Jim Fregosi used to say Bobby Knoop’s glove belonged in Cooperstown, but Knoop doesn’t even much admire the three Gold Gloves he won as the Angels’ second baseman in the 1960s.
“A piece of leather, painted gold, on a plaque that sits on a shelf,” Knoop said, sitting in the dugout at Anaheim Stadium in the waning days of his 13th season as an Angel coach. “The only thing I have, or really care about, is that the people I worked with appreciated what I did, whether it was good, bad or indifferent.”
Knoop came back to the Angels in 1979, after his old double-play partner had become the manager. Fregosi was fired by Gene Autry inside of three years. Knoop, a reserved, meticulous man with a laconic wit, has never left.
Gene Mauch took over from Fregosi, and there was never any question in his mind but that he wanted Knoop, a man Mauch says is the personification of the saying, “Still waters run deep.”
John McNamara replaced Mauch in 1983; Knoop stayed on. Mauch came back, then left again. Cookie Rojas didn’t quite last a year. Doug Rader made it almost three. Knoop’s still there.
When Buck Rodgers was named the Angels’ manager in August, it was almost as if some cycle had come around again. Once more, Knoop is coaching for a former teammate. In the mid-1960s, he and Rodgers had been the first Angels to venture into Orange County, moving to Yorba Linda after Anaheim Stadium was completed in 1966.
As a player, Knoop was a model of understated efficiency, a second baseman who turned the double play about as well as anyone in the game.
“Bobby Richardson was supposed to be good, but Bobby Knoop was the best as far as I was concerned,” Rodgers said.
Fregosi, who helped Knoop set a major league record for second basemen by turning six double plays in a game on May 1, 1966, admired him to no end.
“He was quite a second baseman, up there with the tops in the game,” said Fregosi, now manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. “I’d have to put him up in the class with (Bill) Mazeroski, Frank White, those type players. I just thought he was a hell of a player.”
As a coach, Knoop has lent his penchant for detail and precision to the Angels by doing the tedious work of keeping the team’s defensive charts and using them to position the defense. He is among the first to arrive in the clubhouse, several hours before the players filter in, and sometimes even before the manager.
At 52, he still enjoys throwing batting practice despite a bad shoulder, and he performs the classic coaching task of hitting fungoes. During games, he is the Angels’ third base coach, relaying signs from the manager and guiding the baserunners.
But for all the activity, some of his more characteristic poses find him leaning against a dugout wall, working a crossword puzzle, or sitting at a table wearing his glasses with his defensive charts in front of him.
“He’s always been a very precise individual,” Fregosi said. “Whatever kind of job you gave him, as the perfectionist he is, he’ll take his time to get the job done.”
Knoop is not an unfriendly man, but he is minimally inclined to small talk. He wonders at those--even those who sit on the bench--who do not revel in all the subtleties beneath the surface of a game.
“People say I’m aloof or hard to get along with,” Knoop said in his dry, deadpan intonation. “I’m not. I just avoid people I don’t like.”
Beneath the exterior, there is a loyalty to his colleagues, from the managers who have come and gone to the clubhouse man and the batboys. He is distressed by the kind of public criticism that latches onto some of them at times.
“Even if it’s an opinion,” Knoop said, “it’s my opinion that the person who holds that opinion doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”
Knoop spoke his own one-line biography years ago, when he was still a player.
“I may not say much,” Knoop said, “but at least I’m not controversial.”
Knoop was not a boy who dreamed of being a major league baseball player.
“There wasn’t any baseball here except the Pacific Coast League Angels and the Hollywood Stars,” he said. “And going from Monterey Park to Los Angeles was like going on a weekend road trip, at least to my family.”
Knoop graduated from Montebello High School in 1956, when the Dodgers still lived in Brooklyn, and the Angels hadn’t been born.
“I didn’t listen to major league games on radio. I wasn’t interested,” he said. “I’d listen to the broadcast if it was on, but it wasn’t something I ran inside to do.”
He played football in high school, and baseball, too.
“Baseball scouts used to visit the school, and one of the men was what was known at that time as a bird-dog scout--a scout with no signing capabilities. He told me I should consider playing baseball professionally. I didn’t have anything better to do.”
Knoop played in the minors for eight years before the Angels drafted him from the Milwaukee Braves’ organization in 1963.
The next year, Knoop tied the major league record by appearing in 162 games for the Angels as a rookie.
“More than saying, ‘I’m going to be a major league player,’ what happened was I got comfortable in the minor leagues,” Knoop said. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was married and had a little girl at that time, and I needed money.
“Artisans, artists, actors, Shakespearean actors, some people are possessed by getting to a certain goal, a certain level. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that way. Maybe that’s not such a good thing. Maybe I’d have been more successful if I had those feelings. But I’ve never really had those feelings of, ‘This is what I’m setting my entire goal in life for.’ I never had those feelings about anything I was doing.”
Knoop was the Angels’ second baseman for parts of six seasons, from 1964-69, before he was traded to the Chicago White Sox for Sandy Alomar and Bob Priddy. In four of his years as an Angel, his teammates voted him their most valuable player, even though he never hit better than .269.
In 1966, he had the best year of his career and made the American League All-Star team. The good-field, no-hit second baseman came out of nowhere to hit 17 home runs and 11 triples, driving in 72 runs while batting .232. He led the Angels in RBIs and tied for the AL lead in sacrifice flies.
He had his usual outstanding defensive season, another of nine that helped him finish with a .980 career-fielding percentage.
On May 1, 1966, he established a major league record with six double plays by a second baseman in a nine-inning game, and he tied another by finishing the doubleheader that day with a total of eight. He also holds a major league record for most putouts by a second baseman, with 12 on Aug. 30 of that season. He finished with 135 double plays, more than any other American League player that year. There were three other years that he led AL second basemen in double plays.
Knoop and Fregosi became good friends and roommates in those years, and their friendship was one Manager Bill Rigney looked upon with approval.
“They were awfully close, and it made it great for me,” said Rigney, now a senior adviser with the Oakland Athletics. “As a manager, when your shortstop and your second baseman eat together, live together, have a beer together, you know they’re going to be talking baseball.”
Outwardly, they were an unlikely pair.
“Bobby is quiet and reserved. He thinks before he speaks,” said Rodgers, who was also once a roommate of Fregosi. “Jimmy is just the opposite. He talks before he thinks sometimes.”
At 6-1, Knoop is taller than many second basemen, and he was not a great runner. Something few people knew was that Knoop did all he did in spite of a left leg that is an inch shorter than his right.
“He was not real fast, but he had very quick feet,” Fregosi said. “He could cover ground. He probably went to his left as good as anybody I ever saw. His hands were really fast around the base. He had quick hands and arm strength.”
Perhaps most critical for a second baseman, he would hear the runner’s footsteps as he prepared to make the pivot on the double play, and he would not flinch.
“He had no fear whatsoever,” Fregosi said.
Rodgers recalled the same.
“The main thing was, he had the courage to stay in.”
Knoop, always modest, credits his success to Fregosi and the other men he played with.
“The shortstop, the third baseman, the first baseman are all involved,” Knoop said. “They are all part of what happened.”
As for his own ability, he believes he was helped by his early understanding of the nuances of defensive positioning. As much as studying the hitters, he said, he studied his own pitchers.
“If you know (how your pitcher pitches,) you probably will have a greater degree of success than if I just used my ability to move laterally, and used my arm to be proficient.”
Being Bobby Knoop, he adds a caveat. These were the Angels of the 1960s, and the basepaths were seldom empty.
“You have to understand, if the pitchers allow more hits, or more walks, then obviously there are going to be more chances,” Knoop said. “By the same token, if your pitching staff forces people to hit the balls on the ground, you have more chances.
“I don’t really take pride in any of it. First of all, you have to understand, I don’t really care what happened yesterday. I could sit here and reflect on my terrible childhood or my great childhood or whatever. It doesn’t matter.”
It mattered to the Angels, who had little enough to pride themselves on in those years, finishing better than .500 only twice during Knoop’s time in Anaheim.
But in 1967, the American League West champion was decided by an Angel double play.
Entering the final day of the season, three teams were separated by only 1 1/2 games. Boston and Minnesota were playing at Fenway Park. The Tigers faced the Angels in a doubleheader at Tiger Stadium.
The Tigers won the first game. In Boston, the Red Sox also won. The season came down to a final game in Detroit. Trailing by three runs in the ninth inning, the Tigers had two runners on with one out. The Angels’ George Brunet was facing Dick McAuliffe, who had grounded into only one double play all year. McAuliffe hit a bouncer to Knoop, who pounced on it to start a 4-6-3 season-ending double play and give Boston the pennant.
“Knoop and Fregosi played so well together,” Rigney recalled. “It seemed like every time we had to get a double play or a run would score, they’d get it.”
Mauch, managing the Philadelphia Phillies then, knows what sort of player Knoop was.
“He was the kind of guy, if you had a one-run lead in the eighth inning, you’d say, ‘Let’s make ‘em hit six ground balls to Bobby Knoop and go home.”
Knoop turns 53 on Oct. 18. He has coached for managers younger than him, and for two former teammates--teammates who once picked him not only as the team’s most outstanding player but as its most inspirational. But his only experience as a manager was in 1975 and ’76, when he managed Davenport (Iowa) to the Midwest League championship, and then guided El Paso to a second-place finish in the Texas League.
Whenever the Angels make a managerial change, letters are printed in newspapers, wondering why Knoop has never been the next boss.
“No one’s ever asked,” Knoop said. “It doesn’t matter. I’m not one who owns a big ballclub or a stadium. I’m here as a person.”
Knoop coached with the Chicago White Sox for two years, and he discussed the Chicago job with Bill Veeck after the 1978 season, although the men had philosophical differences. The White Sox hired Don Kessinger, and Knoop left to join Fregosi.
“I’m happy with what I do,” Knoop said. “If it’s going to go beyond what I do, it’s going to have to be through someone else’s effort. They’re going to have to inquire. I’m not the type of person to sit down and write a letter to a GM or an owner or get on the phone and say, ‘I’m interested.’ First of all, I’d never do it while someone else was the manager.”
He is universally esteemed as a coach, and he is not a man who inspires dislike. But perhaps no one is going to ask such a reserved man to direct a team when he seems so inclined sometimes to be alone.
Still, Rodgers knows that it was once something Knoop would have liked.
“I don’t know what the comfort zone is for Bobby now,” Rodgers said. “At one time, I think he wanted to--I know he wanted to.”
Mauch sees some of that, too.
“I think being considered would appeal to Bobby,” Mauch said. “I don’t know about being appointed, as much as being considered. I’ve always felt you didn’t have to be an SOB to be a manager; however, you have to be willing to be one. I don’t think Bobby Knoop is willing to be an SOB.”
Whether the desire remains is hard to tell. That Knoop is happy as he is seems clear.
“I don’t have to put Bolt A into Nut C,” he said. “Something different happens all the time.”
The routines of the game give Knoop the small pleasures he enjoys, and even in the third base coaching box, he finds what he seeks.
“I enjoy peace and solitude,” he said. “I spend a lot of time by myself. I enjoy it. Even though there might be 50,000 people in here at times, standing out there on the line, sometimes what you have is peace and solitude.”
Hall of Fame Banquet Facts
WHAT: 11th Orange County Hall of Fame Banquet.
WHEN: Tuesday, Oct. 29.
WHERE: Disneyland Hotel, Anaheim.
HIGHLIGHTS: Tickets, $100 each or $1,000 for a table of 10, can be secured by calling (714) 935-0199. The affair (cocktails at 6 p.m, dinner at 7) will include the induction of Bobby Knoop, Pat McInally, Bruce Penhall, Dwight Stones, Shirley Topley, Homer Beatty, Bill Cook, Alex Omalev and Bertha Ragan Tickey.