Born in Pendleton, Oregon, Kingman moved with his family to Illinois and he attended Prospect High School, where he was a center and a forward on the basketball team, a wide receiver and safety on the football team, and a star pitcher on the baseball team.
He was drafted by the California Angels out of high school in the second round of the 1967 Major League Baseball draft, and by the Baltimore Orioles in the first round of the 1968 draft, but chose, instead, to attend the University of Southern California (USC) to play college baseball for the USC Trojans under coach Rod Dedeaux. Kingman began as a pitcher before being converted to an outfielder. In 1970, he was named an All-American and led the Trojans to the College World Series championship. He was selected by the San Francisco Giants with the first pick of the 1970 secondary phase draft.
Kingman came up as an outfielder and first baseman with the San Francisco Giants. He made his major league debut on July 30, 1971, pinch running for Willie McCovey, and finishing the game at first base. He hit a home run in his next game, and hit two more a day later.
On April 16, 1972, the second day of the season, Kingman hit for the cycle in the Giants' 10-6 victory over the Houston Astros. A day earlier, he made his debut at third base, a position he would play off and on for the remainder of his Giants career. Kingman also made his major league debut on the mound with the Giants, pitching two innings of "mop up duty" in an 11-0 loss to the Cincinnati Reds on April 15, 1973. He pitched again in the mop up role on May 13 in a 15-3 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers. In both games, he pitched the final two innings and gave up two earned runs.
In 1974, he committed twelve errors in 59 chances at third, and lost his starting job to Steve Ontiveros. Following the season, the Giants sold their rights to him to the New York Mets.
Kingman played twelve games at third with the Mets; however, the Mets eventually abandoned the idea of Kingman as a third baseman and kept him primarily in the outfield. He emerged as a slugger upon his arrival in New York City, setting a club record with 36 home runs in 1975. He also scored 65 runs, the highest percentage of runs scored on homers for anyone that hit more than 30 in a season. A year later, he broke his own record with 37 homers, and was elected to start in right field for the 1976 National League All-Star team.
The best game of Kingman's Mets career occurred on June 4, 1976 when he hit three home runs against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Mets' 11-0 victory (the first of five times Kingman accomplished this feat in his major league career and the second in Mets franchise history).
Kingman was batting only .209 with nine home runs when he became one of the three players traded in the infamous "Midnight Massacre" in New York. On June 15, 1977, the Mets traded Kingman to the San Diego Padres for minor league pitcher Paul Siebert and Bobby Valentine; Tom Seaver was traded to the Cincinnati Reds for Pat Zachry, Doug Flynn, Steve Henderson and Dan Norman; and Mike Phillips was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for Joel Youngblood. Kingman did not play well with the Padres, was waived by the team on September 6 and claimed by the California Angels. On September 15, Kingman became one of only a handful of players to play for four major league teams in the same season (and the only one to play in each division in baseball in a single year since the establishment of divisional play in 1969) when he was traded to the Mets' crosstown rivals, the Yankees, for Randy Stein and cash. Although Kingman's four home runs in eight games helped propel the Yankees into the post-season over the second place Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles, he could not participate in the team's push to a World Series crown as he was added to the roster after the August 31 cutoff date.
Following the season, Kingman signed as a free agent with the Chicago Cubs. Kingman had an excellent performance in Los Angeles on May 14, 1978, when he again hit three home runs against the Dodgers, including a three run shot in the top of the 15th inning that gave the Cubs a 10-7 victory. Eight of the Cubs' ten runs were driven in by Kingman. Following the game, radio reporter Paul Olden asked Dodgers' manager Tommy Lasorda his opinion of Kingman's performance that day, inspiring an oft-replayed (and censored) obscenity-laced tirade.
The best season of Kingman's career came with the Cubs in 1979, when he batted .288 with a National League-leading 48 homers, as well as 115 runs batted in (second to San Diego's Dave Winfield's 118) and 97 runs scored. He hit three home runs in a game twice that season, both coming in Cubs losses. The first was a slugging duel with Mike Schmidt on May 17 at Wrigley Field; Kingman hit three home runs and drove in 6 while Schmidt hit two in the game, with Schmidt delivering his second in the top of the tenth inning to give the Phillies a 23-22 victory. Kingman's third home run during this game is likely the longest home run of his career, and believed to be the longest in the history of Wrigley Field. There is a street called Kenmore Avenue that T's into Waveland Avenue behind left-center field. Kenmore is lined with houses, and the ball Kingman launched landed on the third porch roof on the east side of Kenmore, a shot estimated at 550 feet.
The second three homer game for Kingman that year came against his former team on July 28 at Shea Stadium in a 6-4 loss to the Mets.
His .613 slugging percentage was almost 50 points higher than that of his next closest National League competition, Mike Schmidt. Kingman finished eleventh in NL MVP balloting that year and led the league in strikeouts for the first time in his career (131).
In 1980, Kingman (whose personality former Mets teammate John Stearns had once compared to a tree trunk) began to assert himself more outwardly. He dumped a bucket of ice water on Daily Herald reporter Don Friske's head late in spring training. Kingman regularly insisted he was misquoted, and he began appearing regularly in the Chicago Tribune, as the nominal author of a column ghostwritten by Chicago Park District employee Gerald Pfeiffer. Mike Royko, then writing for the rival Chicago Sun-Times, parodied Kingman's column with a series using the byline "Dave Dingdong." The Cubs held a Dave Kingman T-shirt Day promotion in conjunction with its 11–3 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates on August 7, but the man of honor instead spent the afternoon at Navy Pier promoting Kawasaki Jet Skis at ChicagoFest.
In January 1980, the Payson heirs sold the Mets franchise to the Doubleday publishing company for $21.1 million. Nelson Doubleday, Jr. was named chairman of the board while minority shareholder Fred Wilpon took the role of club president. On February 28, 1981, eager to win back a fan base that had become disenchanted with the team, the Mets reacquired Kingman from the Cubs for Steve Henderson and cash. In separate deals, the new organization also reacquired Rusty Staub, and two seasons later, Tom Seaver.
Kingman primarily played first base upon his return to the Mets in 1981, and exclusively there his second season back in New York. In 1982, he tied his own Mets' single-season home run record, but also batted just .204, the lowest batting average ever recorded for a first baseman with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. Leading the league in home runs that year, it is also the lowest batting average for any season's home run leader. Additionally, he accomplished the dubious feat of leading the league in home runs while having a lower batting average than the Cy Young Award winner, (Steve Carlton, .218).
Kingman led the NL in strike outs both of his first two seasons in New York (105 in 1981 & 156 in 1982). On June 15, 1983, the sixth anniversary of the Midnight Massacre, the Mets acquired first baseman Keith Hernandez from the St. Louis Cardinals for pitchers Neil Allen and Rick Ownbey. Kingman remained with the team for the remainder of the season in a limited role. He was released at the end of the season, and signed as a free agent with the Oakland Athletics.
On April 16, 1984, Kingman collected his fifth and final 3-homer game, in a 9-6 win over the Seattle Mariners. A mediocre to poor fielder, he made just nine appearances at first base in 1984, and was the A's regular designated hitter the remainder of the time. For the season, Kingman hit 35 home runs and drove in 118 runs to be named the American League's Comeback Player of the Year, and finish 13th in MVP balloting. His 35 homers for the year were a record for a player in his final season until being surpassed by David Ortiz in 2016.
In three seasons as a DH in Oakland, he collected at least 30 home runs and 90 RBIs in each of those years. He also had two at-bats in this period which did not result in home runs, but nonetheless made news: in the Metrodome at Minnesota, on May 4, 1984, he hit a pop-up that flew into a hole in the roof and got stuck for a ground rule double. In a game in Seattle on April 11, 1985, he hit a hard drive to left field which struck a speaker hanging from the roof of the Kingdome, bounced back and was caught for an out.
During his final year in Oakland in 1986, Kingman sent a live rat in a pink box to Sue Fornoff, a sportswriter for The Sacramento Bee. The rat had a tag attached to it that read, "My name is Sue." Fornoff claimed that Kingman had told her that women do not belong in the clubhouse, and that he harassed her several times since she began covering the team the year before. Kingman himself said it was intended as a harmless practical joke. The A's fined Kingman $3,500 and warned that he would be released if a similar incident occurred again. When Kingman's contract expired the following offseason, the A's dropped him and refused to renew his contract.
On July 11, 1987, Kingman signed a minor league deal with the San Francisco Giants during the 1987 season. After twenty games at AAA Phoenix in which he batted .203 with two homeruns and 11 RBI, he retired from baseball. In 1992, his first year of eligibility for the Baseball Hall of Fame, he appeared on just three ballots, excluding him from future Baseball Writers' Association of America voting. He was the first player to hit 400 or more home runs without being eventually inducted into the Hall of Fame.