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Error Cards Not a New Idea

by Paul Angilly
May 11, 2004

If you grew up collecting baseball cards during the late 1970s, chances are the name "Bump Wills" has special meaning for you.

The second baseman, son of Maury Wills (the 1962 National League MVP), had a decidedly unspectacular six-year Major League career with the Texas Rangers and Chicago Cubs: a .266 career average with 36 home runs in 831 games. But at least for a while in the summer of 1979, Bump Wills cards were the hottest around -- so popular, they were even featured on at least one major television network news show.

Why? Because Topps made a mistake, and an "error" card was born.

For anyone who hasn’t been collecting long enough to remember a time when error cards were in high demand, the chase for Bump Wills’ cards in the summer of 1979 would have to seem odd. But at a time with only one major baseball card set issued each year (instead of one or more per week), error cards were like the short-printed rookies of today. Not everyone had them, so everyone wanted them.

The first version of Bump Wills’ card to appear in 1979 showed him in his Texas Rangers uniform, but Topps had mistakenly put "Blue Jays" on the front of the card for the team name. Later in the season, Topps began issuing corrected "Rangers" cards in packs.

Because of the variation, either version of the Bump Wills card was printed in lesser quantities than the other cards in the set, so the chase was on as collectors wanted copies of both versions. The national TV exposure only added fuel to the fire.

At a time when singles of even the top superstars generally sold for less than $1 (and commons cost only pennies apiece), the Wills Blue Jays card started selling for $5 or more. Eventually collectors learned that the corrected Rangers version of the card was actually printed in shorter supply than the Blue Jays version, so the Wills Rangers cards soon leapt into the $5-$6 range, while the Blue Jays version dipped below $4.

Today either version of the card has a high value of $3 in mint condition. Only 17 other cards in the 726-card set are priced higher.

Those Bump Wills 1979 Topps cards certainly weren’t the first "error" cards ever made. In fact, since the 19th century many baseball card sets have included variations of individual cards -- in some cases correcting a misspelled name, in other instances changing a team name to reflect a trade, or often putting a new photo or artwork on the card.

One of the most famous and expensive error cards ever made is the Sherry "Magie" misspelled card from the T-206 series. The corrected "Magee" spelling sells for $100 in top condition, but the "Magie" error books for $15,000 (prices from the 2003 Beckett Baseball Card Almanac).

Even recent collectors are undoubtedly familiar with the concept of variation cards, since that is an intentional part of many sets (such as Topps Heritage or Cracker Jack) today. But in the past, many sets included variation cards unintentionally -- not really "errors" in the literal sense, but creating the same kind of interest.

For instance, the first 80 cards of the 1952 Topps set can be found with the backs printed in either red or black ink. That same variation was recreated (intentionally) when Topps brought back the 1952 design for its inaugural 2001 Topps Heritage set.

Another famous series of variations came in the 1974 Topps set. Apparently believing off-season rumors that the San Diego Padres would be moving to Washington, D.C. for the 1974 season, 13 of the Padres players (plus the manager and team cards) had their team name listed as "Washington ‘Nat’l Lea.’" in early printings of the set. Later printings restored the San Diego Padres name. Strangely, although all the Topps cards were printed as a single series for the first time ever that year, some Padres cards (including Dave Winfield’s rookie card) do not have "Washington" variations.

Not surprisingly, history has shown that a company’s inaugural card set often has many errors that are corrected in later printings.

The 1981 Fleer set -- Fleer’s first issue of current players since 1963 -- included many misspellings, incorrect or reversed photos, misnumbered cards and typos in the first printing, which were later corrected in second and third printings.

About the author
Paul Angilly is a sports reporter for The Bristol Press in Connecticut, and has been collecting sports cards and memorabilia for 30 years. He is not a dealer, nor does he make a profit from buying and selling cards. His weekly sports card and memorabilia collecting column appears each week in The Bristol Press and several other daily newspapers in Connecticut.

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