Card Corner Tribute: Remembering Bill Hands Through His Topps Cards

In this card, Topps synthesized the Twins' colors over Hands' Cubs uniform.

In this card, Topps synthesized the Twins’ colors over Hands’ Cubs uniform.

It’s amazing how we as young fans amused ourselves back in the 1970s. Player names often became a source of fun, silly giggling, and even outright mocking. Some players had names that made you think of human body parts. Most famously, there was Rollie Fingers with the Oakland A’s, and Barry Foote, the journeyman catcher who was once considered the Montreal Expos catcher of the future ahead of Gary Carter. The Texas Rangers had a little known pitcher named Rich Hand. (I wonder if that somehow influenced the creation of the character, Mr. Hand, in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.)

Sometimes we would confuse Rich Hand with another right-handed pitcher, one who had the plural of “hand” for his last name. That was Bill Hands, an underrated and durable right-hander for the Chicago Cubs who was usually overshadowed by better known pitchers like Ferguson Jenkins, Ken Holtzman and Milt Pappas.

Known to teammates as “Froggy,” the well-liked Hands died earlier this month at the age of 76. He had become ill only recently, before passing away in an Orlando hospital. When I heard Hands had died, I immediately thought of his 1973 Topps card. It’s an action shot that shows him pitching in a game at Wrigley Field, but he clearly is wearing the colors of his new team, the Minnesota Twins.

Since Hands was traded from the Cubs to the Twins over the winter, Topps did not have a chance to include an updated photograph. So Topps did the next best thing, airbrushing the uniform colors of the Twins onto his existing Cubs uniform. (Topps also had to do the same for the outfielder in the background.) As airbrush jobs go, it’s actually one of Topps’ better efforts, even if it is incongruous for the Twins to be playing a game at Wrigley Field decades before interleague play had started.

Thinking about that unusual card, I thought it might be appropriate to remember a fallen player through some of his more memorable cards.  Hands’ collection of Topps cards began in 1967, some two years after he made his debut with the San Francisco Giants. In pulling off one of their better trades of the 1960s, the Cubs acquired Hands and standout catcher Randy Hundley for effective-but-aging reliever Lindy McDaniel. Hands didn’t do much for the Cubs during his first season in Chicago, winning only eight of 21 decisions and sporting a bloated ERA of 4.58 while working as both a starter and reliever. But by 1967, he was beginning to produce for manager Leo Durocher. Still splitting his time between the bullpen and the rotation, he fashioned an ERA of 2.46 and saved six games.

Hands’ 1967 card matches the quality of his second season with the Cubs. It’s a classic 1960s shot, with a bright blue sky in the background, likely during spring training. The blue sky matches the blue of Hands’ windbreaker, which he is wearing underneath his Cubs’ road jersey. Players of this era often wore windbreakers under their uniforms, especially during the spring. I’m not sure why, but maybe they thought it was a good way to work up a sweat and shed a few pounds after a winter lacking in workouts. Or maybe, they just thought it looked hip. All these years later, I still think the windbreakder-under-the-jersey appearance looks cool, even if current major league players don’t agree.

tht-bill-hands-1967

By showing Hands from this angle, the Topps photographer also has given us a prime view of the Cubs’ alternate logo, which is prominently displayed on Hands’ left sleeve. I’ve always liked the old Cubbie bear logo, even if the organization began altering its appearance in 1979. Critics of the old logo say it appeared too cuddly and perhaps even goofy, but somehow it made the players look friendlier. I mean, how can you not adore that little animated Cub?

Hands would continue to appear on Topps cards wearing Cubs regalia through 1972, his final season with the organization. During those intervening years, he emerged as a mainstay and workhorse for Durocher, who grew to love the tough, determined right-hander. From 1968 to 1972, Hands won in double figures each season, logged anywhere from 189 to 300 innings, and generally kept his ERA in the 3.00-and-under range. At his best, Hands kept hitters at bay with a sinking fastball and a killer slider. The latter pitch was devastating, unhittable at times, the kind of slider that was close to the caliber of a Steve Carlton, only thrown from the right side.

In 1969, Hands actually outpitched Jenkins and Holtzman to become the Cubs’ de facto ace. With an ERA of 2.49 and 20 wins, Hands did his best to keep the Cubs atop the division. Even in September, when the Cubs collapsed, Hands remained effective, pitching three consecutive complete games at one point. Showing his typical toughness during the ill-fated stretch run, Hands was one of the few Cubs who could not be blamed for the team’s late-season fade, which allowed the New York Mets to take the National League East.

tht-bill-hands-1972

Hands’ last card as a Cub, courtesy of 1972 Topps, takes on more of a drab appearance than the 1967 card. The blue color is not as vibrant, in part because of the absence of the windbreaker, but even the blue sky background looks drearier than the 1967 card. With Hands extending his arms over his head, as if he is simulating his delivery, we cannot see the adorable Cubs logo on the left sleeve. All things considered, it’s somewhat of a sad swansong card for Hands as a member of the Cubs’ organization.

After the 1972 season, the Cubs decided to make a change. Hands was now 32 and starting to show an inevitable decline in both the quality and quantity of his pitching. So at the winter meetings, the Cubs packaged Hands with fellow right-hander Joe Decker and minor league pitcher Bob Maneely, sending them to the Twins for hard-throwing left-hander Dave LaRoche.

tht-bill-hands-1973

As with any offseason trade, this created a dilemma for Topps. The card company had no updated photographs of Hands wearing a Twins uniform. The obvious solution was to take an existing Hands portrait shot and simply airbrush Twins colors onto it. At the same time, the company was starting to introduce action shots into its offerings. Topps happened to own a nice action shot of Hands in the middle of his delivery during a game at Wrigley Field. Not wanting to lose the action shot, Topps decided to airbrush Twins colors on to the photograph.

As a result, the Hands card became one of the first action shots to receive the airbrush treatment from Topps, joining the cards of Bob Locker (from A’s to Cubs), Tommie Agee (from Mets to Astros), Oscar Gamble (Phillies to Indians), and perhaps most famously, Graig Nettles (Indians to Yankees), from the history-making 1973 set.

For a young collector like me, an airbrushed action card was something notable, a novelty to be cherished. Unfortunately, Hands’ tenure in Minnesota turned out less distinguished than his 1973 card. He became upset with Twins owner Calvin Griffith for cutting his salary, proceeded to pitch poorly, and lost his spot in the Minnesota rotation. The Twins dispatched him to the bullpen, where he spent most of the balance of the season. By the end of the year, he had picked up only seven wins, the first time he had failed to win in double figures since 1966.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Hands would spent most of 1974 with the Twins, but his pitching was so lackluster that they put him on waivers, hoping he would not be claimed and then could be traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. The Rangers, however, blocked that plan by putting in a waiver claim, which helps to explain his 1975 Topps card.

hands1975

It’s another airbrush job, this time a portrait shot, with the Rangers’ colors rather clumsily drawn over his Twins cap. With the blue cap looking nearly fluorescent, the card lacks the subtlety and artistry of the 1973 card; it’s a rather garish and gaudy representation, even if it is part of the wonderfully colorful 1975 Topps set.

Desperately in need of starting pitching, the Rangers used Hands in their rotation in 1975. They gave him 18 starts, but he pitched poorly. Texas shut him down in August, ending his season earlier than expected.

Still, Hands remained on the Rangers’ 40-man roster, so Topps once again produced a card for him in 1976, a rather pedestrian posed shot taken during spring training. But in February, shortly after the start of spring training, the Rangers traded Hands to the New York Mets for veteran left-hander George Stone. (Imagine that, “Hands” being traded for “Stone.”) Hands reported to the Mets’ camp in St. Petersburg, but he failed to make the Opening Day roster, instead drawing his release. His 1976 card would become somewhat obsolete; Hands would never again appear in a major league game.

tht-bill-hands-1976

Hands decided to leave baseball, instead opting to live and work in small-town America. For many years, he ran a gas station in the tiny hamlet of Orient, N.Y., where he led a life as a character out of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry. Spending his days at the gas station, Hands became the focal point of daily gatherings by local residents, making him one of the more popular citizens of Orient. When out-of-towners came to the gas station, he didn’t like to brag that he had played in the major leagues, but when they learned who he was, they prodded him for stories about his days in baseball. Eventually, Hands would comply, telling the visitors all they wanted to know.

Sadly, Hands passed away in Florida on March 9, becoming the second member of the 1969 Cubs to die over the past year. In 2016, Jim Hickman, arguably the team’s best hitter not named Banks, Santo or Williams, died after a long illness.

If there’s any consolation to come out of all this, it’s that Hands lived long enough to see his Cubs win the World Series last fall. Remaining a loyal and rabid Cubs fan until the end, he was positively thrilled to see his team win the franchise’s first world championship since 1908.

That seems only just, given that Hands gave Cubs fans a few thrills when he won 20 games in 1969. His cards continue to stir good memories for this writer, including thoughts of blue spring training skies, windbreakers under jerseys, offbeat logos, and a Minnesota Twins pitcher who somehow appeared on the mound at Wrigley Field.

References & Resources

  • Bill Hands’ biographical file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library
  • Chicago Tribune
  • Sports Collectors Digest
  • The Sporting News


Bruce Markusen has authored seven baseball books, including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Ted Williams, and A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which was awarded SABR's Seymour Medal.
19 Comments
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jim
5 years ago

Since I am not someone normally interested in baseball cards, I appreciate the fact that you made this very interesting.

Dennis Bedard
5 years ago

Once again, a great piece of baseball history. Couple of points:
1. You mention Foote, Hand, and Fingers, but what about my all time favorite in this category, Elroy Face?
2. Hands was 4-0 in September, 1969, for a Cubs team that won only 8 games that month. Not bad. He was one player who was not affected by the black cat incident.

Joe Pancake
5 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Bedard

Two more great body-part baseball names: Ed Head and Harry Cheek.

John Paschal
5 years ago
Reply to  Joe Pancake

As long as we’re playing, how about these?

– Ribs Raney

– Pinky Pittenger

– Butts Wagner

– Shin-Soo Choo.

– Arch Reilly

– Pit Gilman (It’s a shame his parents didn’t name him Armpit, I grant you.)

Go down to the minors and we find:

– Rock Shoulders

Get a bit more creative and we find:

– Bryan LaHair

– Brandon Backe

Get a lot more creative and we find:

– L. Bowa (You might have to say this one aloud.)

bucdaddy
5 years ago
Reply to  John Paschal

Don’t want to run afoul of any censors here, and this is a good clean, site, so let’s put it this way:

Peter Marshall’s son.

Joe Pancake
5 years ago
Reply to  John Paschal

Somebody should write a book about all these funny baseball names. Wait, somebody did!

(It was me.)

https://www.amazon.com/Urban-Shocker-All-Stars-Greatest-Baseball-ebook/dp/B00UVVLXMWHome

Droozie
5 years ago
Reply to  Joe Pancake

And Phil Knuckles…

87 Cards
5 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Bedard

Hands went 4-0 against the 1970 NL Champion Cincinnati Reds split home and away. This was 4 of the Cubs 5 wins against the Reds in 1970. Bill Hands was 8-10 for his career versus the Reds so no quite a Red-Machine Clog.

bucdaddy
5 years ago
Reply to  Bruce Markusen

I’ll start.

The Foote bone connected to the Ankiel bone, the Ankiel bone connected to the (Greg) Legg bone …

Somewhere in here we’ll have to get in Pinky Higgins and, of course, Leo “The Lip,” unless you want to spoil the fun and stick to actual names.

BTW, I searched bb-ref but apparently there’s never been a major-leaguer named Toews.

Bill
5 years ago

As a resident of Bill Hands’ original hometown thank you for posting this. This is probably the best summary of his career that I have read.

Ron
5 years ago

….and don’t forget Pete LaCock.

Joe Pancake
5 years ago

On an episode of the podcast Effective Wild, the hosts cold-called Bill Hands to discuss his ignominious record of giving up the most home runs to pitchers during a single season. (I believe it was 5 in 1968.) He was a good sport about it and it was a fun conversation.

This is a nice tribute article to him. He was before my time, but it looks like he was a pretty good player in his day.

Carl
5 years ago

Ricky Bones anyone?

Ribs Raney?

Wally Back (man)?

Lenny “Nails” Dykstra?

Chin Hu?

and let’s not forget Harry Cheek – at least that’s what Ron Musselman said

bucdaddy
5 years ago
Reply to  Carl

Jim Ray Hart

Dennis Bedard
5 years ago

Let’s start another list. The Missing Body Part Players: I open with Walt “No Neck” Williams and as an honorable mention, nominate Mordecai “Three Fingers” Brown

Rainy Day Women 12x35
5 years ago

No one mentioned the man with 4 body parts….Tony Armas. And what about Dick Pole or Rusty Kuntz?

Bob Berquist
5 years ago

I was a Bill Hands fan but he was a real rally-killer. He was a bad hitter even for pitchers. I cannot remember exactly but it seems to me that he went more than thirty games without getting a hit or even on base at one point; actually, it may have been at several points in ’69 and ’70. Sorry to hear of his death. After the Cubs stint it seems like he was mismanaged. That said I was not a real Durocher fan but he did some good things too.

David Black
5 years ago

My first article for the SABR Games Project included Hands. He was magnificent in 1969, with his WAR applied retroactively surpassing Marichal, whom he faced in this game. http://sabr.org/gamesproj/game/july-28-1969-cubs-earn-improbable-victory-over-juan-marichal-and-giants