Our Man from Brooklyn by Summer Anne.
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.
So last weekend my wife was away, and do you know what I did with my wild and nerdy ass self? Went down the the public library on 42nd street and checked out old issues of Sport magazine and Inside Sports on microfilm. (I’m nuts, what can I say.) Sport was an amazing publication in the fifties and sixties, and even in parts of the seventies, but by the eighties, it was a shell of its former self. The roster of writing talent at Sport during it’s heyday is remarkable: Arnold Hano, Ed Linn, W.C. Heinz, Ray Robinson, Roger Kahn, Frank Graham Jr, Dave Anderson, Myron Cope, Al Hirshberg, Jim Brosnan, Dick Schaap, Jimmy Breslin, George Vecsey, Pat Jordan, Vic Ziegel, and Jerry Izenberg to name just a few. (All of the Sport compilations are out of print, but Bob Ryan edited a solid collection just a few years back that is well-worth picking up.) I’m not exactly sure when Inside Sports started. It was either at the tail-end of the seventies or the start of the eighties. Tom Boswell was their baseball guy for a long time, and they were very good, at least through the first half of the eighties. I found a lengthy and very entertaining profile on Nolan Ryan by Tony Kornheiser (yes, he had chops), and an excellent piece on Pistol Pete Maravich during Larry Bird’s rookie year with the Celtics by David Halberstam.
Anyhow, here a few random nuggets on a favorite Yankee, Willie Randolph, that I came across. First, from a profile in Sport, Octover 1976, “Hey, Say, Willie Can Play…Willie Randolph, That Is,” by Kevin McAuliffe:
Randolph is one of the American League’s top rookies of 1976, but unlike Detroit’s Big Bird, who thrives on attention, Randolph avoids it. He has never believed in stardom, for others—”As a kid, I never said, ‘Oh, there goes so and so,’ and tired to get his autograph”—or for himself. “I’m not what you call a starry-eyed fella,” he says.
Then, from Inside Sports, August 31, 1980, “Willie Randolph: The Making of a an Advance Man,” by George Vecsey.
“It’s an old cliché, but it’s true. A walk is as good as a hit,” Randolph said earlier this season, sitting in front of his locker in Yankee Stadium, a huge portable radio-cassette player—his “box”—propped on the rug. The cassesttes are mostly Isley Brothers, Roberta Flack and “a lot of jazz.”
Says Willie: “I knew I’d walk a lot. I know the manager appreciates it when you take a 3-1 pitch, when you get on base…you’d have to swing at anything close on 3-1 when you’re batting eighth,” Randolph says. “When you’re batting leadoff, you take the walk. That’s how I do it.”
…”Willie knows the most important thing is to get on base,” [Reggie] Jackson said. “He has learned to steal when it counts. He doesn’t wait until there are two strikes. He goes down early, so the hitter has a chance to bat…The only two things he has never done are hit .300 and win a Gold Glove. That’s it. Willie is a winter. He’s not a laugh-and-joke guy, which I like, because I’m not either. He’s a good family man, too. I’ll tell you what: If Willie does hit .300, you won’t notice the difference. He’ll do it the same way he hits .270.”
Willie from Brooklyn. He was a good one.