With a large void created by the sudden absence of baseball, the Topps Company is doing something smart and innovative this winter. As a way of commemorating Topps’ 60th anniversary in 2011, the company is holding an online contest to determine the 60 greatest Topps cards of all time. Topps has nominated 100 cards, giving collectors a baseline. All in all, this is a terrific idea by Topps.
Judging by the cards featured at its website, it looks like Topps has concentrated on cards featuring star players, or cards that have a strong monetary value. That philosophy makes sense—to a point. Certain superstar cards just have to be included, like the 1952 Mickey Mantle, which has become iconic among hobbyists. The 1957 Hank Aaron, which mistakenly shows the future home run king batting left handed, is a must-have on the top 60 list. Then there is the 1973 Roberto Clemente. Not only was the card issued after his death, but it also featured one of the few action images from Topps’ collection of Clemente cards.
The inclusion of such cards is necessary and appropriate, but Topps goes a bit too far with its emphasis on superstars. Topps has nominated 15 additional Mantle cards, making for 16 Mantles among the top 100. That’s too many. There are also multiple selections for Clemente, Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Cal Ripken Jr., Pete Rose and Thurman Munson. Yet there are virtually no cards that could be categorized as unusual or offbeat in any way.
Topps might have been better served by supplying a wider variety. When thinking of great baseball cards, one doesn’t think only of superstars, but also of cards that display particularly eye-catching action photography, or cards that have some unusual feature or error.
Over the next several weeks, I’ll be nominating some of my favorite cards, a number of which range from quirky to downright odd. In this week’s first installment, let’s put the spotlight on a card that bears a second, or perhaps even a third view.
When I first looked at Bobby Knoop’s 1970 Topps card, I must admit, I saw nothing amiss. Then I looked more closely, not so much at the former White Sox second baseman, but at the bat he is holding. This piece of lumber looks a little like one of those miniature toy bats that my local Rotary club gives its guest speakers. Or perhaps it’s one that is sold at the Hall of Fame’s gift shop? What in the name of white ash is Knoop holding?
Is it possible that Knoop decided to have a little fun with the Topps photographer who came to the White Sox spring training site? Maybe, but Knoop’s bat does appear larger than those ridiculously tiny miniature bats. It looks more like a bat that a Little Leaguer might have used. So perhaps Knoop, who was never known as a particularly muscular hitter, used bats that were smaller than the average major leaguer’s.
An examination of Knoop’s 1971 Topps card supports the latter theory. The bat on that card looks nearly as small as the bat on the 1970 card. Based on that, we can surmise that Knoop simply liked to use smaller bats, even though this one appeared to have all the sturdiness of kindling wood. It’s also possible that the camera angle on the 1970 photograph creates deception; with Knoop’s body blocking the middle of the bat from view, the bat takes on somewhat of a sawed-off appearance.
Regardless of the bat’s authenticity, it looks positively comical in Knoop’s hands, sort of like a scalpel in the hands of Frank Burns. The expression on Knoop’s face is just as amusing. He is flashing a look of defiance, as if to say, “This is my bat, and I’m going to use it in the game tonight! I don’t care how ridiculous it looks.”
Long before his bat size became fodder for Internet discussion, Knoop provided other forms of amusement. When I first saw his name listed on the pages of The Sporting News, I assumed that the letter ‘K’ was silent and that his name was pronounced NEWP. I was wrong on both counts. As I watched the Yankees play the Angels one day in the late 1970s, the WPIX broadcast showed Knoop, now serving as a coach with California. Yankees broadcaster Frank Messer pronounced his name as Bobby KUH-NOP. At first, I thought Messer was kidding, or had butchered the name, but later broadcasts reaffirmed the true pronunciation.
Somehow Knoop translated into KUH-NOP. And, rather strangely, that instantly became a reminder of “Gnip Gnop,” a popular tabletop game from the early 1970s. I don’t remember much about that game, other than the fact that “Gnip Gnop” is actually Ping Pong spelled backward.
Trivialities aside, it should not come as a surprise that Knoop, equipped with his minuscule bat, was a light hitter for much of his nine-year major league career. Except for his career season of 1966, when he hit 17 home runs for the Angels and led the American League with 11 triples, Knoop showed little power. For his career, he slugged .334. He was no more effective at reaching first base. His career on-base percentage settled under .300, at .296.
Considering his general lack of power, it might be expected that Knoop was at least capable of putting the ball in play. Not so. Over his first six seasons, Knoop piled up more than 100 strikeouts each time, culminating in highs of 144 and 136 Ks. Those are stunningly high numbers for the era, particularly for a Punch-and-Judy hitter like Knoop. Perhaps Knoop’s bat was so small that he simply did not have enough barrel—or length—to make consistent contact, particularly with the outside pitch.
Knoop didn’t earn his money for his hitting, but he did provide value with the glove. He had remarkable range, which he accentuated by playing particularly deep at second base. Combining perpetual smoothness with a habit of making the acrobatic play, Knoop earned the nickname of “Nureyev” from admiring sportswriters. He topped off his game with a strong throwing arm, completing the package defensively. Teaming with All-Star shortstop Jim Fregosi, Knoop won three consecutive Gold Gloves from 1966 to 1968.
Curiously, Topps showed Knoop with a fielder’s glove only one time, as part of its 1967 set. In a crouched position, he’s wearing a glove that looks positively gigantic, about the size of a frying pan. I’m tempted to say that it’s bigger than the bat.
To vote for your favorite cards in the 60th anniversary contest, visit Topps at http://vote.topps.com.