I like Dave Kingman.
Now, I realize perfectly well that makes me an idiot in the minds of some. After all, Kingman could seemingly do nothing besides hit home runs on the field and generally the less said about his off the field exploits, the better.
But man, was he fun to watch! The thrill of seeing a home run hitter – check that a HOME RUN HITTER – on the Mets was almost too much to take. It was something akin to seeing that Cheryl Tiegs picture in Sports Illustrated; it just wasn’t anything we had seen previously in this particular venue. The year before Kingman came to the Mets, their leading HR hitter was John Milner, who hit 20 HR in 1974.
From the club’s beginning in 1962 until the year that Kingman arrived, the franchise leader in homers was white Frank Thomas, who clubbed 34 in the Polo Grounds in 1962. No other player in team history had reached 30. Second place belonged to Tommie Agee with his 26 dingers in 1969. In fact, the Mets had only had seven seasons of 20 or more home runs and only five players reach that peak, as Agee and Milner both did it twice.
So, imagine the thrill as Kingman broke the team’s HR mark his first year on the club as he hit 36 homers. And Kingman wasn’t some old slugger having a last hurrah and taking advantage of an outdated ballpark, like Thomas in 1962, when he was 33 years old. Kingman belted 36 HR at age 26 and it seemed as if the sky was the limit.
Those giddy hopes were justified by the fantastic start Kingman enjoyed in 1976. If you ask most people to pick out the best year in Kingman’s career, they automatically say 1979, the year he led the league with 48 HR, a .613 SLG and a .956 OPS. But 1976 was shaping up to be every bit as good and in my completely biased view, even better.
From the start of the year through July 19th, Kingman had 32 HR in 363 ABs, with 72 RBIs in 91 games. Just let those numbers soak in for a second. Also, recall that Kingman did little besides hit HR, so he wasn’t “wasting” many PA on those “useless” walks. Through July 19th, Kingman had 389 PA. So, he was averaging a HR every 12.2 PA.
When Roger Maris hit 61 HR in 1961, he averaged a HR every 11.4 PA. The biggest single-season mark was under siege and by a guy on the Mets no less! Kingman set the club’s HR mark for the month of April when he hit 9. He did nearly as good in May when he cracked 8 and he did even better in June when he hit 10.
July started off rough for Kingman, who was streaky even by HR-hitter standards. He did not hit one out of the park his first nine games of the month. But he hit one on July 9th, two more the following day and two more in the next five games. It looked like he was going on another HR binge.
The Mets played the Braves on July 19th and pitching for Atlanta was knuckleball pitcher Phil Niekro. Most hitters did not relish facing a knuckleball pitcher but Kingman had hit Niekro fairly well. In his career up to that point, Kingman had faced Niekro 39 times and had hit 4 HR. He had already faced Atlanta’s knuckleball pitcher seven times in 1976. In typical Kingman fashion, he struck out four of those times but he homered and singled in his other three trips to the plate.
Kingman’s first appearance against Niekro on the 19th was as the leadoff batter in the second inning, when he uncharacteristically grounded out. He would not get another chance that night to hit. In the top of the third inning, Niekro led off and hit a ball off Craig Swan to left field. Kingman, who always took the most curious routes on fly balls, decided to do something particularly offbeat on this fly.
He asked his left thumb to support the entire weight of his body as he attempted to make the catch.
It ended up a double for Niekro and it tore ligaments in Kingman’s thumb. He stayed in the rest of the inning but was replaced in the top of the fourth by Bruce Boisclair. Kingman ended up missing roughly seven weeks with the injury. When he came back, he was unable to pick up the amazing pace he had earlier, although he did hit 5 HR in his final 121 PA.
At the time of the injury, Kingman had a .300 ISO and was three games ahead of Babe Ruth’s pace the year he hit 60 HR. There’s no sense comparing him to Maris, because Maris got off to a slow start HR-wise in 1961, hitting only one homer in the month of April. To put Kingman’s .300 ISO in perspective, Darryl Strawberry’s best year was 1987 and he had a .299 ISO that season.
There’s no guarantee that Kingman would have been able to maintain his HR pace the remainder of 1976. But I sure wish he had the chance. Midway through the following season he was traded and he ended up putting up his best year for the Chicago Cubs while the Mets devolved into the worst team in baseball. It’s not the way it should have been, either for Kingman or the Mets.
When most people think of 1976, they think of the Bicentennial or the Olympics or Jimmy Carter. I think of all of those things but I also think of the HR exploits of David Arthur Kingman. He may have been one dimensional (although he did lead the Mets in SB in 1975 and he was not opposed to laying down a bunt when the 3B was in shallow LF) but it was a dimension that was sorely needed at the time.