April 19, 2017
Jim King started in left field for the San Francisco Giants in the first Major League game ever played in California. His best seasons, however, came after he was selected by the expansion Washington Senators, with whom he remained for six and half years, longer than any of the other 27 players the team drafted in December 1960.
King was a strong-armed, left-handed batting, outfielder who hit with power. Although he never had more than 511 plate appearances in a season, he reached double figures in home runs eight times, topping out at 24 in 1963.
James Hubert King was born August 27, 1932, in Elkins, Arkansas, the youngest son of Elmer and Mary Alice Lawson King. He was one of six brothers and two sisters. Before his death at age 82 on February 23, 2015, he was the last of his siblings still alive.
When he was a teenager, King went to live with one of his older brothers. He dropped out before he reached high school. His talent as a baseball player was already evident as he had begun playing ball against older opponents by the time he was 14. Even then, his arm strength was recognized.
In his mid-teens, he began playing American Legion baseball and for several highly skilled teams in Elkins and Wesley, Arkansas. He attracted the attention of Cardinals scout Fred Hawn, who convinced the 17-year-old to go to play for Vernon, Texas, in the independent Class D Longhorn League.
With the Vernon Dusters in 1950, King hit .302 with a dozen home runs in 144 games. That was good enough to earn him a contract offer from Hawn and the Cardinals, who assigned him to Winston-Salem in the Carolina League for 1951. There, he struggled in 18 games, hitting .213. Sent to Fresno in the Class C California League in May, he hit .333 in 116 games. He began the ’52 season with Class A Omaha in the Western League, but hit just .238 with one homer in 63 games, so was returned to Fresno on July 2. He hit .328 there in 59 games. He was named to league all-star teams at Vernon in ’50 and Fresno in ’51.
Still just 20 years old, he was back at Omaha in 1953. This time, over a full season, he hit .280 with 10 homers. He hit his stride at Omaha the next season, hitting .318 with 25 homers and a team-record 127 runs batted in. King was a Western League all-star in ’54. He began displaying a talent that would help define his career: a rifle right throwing arm. He had 19 outfield assists against unwitting base runners.
On September 2, 1954, an Omaha television station gave away a reported 26,000 tickets to a pre-game promotion that featured Joe DiMaggio and Dizzy Dean. The advance advertising said Dean would pitch to DiMaggio and Omaha’s King, but Dean, in street clothes, threw about 15 pitches just to the retired Yankee Clipper. None left the park, but DiMaggio did homer off a batting practice pitcher. King had his photo taken with the two Hall-of-Famers and homered during the scheduled game, before an announced crowd of 18,284. However, many more people showed and eventually were all let in.
King married the former Rose Bell, who was from Elkins, after the ’54 season. He and his wife, who survived him, had been married for 60 years when he died. They had a daughter, Sheree, born in 1955 and a son, David, who born in 1958.
King’s all-star performance in 1954 attracted the attention of Wid Matthews, the Cubs’ director of player personnel. On his recommendation, the Cubs selected King in the minor league draft in November 1954 from the Cardinals’ Rochester, N.Y., AAA roster.
Cubs manager Stan Hack mentioned King as one of six potential outfielders who could make the team in 1955, and that’s exactly what King did. As the season began. he was battling Ted Tappe for starts in right field.
He saw considerable playing time over his two seasons in Chicago, hitting .256 in 113 games and 333 plate appearances in ’55. King followed his rookie year with 15 homers in 118 games in ’56, batting .249. He battled a shoulder injury late in ’55 that flared up again in June 1956, but still led National League left fielders with nine assists in ’56.
Frank Lane, the Cardinals general manager, wanted to get King back. He was sure King’s left-handed power stroke was well-suited for the short right-field porch in the first Busch Stadium. With Cubs in St. Louis the first week of the 1957 season, Lane and Cubs GM John Holland agreed on a trade of King to the Cards for outfielder Bobby Del Greco and pitcher Ed Mayer. But a month later, King surprisingly was optioned to Omaha. At a post-season luncheon, Lane, who had been fired during the season, said he and manager Fred Hutchinson had wanted to keep King and option young prospect Bobby Gene Smith, but had been overruled by club owner Augustus Busch.
In any case, King had a solid season playing for manager Johnny Keane at Omaha. He hit 20 home runs and was voted the team’s most popular player by the fans. The Cards were counting on King to strengthen the bench in 1958. As spring training wound down, however, St. Louis found itself short on catching depth, while the Giants were looking for a left-handed hitting outfielder. On April 2, King was shipped to San Francisco for catcher Ray Katt.
“I thought I’d get a better shot at playing with San Francisco,” King told author Steve Bitker of The Original San Francisco Giants, published in 2001.
Two weeks later, on April 15, 1958, King batted second for the Giants, ahead of Willie Mays, as two relocated teams from New York opened their seasons in San Francisco. With a strong wind blowing out to right field at Seals Stadium, Giants manager Bill Rigney replaced Hank Sauer, who had been scheduled to start in left, with King, who went 2-for-3 with two walks and a run batted in against Don Drysdale. But after that, his playing time was sporadic.
In mid-June, he was optioned to Phoenix. After 20 games there, he was transferred, along with pitchers Ernie Broglio and Ray Crone, to Toronto, which had no working agreement that season with a major league club. The Giants got pitcher Don Johnson. This was more of a loan than a trade, as King and Broglio were recalled by the Giants in September. Although King played well defensively for the Maple Leafs, he was hampered by an injured wrist.
With no major league offers, King went to spring training in 1959 with Toronto, where he played all season. His wife and two young children lived in Toronto with him and enjoyed life there. The International League team still was not affiliated with a major league club, but after the ’59 season, the club signed a working agreement with the Indians.
After returning from a knee injury, King broke into the starting lineup with a hitting barrage that sparked the Maple Leafs to 22 wins in 31 games. At season’s end, he was selected as the team’s player of the year. He was available in the major league player draft on November 30, but no team selected him.
King remained Toronto property for the 1960 season. Behind King’s solid hitting – 24 homers, 86 RBIs, .384 on-base percentage — and stellar pitching, the team ran away with the International League title. Although he missed two weeks with the mumps, King was voted the league Most Valuable Player.
After the season, Cleveland acquired King and two Toronto pitchers for $15,000 each. Frank Lane, now the Indians’ GM, said he saw the purchase as the Tribe’s biggest off-season addition. Yet King was one of 15 Indians left unprotected when the American League expansion draft took place in December. The new Washington Senators took King along with 27 other players for $75,000 each, a tidy profit for someone who had never played for Cleveland.
King made the Washington team out of spring training, although he was slowed by a shoulder injury. He got a chance to play more frequently when Marty Keough lost his starting role in May. King’s first two home runs, May 13 and 14, helped the Nats shut out Boston twice. Both homers cleared the 31-foot-high right-field wall in Griffith Stadium, long anathema to left-handed hitters. He finished the season hitting .270 with a .363 OBP and a solid .811 OPS, thanks to 12 doubles, a triple and 11 homers among his 71 hits in 307 plate appearances.
The 1962 season began with King playing left field regularly against right-handers, but he got off to a slow start. By June he was playing mostly in right. He was the Nats’ only left-hand hitting outfielder. Although his average fell to .243, he still had a respectable .353 OBP. He walked 55 times and fanned just 37 times all season. King usually made contact. This was one of three years in a row that he walked more than he struck out. For his career, he walked 363 times with 401 strikeouts in 3,338 plate appearances.
The 1963 season proved to be the low point for the expansion Senators The team lost 106 games. Gil Hodges replaced Mickey Vernon as manager in May. George Selkirk had already replaced Ed Doherty as GM. But for King, ’63 turned out to be – by traditional measures, at least – his most productive season. He played more than he ever had before and reached career highs in home runs and RBIs. But his OBP dropped to .300. (By sabermetric measures, he did better in ’61 and would do better in ’64. His ’63 wins-above-replacement was just 0.8, but reached 2.0 in ’61 and 2.4 in ’64.)
Still, King’s homers and his powerful arm provided more than occasional thrills for die-hard Senators fans. Perhaps the most memorable of his 12 outfield assists came on August 10, when his perfect throw from right field on a two-out, ninth-inning, single nailed Luis Aparicio at the plate to preserve a Nats’ 6-5 victory over the Orioles.
At the time, King’s 24 homers in ’63 were a Senators record for a left-handed hitter. Mike Epstein’s 30 homers in 1969 finally topped King’s total.
King’s batting average suffered in ’63 as he was pressed into regular service against left-hand pitchers. The Nats had little or no viable bench, so King kept playing through a 2-for-35 slump, and finished the season at .231.
A highlight, if it can be called that, of the dismal ’63 season was the battle between King and road roommates Don Lock for the team home-run lead. “We’ll be doin’ real good if both of us can beat Roger Maris’ record,” King joked. Lock’s 27 homers ended up beating out King’s 24. Among King’s personal highs in the ’63 season were his three homers in a double-header against Cleveland on June 14 and his two homers in a win over Boston on August 4.
The lowly Senators set a modest goal the next season : “Off The Floor — In ‘64” was the team’s slogan on the yearbook cover. Although the Nats again lost 100 games, they escaped the cellar. For King, a two-week stretch in 1964 included the best games of his career. On May 25 in Boston, he hit for the cycle, the only expansion Senator ever to do so. He tripled in his final at-bat. Never fast, this was his lone triple of the season. His homer was a solo shot in the sixth. He had doubled home a run in the second. What makes his cycle even more unusual was his single in the fourth. He was thrown out trying to stretch it into a double – an out that in retrospect he might be glad he made. Despite King’s heroics, the Red Sox won, 3-2.
Two weeks later, at home on June 8, he belted three home runs against Kansas City. Unfortunately, all were with nobody on. The Nats lost, 5-4.
“I hit all of them on high fastballs,” said King. “The only time they got me out, I was swinging at a curve ball.” A tough man to fan, King for the most part tried to lay off breaking pitches, which likely accounts for his solid career walks-to-strikeouts ratio.
By this time, his teammates had taken to calling him “Sky” King, a play not only on the old Saturday morning TV series, but a playful dig at King’s dread of air travel. “I’d hug dad at the airport when he got back from the road,” and, no matter the temperature, “his shirt was always drenched with sweat,” his son David said. Jim King never got on another airplane after his major league career ended, according to his wife Rose. He turned down invitations to far-away old-timers games so he wouldn’t have to fly.
Injuries and illness took their toll on King in 1964. Back trouble in late June kept him for swinging at full strength. His appendix began giving him trouble during a late July series in New York, yet in pain, he delivered a two-run, eighth inning, pinch single that beat the Yankees, 2-1.
“I had an attack,” on June 22, King told author James Hartley in January 1997. “I played the next day. I couldn’t get around too good, but I pinch-hit with the bases loaded …. They threw it where I was swinging.”
He was sent back to Washington for tests, but surgery was delayed until after the season, when he had his appendix removed. The recurring pain obviously wore on King. As the season ended, King told Bob Addie of the Washington Post, he planned take a month off to go fishing, uncharacteristic for a man who worked a farm at home in Arkansas. “A man has to build up his energies after a tough season,” King told Addie – especially one facing surgery to have his appendix removed.
After the ’64 season, the Yankees renewed their interest in King, but no deal was worked out. Ralph Houk of the Yankees was especially persistent. “I’ve always liked that guy,” Houk said of King when the Nats finally traded him to Chicago in 1967. “With the left-handed power he’s got, he’d go big in Yankee Stadium.” Houk said he’d pitch around King “even when he was on the bench.” Yet King didn’t have extraordinary numbers against the Yankees, hitting near his career average against them with six homers over seven seasons.
Forced into rest over the winter after his appendix removal, King was 15 pounds over his playing weight when he arrived in camp. Always proud of being in shape, this bothered him. “They pay you to do your best, and I figure I owe them that,” he told Addie. As May began, he shook off the rust. On May 2, his pinch-hit RBIs won both games of a doubleheader. Despite not hitting his first homer until May 7, he proceeded to hit seven more in the next month – in a part-time role.
In June 1965, in a pre-game promotion before a game in Los Angeles, King and Lock agreed to take part in a cow-milking contest as part of “dairy month” against Joe Adcock and Phil Roof of the Angels. Presumably, King had milked cows before, although black angus beef cattle were the focus of his Arkansas farm. Lock was a Kansas farm boy. Despite their expertise, the pair lost to the Angels duo. It must have been home field advantage.
Making himself useful, King caught two innings for the Nats in the second game of a June 1967 doubleheader after the starting catcher left for a pinch-hitter and the backup got ejected. King had caught previously during a game with Toronto and one game with the Senators in 1961.
King’s pinch-hitting opportunities increased during his last four seasons in Washington, with at least 40 appearances a year in that role. Over his career, he made 332 plate appearances as a pinch hitter and compiled a .337 on-base percentage. “Naturally, a fellow likes to be in the lineup every day, but when you deliver as a pinch hitter, you get a big thrill,” King said in 1965.
At age 34, his years with the Senators abruptly ended on June 15, 1967, when he was traded to the White Sox for speedy outfielder Ed Stroud. King took it hard. “I don’t want to leave Washington,” a tearful King told Hodges when informed of the trade. “We loved Washington — the people, the park, guys on the club,” King told Hartley in 1997. “I always enjoyed playing in Washington.” He also loved playing for his manager. “I thought the world of Gil Hodges.”
He had little success after he left the Senators. A month after his trade to Chicago, King was sent to the Indians in a deal that brought Rocky Colavito to the White Sox. When the Indians released King at end of the ’67 season, he decided to call it quits, disappointed at how it ended.
“That last year was just miserable for me,” King said in a 1976 interview. “I broke my right hand. I didn’t get to play enough. Things just started going bad …. It was time to get out.” Still, he said he missed “everything” about his time in the majors – with the exception of the air travel. “I never once relaxed on a plane,” he recalled.”
Back in Elkins, King was asked to play for an insurance company-sponsored team that also featured longtime University of Arkansas baseball coach Norm DeBriyn. The team won the state championship and was ranked in the top 10 nationally among National Baseball Congress teams one year. By then in his late 30s, King played mostly against younger pitchers, many of whom would try to blow a fastball by a bald guy who looked old enough to be their father. To their amazement, those fastballs often ended up over the outfield fences. King also coached son David, now a successful high school football coach, in Little League, Pony League and Babe Ruth Baseball.
In the 1976 interview, King said he was happy to be home in Elkins and had no desire to coach in the majors. “I’ve never seen a big league game in person since I left,” he said. Surrounded by family and beloved by his grandchildren, King was content to live out his years in his hometown.
He took a job with the local telephone company, where he remained for 24 years until he retired, while working his farm, where he raised cattle, hogs and chicken. He worked first as a lineman for the phone company and later as a foreman of a crew laying underground wires. All of which kept him very busy, until he was slowed by a hip replacement and knee problems in the years before his death. King is buried in Mt. Olive Cemetery in Elkins.
“There was not a lazy bone in his body,” his son David recalled.
A version of this appears on the SABR.org web site’s BioProject and a shorter appeared in Nats News in June 2017.
The primary sources for this biography:
James R. Hartley, Washington’s Expansion Senators (1961-1971), (Germantown. Md., Corduroy Press, 1997-98)
The Northwest Arkansas Times, 1976
The Sporting News, 1954-1967
Telephone conversation between the author and David L. King, Feb. 1, 2017
Telephone conversation between the author and Rose King, Feb. 2, 2017