Throughout the year, we’ll be spotlighting cards from the 1974, 1979, and 1984 seasons, with an emphasis on former Yankees, but an occasional reference to non-Bombers, too. In this week’s lid lifter, we’ll examine one of the most famous error cards in the history of baseball memorabilia.
In 1979, the Topps Company produced this iconic Bump Wills card, featuring the switch-hitting second baseman as a member of the Blue Jays, even though he was clearly wearing the uniform of the Rangers. In fact, the Rangers never traded Wills to the Blue Jays, not at any time before or during the 1979 season.
So what happened here? In 2002, former Topps president and baseball card icon Sy Berger visited the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown for a 50th anniversary celebration of Topps baseball cards, giving me the opportunity to ask him directly about the reasons behind the Wills “error.” According to Sy, he had received a call from a friend after the 1978 season, telling him that Wills was about to be traded from the Rangers to the Blue Jays as part of a major trade. Although the trade had yet to be announced, the friend assured Berger that it was a “done deal.” Convinced that he had a scoop and figuring that he could release an accurate and updated card ahead of the curve, Berger instructed his production people to attach the name “Blue Jays” to the bottom of the Wills card.
After producing the card during the winter of 1978, Topps issued it to the public in March of 1979, which was then the time that Topps typically released its cards. Unfortunately, like many trade discussions, the Bump Wills trade turned out to be nothing more than rumor. The Rangers kept their hard-hitting second baseman, who remained in Texas for three more seasons before finally being dealt—not to the Blue Jays, but to the Cubs—after the 1981 campaign.
With the trade to Toronto falling through, Topps was left mildly embarrassed. Once Opening Day rolled around and Berger realized that no trade was going to take place, Topps decided to correct the error and release a revised and corrected card, this time showing the name “Rangers” at the bottom of the card. As a result, there are two 1979 Bump Wills cards in circulation. The corrected “Rangers” version is considered the more valuable, since fewer of those cards were produced, making it scarcer than the “Blue Jays” version. The only thing scarcer might be Berger’s relationship with his friend, who had clearly given him some misguided information and had ceased becoming a source of knowledge for the Topps Company.
Although Wills never played for the Yankees, he did have a rumored connection to the team in the early 1980s. After the 1982 season, several reports circulated that the Yankees were seriously considering a blockbuster trade that would have sent Willie Randolph to the Cubs for Billy Buckner. Such a move would have filled a major need at first base (where the Yankees realized that 33-year-old John Mayberry was over-the-hill), but would have created a large void at second base. According to one hot rumor that winter, the Yankees were prepared to replace the departed Randolph with the faster Wills, a free agent who had played out the final year of his contract with the Cubs. The additions of the two former Cubbies would have given the Yankees a hyperactive offensive infield of Buckner, Wills, Roy Smalley at shortstop and Graig Nettles at third base, but the reconfiguration would have created more than a few misadventures defensively. In addition to Smalley’s shortcomings, Wills’ range had started to diminish, while Buckner’s knees were beginning to give him trouble before they would undergo a complete breakdown in Beantown.
Despite the rumors, Wills never did make his way to the Bronx. Finding no offers to his liking from any major league team, including the Blue Jays, Wills took his talents to the Japanese Leagues. That didn’t stop Topps from producing another Wills card in 1983—one that had him right back in Chicago!
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball and writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLB.com.