perhaps the National League’s best 1-2, righty/lefty tandem of Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman. Thinking of Seaver and Koosman together evokes some of the most romantic nostalgia available to Mets’ fans.
When Kingman joined the team in 1975, I was an 11-year-old baseball-crazy kid whose every waking thought revolved around the Mets.
With Kingman, the Mets took on a decidedly different demeanor. In his first season with the club he immediately set a new franchise single-season record of 36 home runs, finishing second in the National League behind Mike Schmidt, as the Mets improved to an 82-80 third place finish, rebounding from a dismal 71-91 fifth place in 1974. It was a new kind of excitement for Mets’ fans who usually rallied around and depended upon the team’s pitching corps; now we had the threat of instant offense. With one swing, Kingman could provide the margin of victory or put us back in the game. When I was lucky enough to actually be at Shea Stadium I would stand and cheer with the rest of the Mets’ fans in eager anticipation for every one of his at bats. And while he still struck out with a much greater propensity than he hit home runs, every now and then he came through, and we’d all be laughing and smiling all the way down the ramps after the game and all the train ride home. On the truly lousy teams in the time he was with the club, Kingman provided a glimmer of hope and an object of fascination. However, as much as we appreciated him for the occasional moments of rejoice he provided, he did not welcome our attention or care to speak candidly with the press—unless it could provide leverage in contract negotiations. Needless to say, Kingman’s relationship with beat reporters during the course of his career was strained at best.
Jack Lang, a New York Mets’ daily beat writer since the team’s inception, described an incident with Kingman that pretty much summed up their relationship: after missing a team flight during the spring training season of 1996, Kingman asked Lang if he could hitch a ride with him across Florida from Miami to St. Petersburg. After sharing the ride, including a stop for dinner and exchanging casual and friendly conversation for the duration of the drive, Kingman failed to acknowledge Lang’s presence in the clubhouse the next day.
“I said good morning to Kingman. He never looked at me. He walked right past me as if I didn’t exist. The day before we had spent five hours together in a car and now he didn’t even know me. That was Dave Kingman,” wrote Lang. *(1)
Kingman broke his own franchise record, blasting 37 more home runs in 1976, again finishing just behind Schmidt’s 38, with 86 RBI and a career-high, almost respectable .238 batting average. The Mets were still only good enough for third place. At the end of the season Kingman’s contract with the team had expired and negotiations over a new contract turned sour. An ugly argument between Kingman and the Mets ensued, and was largely conducted in the New York newspapers. Writing for the New York Times during the spring of 1977, Red Smith referenced how Kingman’s contract dispute had unfolded in the New York dailies: Dave Kingman has committed the unforgivable sin, and if he goes to hell, M. Donald Grant [chairman of the Mets] will be saddened if not surprised. Not only does the most prolific hitter of home runs ever employed by the New York Mets want to be paid twice as much money as his employers wish to spend; he has compounded the sin by taking his case to the press.*(2)
As Kingman continued to spout off to reporters, he was reprimanded in a phone call from his boss:
“He lectured me,” Kingman told The Daily News. “I tried to give my side, but he wasn’t interested. He didn’t let me get in a word.” *(2)
By the time Opening Day rolled around it was clear the matter would not be resolved.
“I will never sign with the Mets, you can count on that. I want my freedom to go. This club is going downhill rapidly under the present management. I hate to think how lousy they’re going to be in a couple of years.” *(3)
Fifty eight games and nine home runs into the season later the surly slugger was dealt to the San Diego Padres for left-handed pitcher Paul Siebert and future Mets manager Bobby Valentine (Siebert would post a 2-1 record with a 3.86 ERA in 25 relief appearances during the rest of the 1977 season and retire from the game at the age of 25 after going 0-2 with a 5.14 ERA in 28 innings the following season).
In what the New York press billed as the “Midnight Massacre,” on June 15, 1977, Tom Seaver, “The Franchise,” was also sent packing the same day.
Kingman would be selected off waivers from the San Diego Padres by the California Angels on September 6, and be traded to the Yankees one week later, becoming the first player in major league history to hit home runs for teams in each of the game’s four regional divisions in the same season. On November 2, 1977 Kingman was granted free agency and signed a one-year $95,000 contract with the Chicago Cubs at the end of the month.*(4) Without Kingman and Seaver, the Mets quickly reverted back to form and became as lousy as Kingman predicted, finishing dead last, 37 off the pace with a 64-98 record. It was a very difficult time to be a 14-year old Mets’ fan.
While I was not seeking a new team, I had some management issues with my own team. Almost a year-to-the date that Kingman was dealt, I was traded, as my family packed up and moved from our Long Island home to a small town I’d never heard of called Fountain Hills, Arizona.
During the spring of 1979 I inadvertently caught up with Kingman, whose Chicago Cubs conducted spring training in Mesa, Arizona, where I was attending junior high school.
I was elated to be reunited with my home run hero, and chased him around like a paparazzi with a Kodak instamatic camera, snapping off shots that I would take to the one-hour developing photo booths and bring back to the ballpark for him to sign the next day.
In the summer my parents would send me back to New York, and on June 28, 1979, two friends and I rode the Long Island railroad to Shea Stadium to see Kingman and the Cubs play the Mets. With the sole intention of retrieving one of Kingman’s blasts, we purchased $1.50 general admission tickets, which we used to sit in the left-field mezzanine section.
The cops and ushers laughed when I explained to them why I had chosen such seats; we could have sat almost anywhere in the ballpark. But Kong did not disappoint, knocking three home runs that day, the second of which I grabbed when it landed right by our seats. Somehow I was able to talk myself past the players’ entrance into the ballpark and Kingman reluctantly signed the ball for me after the game.
Two years later when I was asked to write about a significant day in my life for my high school English class, I wrote a descriptive account of that day at Shea called, “Kingman’s Shot,” which received a perfect score. My teacher Ms. Tower even wrote the word, “Great!” on top of the paper.
We had purchased the dollar-fifty grand stand seats, and every time Kingman came to bat, we would stand ready, in hopes that he would hit us a shot. During his second at-bat of the game, my dream was to be fulfilled. As he hit the ball, my eyes followed it. As it appeared I could sense the people all around me charging for the ball. I leaped over a few seats and grabbed Kingman’s shot on a bounce. As I held the ball in my clutches, I wished the moment would last forever.
Thus began a series of stories I would write about Kingman that would propel me through high school and college, fostering my interest in writing about baseball.
Kingman would go on to lead the National League that year with a career-high 48, on pace to threaten Roger Maris’ then single-season record of 61 before being sidelined by a late-season injury that cost him the last 17 games of the season and continued to nag him the following year.
Amazingly, Kingman was traded back to the Mets in 1981 after an abysmal season with the Cubs. He continued to struggle through the 1981 season, but led the National League with 37 home runs in 1982 while hitting only .204, the lowest average ever posted by a player to lead his league in home runs or by a first baseman with enough plate appearances to eligible for the batting title.
After a miserable 1983 campaign that saw Kingman replaced at first base after the acquisition of Keith Hernandez, he was unceremoniously released from the team in the winter.
After an impressive spring training tryout, Kingman signed as a free-agent with the Oakland A’s, and found a comfortable fit as the team’s designated hitter, posting perhaps the three most productive seasons of his career. But his time in Oakland is most readily remembered for a particularly disturbing incident involving his belief that female reporters should not be allowed in the clubhouse.
“I acknowledged his feelings and agreeably asked where he would like to do interviews, how we should manage the logistics in light of his discomfort. He merely repeated his mantra, ‘Just don’t come near me in the clubhouse.’ I had that strange and disconcerting feeling of trying to communicate on a rational level with someone who is completely irrational. It was worse than maneuvering through Europe speaking only English: Kingman wasn’t even trying to see my point. There was no common Language here, no basis for understanding,” wrote former Sacramento Bee beat reporter Susan Fornoff in her book Lady in the Locker Room. *(5)
After refusing to speak with or even in the company of Fornoff for the first three months of the 1986 season, Kingman had a wrapped package delivered to Fornoff in the Kansas City Royals press box. Kingman’s gift to Fornoff was a live rat with a tag that read “My name is Sue,” tied around one of its feet. Kingman was released by the A’s at the conclusion of the season.
I discussed the end of Kingman’s career a few years later in a paper titled, “Kingman’s Last Shot,” which I wrote for a creative writing class at Scottsdale Community College. The lead paragraph foreshadowed the collusion damages award Kingman would receive almost 10 years later:
Oddly enough Dave Kingman was without a job when the 1987 baseball season began. It was odd because the big slugger was coming off three of the most productive campaigns of his career and seemed to have found a home as designated hitter for the Oakland A’s.
This paper was not focused on the collusion among major league owners, which had not yet been revealed, but was more of a continuing narrative of my interactions with Kingman and how I happened to be in Phoenix to witness his failed attempt at a comeback with the San Francisco Giants’ minor league affiliate in 1987, and how I asked him to re-sign the home run ball on the last day of his professional career.
After hours of waiting, [through a rain delay] the game was finally completed and Kingman did not play. I was the last fan in the park it was close to midnight and still raining, but Kingman had not left yet. Besides the ball, I had also brought with me an essay I had written while still in high school…When Kingman came up the steps he had all of his belongings in an Oakland A’s equipment bag. He had to put it down when I started to talk to him. This seemed to inconvenience him. But I think he knew it would be the last time. He actually smiled when I told him the story of the ball. I also asked him to autograph my high school paper and gave him a copy.
This story served to advance my career as journalist when a classmate, who happened to be on the school newspaper staff, liked it enough to ask if I would be interested in writing about sports for the paper, which led me to enroll in a news writing class the following semester. I continued on as sports editor for the SCC Campus News for three semesters, and later transferred to Arizona State University, where I was fortunate enough to have the famed baseball novelist Mark Harris as a creative writing professor for three semesters. In one of my final semesters at ASU I also took a class in baseball fiction for which I wrote another paper on Kingman titled, “On Heroes.”
Our hope began with the bottom of the ninth. If the Mets could just get a little something going, then Kingman might get to bat. Sure we were down by two runs but we knew “Kong” could take care of that with one swing. The rally cry was faint at first chants of “Let’s Go Mets” were bellowed by small groups, but scattered around the park. We were not yet as one. But after we had a runner, and “Sky King” reached the on-deck circle, we attained a feverish pitch. The pandemonium was so frenzied it was as if the game had already been won. He stirred up a tremendous breeze as he swung and missed, but again we roared. Kingman was not trying to keep the rally going with a base hit. He was intent on ending this thing now! We had trains to catch home and Dave knew it… “From the stretch…Here’s the pitch…A swing and a miss…Strike three, and that’s the ball game.”
In 1993 I parlayed my journalism degree and a referral from Mark Harris into a job as research editor at a new baseball history magazine called The Diamond, which had its offices in Scottsdale. We only put out nine issues before going belly-up in the wake of the Major League players’ strike of 1994, but I still had a nice desk to write from in January of 1995 when it was announced that Kingman would receive $829,849 in collusion damages as a result of his loss of job for the 1987 season. The news happened to coincide with a charity fundraiser Dream Game that Kingman would be participating in a few weeks later in Phoenix.
I converted my “Kingman’s Last Shot” story into a preview piece for the game, and also attended the fundraiser’s gala banquet where I purchased at silent auction the uniform jersey Kingman wore in his last game with the Firebirds. I outbid former Firebirds’ owner Martin Stone for the Kingman jersey, placing my final $135 bid as the auction sheets were being lifted from the table while my good friend Mark Fast set a pick on Stone. During the banquet I was also able to get Kingman to autograph a copy of my story in the local paper. When the Dream Game was played the next day, I opted to sit outside Phoenix Municipal Stadium on a sloping desert hill, accompanied by nothing but a six pack of beer, in hopes of catching another one of Kingman’s shots. He came close, launching one of his patented long fly balls that hit the wall in left field, right in front of me, but did not make it over.
A few months later I contributed an editorial piece on Kingman and the collusion damages award to USA Today’s Baseball Weekly:
Surely the 6-foot-6 slugger, still lithe at 210 pounds, was on a pace to hit 58 home runs during the next two seasons to reach the coveted 500 mark. He was only 37 when his career came to its abrupt halt…Now that it has been revealed that collusion cost Kingman his job and the magic 500 home run plateau, does it mean it cost him his spot in the Hall of Fame?…Another thing that must be understood about Kingman: His home runs didn’t just clear the fence. They cleared buildings and neighborhoods. They are the stuff of myths and folklore, and that is his greatest contribution to the game.
About 10 years later, I revisited all of my writing on Kingman and the intersection of our careers in a piece called. “King Kong and I,” for the San Francisco Giants 2006 Spring Training Magazine:
I still think of him often. It’s been 35 years since Dave Kingman’s Major League debut with the San Francisco Giants in 1971 and 20 years since his topsy-turvy career came to a close in 1986. During the time between, the 6’6” free-swinging slugger hit 442 home runs for seven different teams. As a young baseball fan in the 1970s I saw many of them in person and still recall the breathtaking majesty of Kingman’s towering blasts. Kingman put the long in long ball. There are many contributing factors but home runs were not as commonplace back then as they have been over the past 20 years and the lithely built Kingman hardly resembled today’s burly bashers. But his power was awesome just the same.
A couple of years ago I saw Kingman sitting at one of the aforementioned autograph tables during a spring training game at Hohokam Park in Mesa. I introduced myself just as I did this past spring; I mentioned the home run ball from 1979, and some of the writing I had done on him since. He didn’t acknowledge having any memory of our previous meetings, which I thought was kind of peculiar. I thought for sure he must have remembered that last night of his career in Phoenix, or that he may have seen or read the Baseball Weekly piece or Giants Spring Training Magazine story. Perhaps he does know who I am and thinks I’m just another asshole writer.
After seeing Kingman on the first day that I was in Arizona for the Cactus League season this past spring, I caught up with him again, sitting at the autograph table at Scottsdale Stadium on his last day in town. I told him I just wanted to say hello and goodbye and mention the presentation I will be making about the influence he had on my career at the 50th Anniversary of the New York Mets Conference at Hofstra University. He smiled and was polite but he didn’t seem all that interested.
Before it got any more awkward I shook his hand and said goodbye and handed him a copy of the photo of the two of us taken earlier in the month which I autographed it for himat no charge.
1. Jack Lang, The New York Mets: Twenty Five Years Of Baseball Magic (Henry Holt and Company, Inc.,1986, 181
2. Red Smith, Best Interests of Dave Kingman, New York Times, April 11, 1977
3. Mets’ Kingman Promises To Play Out His Option, Associated Press. April 9, 1977
5. Susan Fornoff, “Lady in the Locker Room,” (Sagamore Publishing, 1993)