When you’re the tops in your field for a long, long time, you build up a sort of natural advantage over your competitors.
In the world of baseball cards, for instance, not only does Topps’ seventy-year run of dominance give them a special insight into the minds of collectors, but it also gives them a vast history of issues and designs and cultural icons to draw upon.
And they’ve been taking advantage of that, um, advantage for decades.
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Even way back in the 1970s, Topps was plastering their new cards with tiny replicas of their old cards, as they did with the Hank Aaron tribute in 1974 and the league MVP cards in 1975.
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In 1988, though, Topps took their nostalgia game to a different level and set the table for all the throwback stuff that still delights collectors today … Bowman, Archives, Heritage, etc.
That summer, as the hobby exploded, and as Score joined Topps, Fleer, and Donruss (and Sportflics, I guess) in the cardboard fray, Topps opened up their can of nostalgic advantage to unfurl … *drumroll* … 1988 Topps Big.
As the name implies, these cards were big — 2-5/8″ X 3-3/4″, which was the same size as Topps cards before they standardized on 2-1/2″ x 3-1/2″ in 1957.
These babies were bold, too, as Topps flipped them on their side and added a swath of paintbrush banner to hold the player name on each card front. Said fronts also featured an action shot with a big headshot on one side.
It was all very 1956-y, except with blazing photos instead of cartoonized ones, and also with a blinding gloss the likes of which collectors hadn’t seen outside of the annual Glossy Send-Ins and the Topps Tiffany sets.
The cardstock was thick and white, a decided upgrade to the usual brown-gray much Topps rolled out most of the time, and that clean canvas made the colorful backs really pop.
These were exciting cards, in other words, and there were plenty of them — 264 cards spread out among three 88-cards series.
Ah, but 1988 Topps Big never really caught on, did they?
Too big, too garish, too different.
Even today, you can see the problem wherever these cards live. They stick out in a monster box full of mere mortal cards like a Chilton’s Auto Repair manual on a shelf full of pocket Bibles.
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In some ways, Kal Daniels was like 1988 Topps Big.
Daniels was one of just many, many Reds youngsters who were set to jump start The Big Red Machine — Eric Davis, Kurt Stillwell, Jeff Treadway, Barry Larkin, Tom Browning, and on and on and on.
And Daniels could do a lot of things on the baseball diamond — hit, mash, run, field.
OK, maybe not so much field.
But there is always leftfield for a dude who can hit .334 with 26 home runs and 26 stolen bases in just 108 games at age 23, as Daniels did in 1987 … right?
Well, “always” is a long time, but Daniels did look like the Reds leftfielder of the 1990s at that point, despite his suspect fielding.
Topps liked him enough to include him in that gaudy 1988 Big set of theirs, too.
Probably an easy choice.
Ah, but Daniels had trouble staying on the field, topping out at 140 games in 1988.
And then, in July of 1989, the same year the still-young LF underwent his sixth knee surgery, Cincy traded him to the Dodgers as they tried to adjust an under-performing roster — Lenny Harris accompanied Daniels on the trip west, with Mariano Duncan and Tim Leary coming to the Reds.
That trade would pay off for Cincinnati, as Duncan contributed to a World Series-winning team in 1990, and Leary was part of the package that brought Hal Morris to the Riverfront.
Meanwhile, Daniels logged career highs with 27 home runs and 94 RBI for L.A. in 1990, but his wheels were gone.
And then, after a short stint with the Cubs in 1992, so too was the man himself, done with baseball at age 29.
But at least he lasted two years longer than Topps Big, his baseball card equivalent — its oversize swan song came in 1990.
Both super exciting, both done in by structural flaws that cut them down in their primes.
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