Dave Kingman, 1976

November 20, 2008

As implied in yesterday’s post on Freddie Patek, everybody loves a short guy. A tall guy? Not so much.

In some brief haphazard study done last night (a significant portion of it—my squinting, face-inches-from-the-page perusal of the tiny listings of the heights of players in the 1973-2006 section of my baseball encyclopedia—mocked by my wife), I have been able to formulate a hypothesis that young skilled baseball players who are unusually tall are generally valued higher than young skilled baseball players who are unusually short. The unusually tall (6’6″) guy pictured here, for example, was taken by the Giants (naturally) with the first pick of the 1970 amateur draft. Other tall guys of the Cardboard Gods era, such as J.R. Richard, Rick Sutcliffe, and Dave Winfield, were also first-rounders. By contrast, Freddie Patek was not selected until the 22nd round. (It’s interesting to note that this apparent bias toward tall guys was occurring during an era in which the most dominant player was 5’7”.)

I suppose it’s hard not to be impressed, as scouts must be, when a guy towering over the other guys on the high school or college diamond displays the coordination and skills of a top-flight regular-sized guy. Tall guys stick out. Moreover, the life of anyone who grew up playing sports is sure to be haunted by painful, disheartening memories of moments when a look across the court or the field or the diamond revealed that the opposition was comprised of kids who were a lot bigger than the viewer or anyone on the viewer’s team. (Take it from an expert in this regard: those were the games that were lost before they even began.) A scout would on some subconscious level probably want to help assemble a team that would never have to make that demoralizing pregame assessment. A team of towering Goliaths! Unbeatable!

The fact is, however, unusually tall guys are as rare in baseball as unusually short guys. Check out this chart on Baseball Almanac, which provides support for the notion that tall guys excelling at the major league level are beating the odds every bit as much as short guys. They should be inspirational figures.

They aren’t.

The best they can hope for in terms of appreciation by fans is a kind of subtly dehumanizing awe, such as the reaction the 6’8” Richard began to elicit in the dominant latter stages of his stroke-shortened career. Even the best of all the tall guys of those years, Dave Winfield, would come to be defined and demeaned, at least partially, by withering comparisons to two fellow Yankees, Reggie Jackson and Don Mattingly. At the base of the comparisons was a belief that despite his prodigious athletic gifts, which surely included the notion that on top of his speed and cannon arm and power he was simply bigger than everyone else, Winfield just didn’t have the guts or the desire of a Mr. October or a Donnie Baseball.

Winfield had the final word on the matter, of course, winning a World Series (with a clutch hit, no less) and gaining entry into the Hall of Fame. Most tall guys aren’t as fortunate. If they are a pitcher and they strike a guy out, or if they are a hitter and swat a home run, they are merely harnessing their prodigious talent, no more. If they fail to do these things, they make a nice, big target for boos.

I imagine Dave Kingman heard his share of boos as he drifted from team to team throughout his career as a major league tall guy. In some ways he makes a perfect mirror image of Freddie Patek. While Patek is associated with one major league franchise for whom he provided all-around skill and team play and guts and fire, Kingman is known as a disliked ill-tempered one-dimensional journeyman, loyal to no one and with no one loyal to him.

In many ways the defining seasons of Patek and Kingman occurred in the same year, 1977. The consistent Patek had a typically decent season for the team he will always be associated with, the Kansas City Royals: 53 steals, solid defense-anchoring glovework at shortstop, and an at least slightly pesky .320 on-base percentage. Kingman, for his part, struck out a lot and crushed a home run every few games, managing to blast 26 dingers in all, a somewhat down year for him, while playing for four different teams throughout the course of the year. (He would be shipped to a fifth team before the following year began.) The year ended for Patek with the shortstop weeping in the dugout because his team had lost. The team the Royals lost to went on the win the World Series. Presumably, a World Series ring, something Patek would never win, was given to Kingman, a late-season acquisition who didn’t appear in any postseason games for the team.

Figures. Tall guys are always getting the world handed to them on the platter.

Aren’t they?


Even the All-Time Tall Guy All-Star Team underscores the fact that the deck is stacked against tall guys. Turns out there are more unusually short guys in the Hall of Fame than unusually tall guys. (And the only guy who would really turn heads with his height if he came into a room, the team’s pitcher, is not even in the Hall of Fame yet.) If the all-time short guy team played the tall guy team, I might bet on the short guys. But I’d root for the tall guys.

C: Ernie Lombardi, 6’3”
1B: George “Highpockets” Kelly, 6’4”
2B: Ryne Sandberg, 6’2”
SS: Cal Ripken, 6’4”
3B: Mike Schmidt, 6’2”
OF: Ted Williams, 6’3”
OF: Joe DiMaggio, 6’2”
OF: Dave Winfield, 6’6”
P: Randy Johnson, 6’10”


  1. 1.  Great Post. I have been reading your entire archive for weeks. I have five teams left to get through, and I don’t know what I’ll do with my spare time when I am finished. You really do have a ton of talent. I agree with the dozens of comments that urge you to turn these essays into a book. I hope you do.

    Anyhow, I am about ten years younger than you, so I didn’t get to see Kingman play until 1986 when he was finishing up his career with the A’s. I distinctly remember the incident where he sent a rat to a female reporter. I think that may have been my first glimpse into the fact that ballplayers are human. Even with that realization, I still think of my 2 1/2 inch by 3 1/2 inch carboard rectangles as gods. As a matter of fact, I still collect them. I have always collected my favorite players, and I have over 30,000 cards of my favorite team (The Philadelphia, Kansas City, Oakland A’s), but recently, I have been going through old boxes of cards from the late 1970s at my local card store, and picking up cards of players that I’ve learned interesting things about here.

    Lyman Bostock-Awesome person
    Garry Maddox & Al Bumbry-Vietnam vets
    Mike Kekich & Fritz Peterson-Great Story
    Reggie Smith-Never knew how great he was.
    White Sox Team Photo-What real card collector wouldn’t have the only team photo ever taken in shorts?

    In the past few weeks, I have really increased my baseball fan IQ, so I just wanted to let you know that I appreciate the sight, and all of the people who post comments. Thanks for the education.

  2. 2.  I think I shared my thoughts on Kingman the last time around — you just had to watch every single at-bat because you knew there was a good chance he’d just destroy the very next pitch. Absolutely a God, and I love that card.

    I was sad a few years back when a Sports Illustrated writer described an attempt at a “where are they now?” piece on Kingman turning into a story about Kingman angrily kicking the guy off his property. But the Daily News this summer soothed my soul. He looks great!


  3. 3.  I always wanted to see what Kingman would have done over a full season in Fenway. At one point, I believe his lifetime batting record there was 4-fot-7 with 4 HRs. I’m sure it flattened out later when he spent more time in the AL, but I think he could have been a 50 HR guy in the 70’s when it meant something if he played there, no matter how ugly the rest of his stats would have looked.

  4. 4.  1 : Thanks for the good words, Hendu fan. I really appreciate it.

    2 : That’s a nice article. Thanks for sharing that. Seems like the guys who went to USC remain extremely loyal throughout their life. I also found it interesting that he says he was never a part of a championship team, even though he did end out the ’77 season with the Yanks. Maybe they really didn’t give him a ring, the cheap bastids.

    3 : Kingman in Fenway during the first “Year of the Homer” (1977, when Boomer and the Crunch Bunch set a team record for dingers) would have made for some fireworks. But it would have meant one of the threesome of Boomer or Jim Rice or Yaz would have had to have been elsewhere, so I’ll have to pass on even imagining that secenario.

  5. 5.  while playing for four different teams throughout the course of the year. (He would be shipped to a fifth team before the following year began.)

    I’m glad you mentioned this, because it brings up a classic Topps airbrushing moment. In 1977, Kingman played for the Mets, Padres, Angels, then Yankees. He signed with the Cubs on November 30, 1977.

    The 1978 Topps set, perhaps not wanting to choose one of the 4 teams from the previous year, or not having a photo of Kingman as a Yankee, decided to place Kingman on the Cubs (this was in the period during which there was no “Topps Traded” set).

    The card is classic:


    I love the green background!

  6. 6.  5 : Ungh. I feel seasick. The amazing thing about that card (which is a glaring absence in my collection) is that it seems as if all four 1977 teams are on the verge of poking up like a zombie limb from beneath the shallow burial of the airbrushing job.

  7. 7.  6
    That orange undershirt has to be from the time with the Mets, no?

    I want to go through all my cards, especially from the 1970s, and select some of the more egregious airbrushed assaults on humanity.

  8. 8.  How are you doing with your Dodger collection? You should make a spreadsheet and mark which ones you have and pass it on to some of us. I’m sure I have some duplicates that I’d be more then happy to pass on if you don’t have them yet.

  9. 9.  8
    I will make some progress with that this weekend. I’m actually doing a few separate projects:

    1) One card of every LA Dodger (I think it was 714 total players)
    2) Topps Dodger team sets for select years (organized using Baseball-Reference classification rules)
    3) Every Topps regular issue card for select players. I have every Sutton card except his rookie (currently bidding on eBay), 1986 & 1988. I am working on “The Infield” right now
    4) Every Topps regular set of my lifetime (1976-present)…I’m actually pretty good on this right now, as I have every set from 1976-1995 and 2005-2008 (except missing about 100 cards from 1977)

    Part of my problem is that I got rid of almost all my cards about 10 years ago, and only recently decided to get back into the hobby (inspired in no small part by this wonderful blog by Josh). I’m doing a lot of backfilling right now.

    I’m going to my local card shop this weekend to search through some commons to get some of the obscure cards. I’ll be sure to email you once my spreadsheet is done, and I’ll trade you some Jimmy Wynn cards too! 🙂

  10. 10.  Seems to me you need some more height on your Tall Guy team. 76 inches for a first baseman really isn’t that remarkable, for example. How ’bout putting Frank Howard in the lineup? He was 6’7″, I believe. And 6’4″ Joe Mauer behind the plate. He doesn’t quite have the consistent record of achievement that Lombardi had, but he’s been better in the short time he’s played, and I guarantee you’ll get better defense behind the plate along with the extra inch of height.

    I’d put Troy Glaus at third, too. For the purposes of this team, I think Glaus’s three extra inches outweigh Schmidt’s 200+ extra home runs and Hall of Fame credentials. And surely there’s another outstanding outfielder taller than DiMaggio . . . .

  11. 11.  10 : I hear you, and was definitely a little underwhelmed by some of the barely above average height guys at some positions, but the idea was to draw from the hall-of-fame well.

    Frank Howard did come to mind a lot while I was dwelling on this subject. That said, I think Highpockets Kelly is a worthy member of the Tall Guy squad, considering that being 6’5″ in the roaring ’20s was much more unusual than it would be today. (Completely off-topic, but Kelly’s also somehow the cousin of 1970s player Rich Chiles.)

  12. 12.  How about 6’6″ Lee Smith from the bullpen.

    Also, the main reason why the really tall players don’t show up is simple demographics. Only 2 in 1000 people are 6’6″ or taller where as the average male height is around 5’9″ or so (smaller in previous generations).

    P.S. I am a legimate 6’7″

    As a side note, it always freaks me out when I run into someone taller than me (usually once a year).

  13. 13.  Frank Howard 6’7″ (1969)
    My favorite player.

  14. 14.  5 – That airbrushing is reminiscent of a Soviet news agency erasing the existence of a dead cosmonaut.

  15. 15.  About 15 years ago there was a tall guy who tried out with the White Sox. 31-year-old rookie. Stood about 6 foot 6 inches in his stocking feet, real skinny, hit .202 with little power. His manager, Terry Francona, said that if only he had taken up pro baseball sooner, say in his late teens, he could have really been something. Francona thought (and I believe this is a direct quote) he could have been another Dave Winfield. Wish I could remember the dude’s name…

  16. 16.  15
    That gambling problem kept him out of the bigs.

  17. 17.  15 : Yes, I vaguely remember that guy. He was no Danny Ainge.

  18. 18.  “Seems like the guys who went to USC remain extremely loyal throughout their life.”

    I saw Bill Lee last fall. He was wearing an OJ Simpson “Get out of jail free” card. I suppose that had I lived in SoCal and not gone there that I’d hate USC, but I didn’t so I can’t muster up that hate.

    FWIW, Kong is a better looking guy now than he was then. I wonder if he was uncomfortable with the spotlight.

  19. 19.  I remember as an 11 year old in 1977 thinking how neat it was that Kingman played for a team in each of the 4 divisions in baseball during that season. That was before I knew what “Clubhouse Cancer” meant.

  20. 20.  18 I did go to USC. While I was there, I never really cared about how the football team did or anything else about the school. Once I got into the real world, the other people’s hate of USC kind of made me more true to my school. That was around the time Pete Carrol was hired too.

  21. 21.  The same year as this card, Kingman participated in the finals in the Superstars!

    I vividly remember him being much faster than he let on in baseball.


  22. 22.  Kong actually got a nice hand from the disheartened throngs assembled at Shea Stadium’s Final Farewell, after the last game of the season.

    His mid-seventies and early-eighties stints with the Mets weren’t exactly franchise high points – alumni unique to those clubs were rather lightly represented at the ceremonies. (Kingman was exiled to the Padres in the childhood-ending 6/15/77 purge that saw Tom Seaver dealt to Cincinnati. Second time around, both he and Seaver were exiled just before relevance and NL East contention beckoned…)

    I have to agree with {2} ; delightful personality or no, Kingman’s at-bats were riveting events in often otherwise meaningless contests, and obviously the Shea faithful shared these memories

  23. 23.  Great angle for an entry, Josh.
    I loved this 1976 Kingman card. It was fascinating to watch this guy bounce around (it wasn’t until 2003 or so that I realized Kingman had actually been on the ’77 Yankees!). Kingman must have had a unique career– all home runs, no defense, a near-record for teams played for, I’d guess. I was a bit disappointed to find out how vile he was in “real life,” though.

    (By the way, that baseballcardproject site is amazing! I never saw it before! Thanks to whoever linked to. Now I can recall that the ’77 Carlton Fisk card was the greatest card ever, plus, I know I’m going to waste the next 72 hours poking around on there….)

    Looking at the ’78 card, I recall how I knew there was something weird about come of the cards, but I never knew about airbrushing. I’m disappointed in my 9 year-old self for not realizing what was going on.

  24. 24.  23 Dave is still 5 teams short of Mike Morgan’s 12 teams, who shares a 1980 Future Stars card with 20-game loser Brian Kingman, the only other “Kingman” to play a full season in the majors. Just another addition to the ‘Twilight Zone’ that is Gardboard Gods.

  25. 25.  24 Cardboard Gods

  26. 26.  24 : I wonder if Kong at least holds the single-season record for teams played for. (Also, I like that Kingman-Morgan-Kingman connection.)

    25 : Gardboard Cods

  27. 27.  26 The conclusion that I have drawn is yes, Kong does hold the record for teams in a single season. The record seems to be shared, however, by 8 others, notably Dave Martinez in 2000. The fact that Kingman played in every baseball division in ’77 is pretty neat.


  28. Kong was more notable than for being tall. I like to think he changed baseball more than any other player! Other than the state of the playing field, equipment, Babe Ruth’s homeruns, steroids, and overall player aggressiveness, it’s definitely one of baseball’s biggest changes — “the its OK to strikeout” mentality of today!

    Actually, he WILL go down in history! He will always be the (at least first) player to hit 500 HRs and NOT have a chance to go into the Hall of Fame!

    Originally left off my waiting list of all-time greats, after further consideration, he is on the waiting list at 3b, though doubtful to ever get into the league. He would have value (and a position) in today’s DH world.

  29. I just do not get the whole dealing of Kingman. It is amazing how many times he was traded, and the trash he was traded for.

    Yeah,I get the cancer in the clubhouse…but really, i dont hear any specific stories…. the dead/rat bird seemed to happen later in his career and really doesnt seem to be that bad……..maybe a prank gone wrong….I wish there were more stories of why he was so despised.

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