The Curious End of Kong

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Dave Kingman finished his career with 442 home runs. His last year he hit 35 home runs, which makes one wonder why did he stop at age 37 with a few seasons short of the coveted 500 home run mark.

Submitted: June 24, 2017

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Submitted: June 24, 2017

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Growing up in Alaska as an avid professional baseball fan in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s was tough.  Especially, when there were long periods of no cable television in the family.  Every chance I got during the summer I would invite myself to a friend’s house to watch the Cubs on WGN.  While most kids dreamt of endless hours of playing outside, I wanted to watch baseball.  Then again, Juneau is in the middle of a rainforest and summer isn’t as advertised.  Sideways rain and long stretches of cloudy, gray days are the norm.

The players on television looked surreal.  Playing a game at the highest level possible seemed so foreign and unattainable to me in Alaska where there wasn’t even high school baseball at the time.Nobody stood out more during those impressionable moments than Dave Kingman for the Cubs. 

First it was the Cubs announcer Jack Brickhouse yelling out his “Hey, Hey” homerun call.  Then came Haray Caray and his slobbering, stalling style of “It might be, it could be, it…..it….it is a home run”, the last of the words being said after the hitter was close to second base already.  The Cubs had a lot of memorable players; Ron Cey and his penguin homerun trot, Billy Buckner (enough has been said about him, but he was a great player) and Garry “the Sarge” Mathews.  But Dave Kingman was the guy.  He was 6’6” and dwarfed the opposing teams’ catcher while in the batter’s box.  Some of his blasts would go out of Wrigley Field and onto Waveland Avenue even during the notorious winds off Lake Michigan were in full force.

He was fun to watch, as it seemed like he took an all-or-nothing approach at the plate. 

Here it is close to forty years later and I was passing time on the internet the other day looking up some statistics on baseball-reference.com and found myself looking at Dave Kingman’s career.  He finished with 442 home runs.  He retired at 37 years of age and had 35 home runs his last year.  In fact, he averaged 30 home runs a year his last five years.  Before the performance-enhancing drug era, 500 homeruns was a lock for the Hall of Fame in baseball.  No one had never hit 500 or more homeruns and not got in to the Hall of Fame.

That night I had a hard time sleeping, but wasn’t sure why.  The next morning the first thought I had was 442.  How can a guy stop at 442 homeruns when he was averaging 30 a year?  Two more years and he would have over 500 homeruns if he was to continue at the same pace.  Even if it took him three years to do it, it seemed he had it in him.  Sure, he was a defensive liability and prone to the strikeout, but what team wouldn’t want the Kong?

Full disclosure; when he did retire he had the 4th most strikeouts in Major League Baseball history.  This and his almost legendary cantankerous attitude (he once poured a bucket of ice on a reporter for misquoting him) may had something to do with it.

He also had bad knees, but how hard was it to trot around the bases after a mammoth homerun?  I then started to recall other memories, like the time I saw him hit his only inside-the-park homerun.  Yes, I saw it on television.  What were the odds?  By then, he was on the Mets and Juneau got the WOR feed for most Mets games.  I still remember him almost tripping over his feet as he crossed home.  I was 12 years old and I knew at the time how unique it was for the Kong to do something like this. 

I started to feel worse and I do like a good conspiracy theory.  So I started to wonder if Major League Baseball was worrying about a career .230’s hitter getting into the Hall of Fame. His average if he were to continue playing a few years most likely would have even dipped into the .220s.  That kind of batting average is considered substandard at best.

If the MLB waited another year and perhaps 30 more homeruns, it might be even more obvious that there was something behind his retirement than a few swing and misses and sore knees. 

Did Peter Ueberroth summons the Kong during the off-season with a few selected MLB greats to entice him to hang it up?  Guys like Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Ted Williams were all alive and well at the time.  Where they part of the reason Dave Kingman walked away so close to immortality?  After a few more uneasy days and nights, I realized how silly this thought process sounded.  Because if this proposition did happen, the Kong would have done what he did best: swing away as hard as he could at that pitch or dump a bucket of ice on the Commissioner.  It had to be the knees.


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