#CardCorner: 1978 Topps Bill Virdon

Part of the CARD CORNER series
Written by: Craig Muder

Hall of Fame staffers are also baseball fans and love to share their stories. Here is a fan's perspective from Cooperstown.

Topps never seemed quite sure what to do with managers.

Some years, they were part of their team card offerings – wedged into a corner. Other sets featured them with their coaching staff… sometimes as a collection of floating heads.

And sometimes they didn’t make the cut at all.

But in 1978, Topps produced what might have been their best tribute to managers. And one of the best of those was the No. 279 card of Bill Virdon.

The card features a landscape design, a rarity for Topps during its first four decades of production. The manager’s current photo was depicted on the right half of the card – in this case showing the 46-year-old Virdon as the Astros skipper.

Topps featured managers in their 1978 set with photos as a manager and a as player, shown here in this Bill Virdon card. (Topps baseball card photographed by Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

Always a stickler for physical fitness, Virdon appears significantly younger than his years with his chiseled jaw, blue eyes and trademark round spectacles. Already at the helm of his third big league team, Virdon showed little wear-and-tear from being an MLB manager.

The reverse of Bill Virdon's 1978 Topps card. (Topps baseball card photographed by Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

The left side of the card contained a black and white photo of Virdon “as player”, offset in a postage stamp design. Virdon is shown swinging the bat with the Pirates, a team for which he played 11 seasons and later managed.

All in all, a very different card from 99 percent of the pieces in the glorious 1978 set. And a fitting tribute to a man who spent six decades in pro baseball.

William Charles Virdon was born June 9, 1931, in Hazel Park, Mich., a Detroit suburb, and grew up in Missouri. After signing as an amateur with the Yankees but finding his path to the big leagues blocked in the stocked New York system, Virdon was traded to the Cardinals on April 11, 1954, in a deal that sent Enos Slaughter to the Yankees.

After torching Triple-A pitching with the Rochester Red Wings in 1954, Virdon proved he was more than ready for the big leagues in 1955 – winning the National League Rookie of the Year Award after hitting .281 with 17 homers and 68 RBI in 144 games. But in 1956, Virdon slumped in the season’s first month – and Cardinals general manager Frank Lane dealt him to Pittsburgh in exchange for Bobby Del Greco and Dick Littlefield.

For the Pirates, the deal turned out to be another building block as they assembled what would become the 1960 World Series champions.

Virdon hit .334 with Pittsburgh in his 133 games with them in 1956, compiling the best offensive season of his career. He also quickly established himself as one of the game’s fastest runners and best center fielders – patrolling Forbes Field’s vast center field with aplomb.

Virdon was the Pirates regular center fielder for 10 seasons, serving as Pittsburgh’s leadoff hitter during much of the time. Virdon had seven hits and five RBI in the 1960 World Series, won a Gold Glove Award in 1962 and devoted himself to learning his next career by studying Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh.

Virdon retired after the 1965 season with a .267 batting average, 1,596 hits and 735 runs scored – though he did play six more games in 1968 after the Pirates activated him from the coaching ranks due to a number of players serving military commitments.

Virdon stayed on the Pirates’ coaching staff through their 1971 World Series title, then took over as manager in 1972 when Murtaugh retired. He led the Bucs to 96 wins and National League East title before falling to the Reds in Game 5 of the NLCS when Cincinnati rallied in the ninth inning.

The Pirates struggled in 1973 following the offseason death of Roberto Clemente, and Virdon was dismissed late in the season with Pittsburgh’s record standing at 67-69. But Virdon was not out of work long.

Following a league-voided attempt to hire Dick Williams for the 1974 season, the Yankees named Virdon their manager. Virdon led the Yankees to 89 wins and won the Sporting News Manager of the Year Award. But with the Yankees struggling with a 53-51 record in 1975 – and Billy Martin newly available – Yankees owner George Steinbrenner dismissed Virdon.

A few weeks later, he was hired by the Astros and managed Houston for the final 34 games of the 1975 campaign.

The Astros patiently built a powerhouse with Virdon in the dugout, and in 1979 set a new franchise high with 89 wins. The next season, Virdon was his second Sporting News Manager of the Year Award after leading the Astros to 93 wins and the NL West title before falling to the Phillies in five games in a tightly contested NLCS.

Virdon led Houston back to the postseason in 1981 but the Astros lost the Division Series in five games to the Dodgers. He was let go by the Astros in 1982 before managing the Expos in 1983 and 1984 – the last stop in his managerial career.

Virdon, however, stayed active in the game – coaching the Pirates into the 2000s. In 13 big league seasons, Virdon posted a record of 995-921. He won 544 of those games with the Astros.

Seems Topps couldn’t have picked a better time to feature a lifetime contributor to the game.

Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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Part of the CARD CORNER series