This article was written by Bob Timmermann
Baseball reference sources state that Harry Kingman only played in four games in the major leagues, but there is so much more to the life of this man. While most biographies of baseball players are pieced together from interviews and newspaper clippings, Harry Kingman had such a distinguished and far-ranging post-baseball career that one can research him by accessing a collection of his private papers at the University of California at Berkeley, which includes a handwritten letter by Mahatma Gandhi and a postcard from H.G. Wells. This was clearly a man whose life was much more than four appearances for the 1914 New York Yankees as a first baseman and pinch hitter.
Henry Lees Kingman was born April 3, 1892, in Tientsin, China, and as of 2015, he remains the only major league baseball player who was born in that country. In addition to that unique achievement, Kingman is also the only alumnus of Pomona College in Claremont, California, ever to play in the major leagues.
Kingman was the son of Henry Kingman, a Congregationalist missionary from New York, and Anna Lees, the English daughter of a Methodist missionary who, like her son, was born in China. In 1899 the Reverend Kingman developed a bad case of asthma and decided to take a job as a chaplain at Pomona College for health reasons.
It was fortunate for Harry Kingman that his father was the chaplain of Pomona College, as he would likely never have gotten into any college, for he was a poor student and constantly in trouble. However, Harry was able to straighten himself out and ended up becoming a sports star at Pomona, participating in five sports: baseball, basketball, tennis, track, and swimming.
After using up his eligibility in 1913, Kingman started playing professional baseball in the short-lived Southern California League, playing for the San Bernardino team. The league folded after a few months, and Kingman opted to go to Springfield College to earn a degree in physical education, as he missed earning his degree at Pomona by one class.
After one term at Springfield, Kingman headed back home to Claremont and re-enrolled at Pomona and earned his bachelor’s degree while serving as the coach of the baseball team. Despite his inactivity, several scouts were interested in Kingman. Eventually, the Washington Senators, on the advice of Los Angeles Angels manager Frank Dillon, signed Kingman to a major league contract in June of 1914.
When Kingman arrived in Washington, expecting to become a Senator, he found out that before he ever put on a Washington uniform that Washington manager Clark Griffith had traded him (in exchange for what was never revealed in the newspapers of the day) to the New York Yankees. Yankees manager Frank Chance had likely heard of Kingman from friends in Southern California. Chance owned a large orange grove in Glendora, California, just a few miles west of Claremont.
Chance, like managers before him and after him, saw the tall (6’1″), skinny (165 lbs) lefthander, and thought one thing: Turn this kid into a pitcher. So, Harry Kingman, who left his home in California and headed east expecting to be the next Chick Gandil (who was Washington’s first baseman in 1914), instead found himself Frank Chance’s pet project in becoming New York’s left-handed pitching hope. Besides, Chance had already signed another first baseman, Charlie Mullen, to take over that position for him.
Unfortunately for Kingman, he never could get the hang of pitching. Chance never used him in a game as a pitcher, and in his four games in the majors, Kingman played in the field only once, and that was at first base. His other three appearances were as a pinch hitter. Kingman never got a hit in his three at-bats, but did walk once. After his walk, Chance pinch-ran for Kingman with pitcher Jack Warhop; Kingman was also pinch-hit for once by another pitcher, Ray Caldwell.
The 1914 Yankees were six years away from acquiring Babe Ruth and were not one of the American League’s better teams, finishing in sixth place with a 70-84 record, 30 games behind pennant winner Philadelphia. Chance lost his job toward the end of the year and was replaced by 23-year old Roger Peckinpaugh. Kingman was on the Yankees roster in 1915, but manager Bill Donovan never played him, opting to use rookie Wally Pipp at first base. At the end of the season, the Yankees wanted to send Kingman to a minor league team in Guelph, Ontario, but Kingman opted to go find another profession.
Kingman took a job as a counselor at the University of California at Berkeley’s YMCA facility, Stiles Hall, in 1916, starting a long connection with that institution. Kingman was drafted into the Army in 1917, serving out most of his duty at Fort Lewis, Washington, before returning to Berkeley and Stiles Hall in 1919.
In 1921 the YMCA offered Kingman a chance to go back to China to work as a missionary and physical education teacher in Shanghai, and he jumped at the chance. After arriving in China, Kingman sent for his fiancée, Ruth, and they were married in Shanghai in 1922. In 1924, Ruth gave birth to their only child, a daughter named Beverly.
While in China, Kingman played and coached baseball, playing games against visiting sailors from the United States. He also organized political debates and social activities for other Americans living in Shanghai, which had a sizeable foreign population.
In 1925, while Kingman was playing in a baseball game, a disturbance in Shanghai caused by conflicts between local Chinese and Sikhs led to 70 deaths. Contributing greatly to the outrage was the fact that the English, who had territorial rights in Shanghai, were using the Sikhs as policemen. Kingman was deeply affected by this outrage and started to send out letters to various world leaders, including Gandhi.
However, the YMCA administration in China deemed Kingman’s outspokenness on political matters embarrassing to the association, and transferred him to a less visible post in Tientsin in 1927.
Instead of moving to Tienstin, Kingman travelled to Japan for the first time and got to see firsthand some of the greatest Japanese baseball teams of the era. Kingman was employed briefly by Waseda University to help coach its team.
Kingman returned to Berkeley in the winter of 1927 and went back to work at Stiles Hall. In 1931, he was promoted to General Secretary of Stiles Hall, a position he would hold until 1950. At the same time, friend Clint Evans hired Kingman to coach the Golden Bears’ junior varsity baseball squad.
Two of the more famous students that Kingman rented out rooms to were a future Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, and a future president of the University of California, Clark Kerr. Kingman and Kerr initiated the concept of cooperative housing at UC Berkeley, wherein students would receive discounted room and board in exchange for part-time work around the building. In 1977 a co-op was named in Kingman’s honor.
During World War II, Kingman and his wife Ruth were active in efforts to halt the forced relocation of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast. Kingman had seen the effects of racial intolerance during his time in China and was saddened to see it in the United States.
After retiring from Stiles Hall in 1957, Harry and Ruth Kingman moved to Washington and started yet another career. The two of them formed their own two-person political lobbying organization, The Citizens’ Lobby for Freedom and Fair Play. Their principal interest was civil rights, although Kingman was able to keep his hand in baseball as the Democrats asked him to help coach them in the annual Congressional baseball game.
In 1968, disillusioned by the Vietnam War and feeling that they had accomplished as much as two senior citizens with a tiny budget could do, the Kingmans retired for good and moved back to Berkeley. In 1972, University of California’s Regional Oral History recorded a lengthy interview with him that had to be delayed a few times as Kingman insisted on watching the Oakland A’s play their World Series games.
Harry Kingman died in Oakland on December 27, 1982, at the age of 90. His only survivor was his wife Ruth.
For all of his accomplishments in the world of education and civil rights, it seemed that he never lost his love of baseball. In a 1957 New Yorker interview, Kingman wistfully remembered, “The Senators were out of town and the park was empty. I went down to home plate and stood there remembering what it had been like when I batted there forty-three years ago. Then I walked over to the dugout, just as I had done that day. It seemed just as long and grim a walk as it ever had. The thought that I had struck out made me feel just as lousy at the age of sixty-five as it had when I was a kid.”
The most valuable resource was the transcript of an oral history interview done by the UC Berkeley Regional Oral History Office: (Kingman, Harry. Citizenship in a Democracy. Berkeley: Regional Oral History Office, 1973).
Newspapers referenced were: The Student Life (Claremont, California), The Washington Star, the Washington Post, the Washington Evening Herald, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Osaka Mainichi.
Two excellent magazine profiles of Harry Kingman are “Citizens,” New Yorker, August 24, 1957 and Ben Bradlee’s article in the July 1961 issue of Coronet titled “Washington’s unique ‘Mr. and Mrs.’ lobby.”
Kingman’s own article about Japanese baseball appears in the February 1928 issue of Asia (28:2) and is titled “Japan on the Diamond.”
I would also like to thank the staff at the Special Collections Department of the Honnold Library at the Claremont Colleges, the staff at the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley, the staff at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, and fellow SABR members Kevin Saldana, Ted Hathaway, and Yoichi Nagata.