[Ed. note: Sports Media America begins a new occasional baseball feature, "Blast from the Past," which aims to focus on some of the lesser and/or maybe slightly forgotten major leaguers from the game's rich history. Readers' suggestions are welcome.]
They called him “Kong.”
When he arrived at Wrigley Field in 1978, Dave Kingman was thought by some to be washed up. He was 29 years old and, having played for five teams to that point, had boomed 176 home runs. But Kingman had never batted higher than .238 in a full season, and his propensity for striking out was, well, prodigious, if on a par with the monster clouts that had made his fame. In 1977, Kingman had unceremoniously shuttled between no less than four teams—Mets, Padres, Angels and Yankees—peddled around like a bad-luck penny, each successive front office determining that his drawbacks far outweighed his occasional ability to hit the tape-measure round-tripper.
From 1972 to 1977, Kingman struck out 818 times, hitting his up-to-then high-water mark with 153 K’s in 1975. The Cubs, coming off a typically frustrating .500 season in 1977, were hoping that Kingman’s flair for the long ball might find renewed vigor in the Friendly Confines. If only the 6’6”, 210-lb. giant could cut down on the strikeouts and maybe pad that average in the process.
Injuries curtailed Kingman’s 1978 season a bit. Still, he raised his average to a respectable .266 and belted 28 homers (including three in one game at Dodger Stadium) with 79 RBIs in 119 games. His slugging average was an impressive .542. Yes, he still struck out—111 times—but Chicago fans embraced his handsome looks, his somewhat outlaw personal style and his God-given ability to potentially transform Wrigley into his own personal launching pad.
It all came together for Kingman in 1979. The team only finished 80-82, a one-game improvement from ‘78, and pretty standard for the snake-bitten franchise, which, to this day, has not won a pennant since 1945. But Kong was enough for the faithful.
With a career-topping batting average of .288, Kingman was on a power rampage from April through September. He belted his season-best 48 home runs, many of them with great dramatic flair, and he drove in 115 runs, with a personal-high slugging average of .613. Kingman, it seemed, had finally fulfilled his promise, earning a spot on the National League All-Star team, leading the league in homers, and finishing 11th in MVP voting.
Injuries hampered him in 1980. The Cubs finished a dismal 64-98, and the bloom was off the rose. Prior to the 1981 season, Kingman was peddled yet again, this time back to the Mets. Three more years in New York were followed by three others in Oakland, where Kingman, never much of a fielder no matter where they tried to play him, came to benefit from the designated hitter rule. He continued to bang out homers, 100 in his last three years, giving him 442 for his career, 34th on the all-time list as we head into 2007. Kong continued to “K,” too, of course—a fairly brutal 156 times in 1982—and he’s 10th all-time in that department.
His lapses at the plate never gave Kingman a chance at the Hall of Fame, but for one shining season in Chicago all his abilities colaesced. He delivered the Windy City’s North Side fans one thrill after another, in the process embodying the epitome of a true power hitter.