Card Corner: Topps’ 60th anniversary cards

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.

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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.

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Comments

  1. Michael Caragliano said...

    I think it’s a good idea that Topps booted by deciding to phone in for the “investor” rather than exert any effort. If you need proof, look at the Alex Gordon card- a card that never even made it to the packs because of eligibility issues. The cards Topps lets you pick from break down into three categories: best Mickey Mantle, best rookie, and best superstar. I’m sure the kids who opened the packs years ago didn’t take the composition of the photo into consideration (I know I didn’t; my first thought was always, great, doubles of Reggie, should I trade it at lunch for Bench or Fernando, or just risk it flipping at recess?) That said, they left out some real gems. For instance, Fisk’s 1972 rookie card does nothing (three head shots: BOOOOO-ring!), but his ‘82 In Action, with him diving for a foul pop, is a classic. Same for Roger Clemens; the ‘85 card does nothing, but his ‘91 edition, shot with him leaning against the Fenway scoreboard between the words “strike” and “out”, is so much more creative.

    As I got older, part of the fun was wondering what went through the player’s and photographer’s mind as the shot was taken, which is why the abundance of head-shots in the poll is also disappointing. No imagination, and in the case of the ‘57 Brooks Robinson card- an ORANGE sky? Whuh?. Part of the fun was guessing where the shot was taken. I could look at the yellow rails in the seats, for instance, and know they took the photo at the original Comiskey.

    Speaking of Knoop, they left out one of the all-time best perspective photos. The 1972 Billy Cowan card has him in a batting stance at Angels Stadium, with the the Big A scoreboard behind him. Cowan is poritioned just so, so that the halo atop the scoreboard looks like a halo on Cowan’s head- a true Angel! Did they plan in that way, or was it genuine luck? We’ll never know….

    One last random thought- airbrushing. Photoshop has changing uniforms for traded players down to a science today, but when you got an airbrushed card, you noticed the bright tints from across the room. Which is why two more of the all-time best are airbrush jobs that look genuine. The 1978 Goose Gossage card, his first with the Yankees, had me stumped when I saw the chain link fence in the background, until I remembered Candlestick Park had them. They not only made his Pirates uniform disappear, they re-shaped the pillbox cap almost perfectly! And the 1973 Tommie Agee- I didn’t even notice they airbrushed him into his Astros uniform. It took me several years before I ever noticed the tip-off; they also airbrushed Rusty Staub and Ken Boswell, who were still with the Mets, into Astros uniforms. Brilliant!

  2. Bruce Markusen said...

    Excellent points, Michael.

    I’m hoping to include the Billy Cowan card, among others, in a future edition.

  3. Bruce Markusen said...

    Rich, if you scroll all the way down on the Topps site, you’ll find several cards from the ‘56 Topps set, including Clemente, Mantle, Koufax, and Williams.

  4. gdc said...

    Maybe Knoop couldn’t handle breaking pitches or MLB heaters but he did have good bat control even in his post-playing days.  I saw him and fellow Angels coach Jimmie Reese who supposedly (I never saw that) could pitch BP hitting it with a fungo bat, just hitting soft liners to each other like a game of badminton without having to move around.

  5. Bob Evans said...

    Tangentially related to airbrushing…when Bob Short’s mismanagement of the Senators led him to consider offers from folks who would move the team, some Topps photog was totally on the ball.  He took a lot head shots of Senators from an extremely low angle, seemingly about a foot from the player’s belt buckle.  That way you could sort of see the subject’s face, but you couldn’t see the logo on the hat.  Ergo, no airbrushing needed.  Man, were those awful cards…close-ups of Toby Harrah’s Adam’s apple, Jeff Burroughs’ Adam’s apple, etc.

    (And speaking of Washington, how about those awesome ‘74 Padres cards that said “Washington Nat’l”?)

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