(This is Day 20 of our series on the “Best Card From” each year, 1960-1989. Read all the entries here.)
Baseball cards are like people …
Sometimes, you hate a set the first time you see it, and things never get any better. I’m looking at you, 1991 Fleer baseball.
Then there are those issues that leave you *bleh* when you “meet” but that grow on you over the years, or in a flash. Nice to see you again, 1990 Topps baseball.
And then there are those sets that click with you from the very start and make your pulse race every time you catch a glimpse. Hello, 1987 Topps baseball, you gorgeous woody temptress.
All of this is a long-winded way to say that I’ve always loved the 1979 Topps baseball card set.
Part of it was simply that these pasteboards were exotic to me … I started collecting for real in 1983, and my oldest cards for a good while came from the three major 1981 sets.
I’m also a sucker for history and nostalgia, and 1979 Topps tweaked those nerves, too, courtesy of their All-Time Record Holders subset. It was mind-blowing to thumb through a stack of Manny Trillo and Dan Spillner cards and slide back an Alfredo Griffin to find Ty Cobb or Cy Young staring at me. The backs of those cards also delivered a solid statistical lecture on the historical hierarchy of the game.
The aesthetics of the 1979 cards, resonated with me, too. The design is very simple, with a large player photo accented by a colored bar with the team name at the bottom of each card and the player name and position just above that. The Topps baseball, absent from most card fronts of the era, ties those bottom elements together well and drives home the point that you’re holding … well … baseball cards in your sweaty little mitts.
Finally, Topps shutterbugs apparently spent the summer of 1978 basking in sunshine, because the player photos on the 1979 cards took a marked step toward the bright side. They didn’t quite reach the sunny levels of the 1983 Topps set, but do leave you happier than before you saw them.
A Trip to the Fair(grounds)
I already knew all this as my parents and I made our way through the monthly flea market at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in early 1984, but I still wasn’t prepared for what Beulah had in store for me.
Beulah was an older widow who spent the heart of her golden years traveling the local show circuit with her sister, a fello senior citizen. Beulah was also an inveterate Cincinnati Reds fan and my first regular card supplier.
When I approached her table on that cold afternoon, the first thing I noticed was the shiny white shoebox sitting on top of one of her flat display cases. I craned my neck to get a glimpse, but all I could see were two rows of brown-stock cards.
They were Topps, but I couldn’t see any fronts or backs.
“What are those?” I asked.
Beulah looked over the top of her glasses at me, then followed my gaze to the cards and examined them through her thick lenses.
“Oh, I just bought those today. 1979s, mostly.”
Wow, “old” cards! I was mesmerized.
After a few seconds of silence, Beulah sighed and pushed the box toward me.
“Here, why don’t you look through them and see if there’s anything you like.”
As it turned out, all of them were 1979 Topps cards, and to my pre-teen eyes, they were in perfect condition. And, of course, I “liked” every last one of them for all the reasons listed above.
The best part was, there didn’t really seem to be anything pulled except maybe a couple super-duper stars. While the collection fell well short of a complete set, it did include guys like Dwight Evans and Don Baylor, as well as a slew of “Prospects” and All-Time Record Holders.
As he was wont to do, my dad helped me broker a deal, and I walked out of the horticulture building with the whole box under my arm.
The car ride home was magical as I poured through these relics from the past, and I managed to scope out most of them under the street lights that flashed into the dark backseat.
By the time we got home, I was itching to get my hands on my Beckett yearly price guide and figure out just what sort of treasures I held. Back then, collectors were starting to get serious about cataloging the errors and variations, and it seemed as if every set had at least a couple that added a strong chase component to the hobby.
Would 1979 Topps prove the same?
It didn’t take me long to figure out that a few of my “new” 1979s booked for a buck or so each, and many others came in between 50 cents and a dollar.
I had made a shrewd deal (thanks, Dad!) and bolstered my “vintage” collection immeasurably. And this last was the more important to me, because I knew I wouldn’t be parting with any of my new pets anytime soon.
But what really caught my eye as I drug my finger down the 1979 Topps listings in Beckett was card number #369 of Bump Wills. To paraphrase, the good book called out the card thusly:
- 367 Dave Skaggs …………………….. $0.06
- 368 Don Aase …………………………. $0.06
- 369a Bump Wills (Blue Jays) ….. $0.35
- 369b Bump Wills (Rangers) ……. $3.00
- 370 Dave Kingman …………………… $0.06
- 371 Jeff Holly ………………………….. $0.06
My first thought was, wow, that’s a funny name. “Bump”!
My second was … hmmm, what exactly do “Blue Jays” and “Rangers” mean, and why is one so much more valuable than the others?
My third was …
I tore through my box of cards again searching for this guy I’d never heard of before, hoping against hope that he was there and that he was the “Rangers” version of himself, whatever that meant.
Somewhere in the middle of the few hundreds of cards, the name jumped out at me like a lightning bolt in the night: Bump Wills. I pulled it from the stack and laid it on my bedroom carpet. Here is what it looked like:
But I was confused … was this “Bump Wills (Blue Jays)” or “Bump Wills (Rangers)”? The card itself said both.
Even then, I suspected it was the former, but the prospect of a score kept a glimmer of hope alive. Three bucks wasn’t the world back then, but it was quite a bit for a baseball card. Finding hidden treasure of any sort was even more enticing.
Something else struck me about my Wills card, though. The back told me he was small, only 5’9″.
To me, in those days, small meant fast.
And so did that name — Wills.
Could they be related? Could Bump be Maury’s son?
I was left to wonder for years, probably until the Internet became a pervasive part of my day.
By that time, I’d long since learned — somehow — that “Maury Wills (Rangers)” looked like this:
So, mine wasn’t the “good” one. But it didn’t matter.
For all its quirky goodness and its foreshadowing of the error/variation to craze to come in the 1980s — and for its two-for-one bonus status — it’s not just my favorite card(s) from the set.
The Topps Bump Wills duo is the best card issued in 1979.