By Sal Barry
Thirty years ago, Topps took something old and tried making it new. The New York-based company released slightly-oversized trading card sets called Big Baseball, which made its debut in 1988.
“When I first saw Big Baseball, I thought they were great because they looked just like 1956 Topps cards,” said Joseph Ruocco, owner of Rock’s Dugout in Wichita, Kansas. “That was my favorite year for Topps. I was nine years old then. So, I ordered quite a few cases of 1988 Big Baseball since they looked like the 1956 cards.”
Big Baseball was an updated take on the iconic design of the 1956 Topps baseball set. It borrowed the look – a horizontal layout with a large portrait in the foreground and an action picture in the background – and the dimensions of its predecessor. Unfortunately, the size of Big Baseball may have been its fatal flaw. The cards measured 2 5/8” by 3 3/4”, instead of the standard 2 1/2” by 3 1/2” that collectors had grown accustomed to over the previous 30 years.
“They did not sell well because people did not adapt to the size of the card,” said Ruocco, who opened his shop in 1977. “Collectors wanted to keep everything uniform, in nine-pocket sheets. You could put them in eight-pocket sheets, but they didn’t want to mess with that.”
Still, Topps may have believed the famous line from “Field of Dreams” – “If you build it, they will come.” – and gave Big Baseball three swings before finally benching it.
1988: Strike One!
The market was getting crowded in 1988, with Topps, Fleer, Donruss, Sportflics and Score all making baseball card sets. But Topps’ newest offering was different enough that it stood out. Big Baseball cards used bright white card stock instead of its usual gray card stock, and had a high gloss finish on the front, much like Topps’ deluxe “Tiffany” baseball card sets. Card backs were printed in full color, making Big Baseball one of the earliest premium baseball card sets.
Ben Wilson of Galt, California was nine years old in 1988. To him, everything about Big Baseball was done just so right.
“They were bigger, which was cool,” said Wilson, who is now 39 and co-hosts a podcast called About the Cards. “They had that glossy texture and better card stock. The colors on the back just popped. Being nine years old then, I think it was the colors that drew me in. That, and having that big picture of your favorite players.”
Another trademark of Big Baseball cards was the three-panel comic strip on the back, giving biographical details in a fun, visually-engaging way. It was an additional nod to the 1956 Topps cards, which also used three-panel comics about the players.
“It was an attractive set in all sense of the word,” Ruocco said. “Topps really went all-out, but they just made that one wrong decision by making them big.”
Further enhancing the quality of Big Baseball was that the cards were packed in cellophane wrappers, instead of the usual wax paper wrappers. Since wax was then not needed to seal the wrapper, the bottom card did not get stained. Also, gum was not included. These two changes ensured that none of the cards would get damaged. To keep the price point at around 50 cents, Big Baseball packs had only seven cards – far less than the regular 1988 Topps set, which contained 15 cards per pack.
“I didn’t mind there being less cards per pack because I felt it was a really good set,” Wilson said. “It was still affordable. When you’re building a smaller set, you don’t mind less cards, as long as there is value.”
Topps used one more “old is new” idea by issuing Big Baseball in three smaller series, instead of one larger release. In 1988, that amounted to three series of 88 cards, for a total of 264.
“It was like turning back the clock with the size of the cards and issuing them in three series, like it was the 1950s,” said Jeff Szczesek, co-owner of Bases Loaded, located in Cheektowaga, a suburb of Buffalo, New York.
The smaller set size allowed Topps to focus on MLB’s biggest names, instead of including everyone and anyone like in its standard 792-card set. Thus, a high percentage of the players found in Big Baseball are stars and superstars, including 23 future members of the Hall of Fame.
1989: Strike Two!
Sales for 1988 Big Baseball – at least to the retailers, but not necessarily to the consumers – were strong enough for Topps to continue the set in 1989.
“The initial year, Big Baseball was very unique,” Szczesek said. “Back in those days, anything that was cardboard with a baseball player on it sold, so it didn’t necessarily matter what it was. But after the initial year, it just seems like the uniqueness was gone.”
Nonetheless, Topps released Big Baseball again in 1989, even increasing the set size from 264 to 330. It was issued in three 110-card series and again came in seven-card packs. Card backs were still filled up mainly by the biographical comic strips; this time, the comics were either two larger panels or three smaller panels.
Naturally, 1989 Big Baseball continued to focus on the game’s top players, but a few rookie cards were mixed in, most notably Randy Johnson, John Smoltz and Roberto Alomar. The set also included 19 players from the gold medal-winning 1988 U.S. Olympic Baseball Team, dressed in their Team USA uniforms. Despite a solid checklist of star players, and a few promising rookies, Big Baseball still didn’t catch on again because of its size.
Yet, Topps produced a second oversized set in 1989, using the long-dormant Bowman brand name and printing the cards at 2 1/2” by 3 3/4”: the same dimensions as 1955 Bowman baseball cards.
“Like the 1989 Bowman set, Big Baseball was difficult to store in card boxes,” Szczesek said. “People had to buy eight-pocket pages, as opposed to the standard way they collected all along. I think that is probably part of the reason why Big Baseball didn’t succeed.”
1990: Strike Three!
Unfortunately, for those who enjoyed it, 1990 was the swan song for Big Baseball. Whereas Topps decided to scale Bowman cards down to the standard size for 1990, Big Baseball remained at the same horizontal orientation and collector-unfriendly size as the prior two years.
Like 1989, Big Baseball was sold in three 110-card series. This time, though, Topps upped the ante and included eight cards per pack instead of seven. Despite the extra card, Big Baseball wasn’t a popular seller in 1990. Topps also appeared to have cut back on the production costs a bit, using only a one-panel comic on the back, instead of a two or three-panel strip like in prior years.
“The pre-orders going into 1990 may have declined,” Szczesek said. “In 1988 and 1989, everything sold. But by 1990, people became more selective. I don’t even think our store ordered Big Baseball in ’90. The first year, it was unique. And then sales just declined from there.”
Reportedly, Series Three of 1990 Big Baseball was underordered, and thus produced in smaller quantities when compared to Series One and Series Two. Notably, future superstars Sammy Sosa and Larry Walker have rookie cards in Series Three, giving the final series of the final set a little more appeal. While the rumor of lower production for the third series is unsubstantiated – Topps does not publicize its production runs – it is plausible. Big Baseball did not continue past 1990, so orders for Series Three must have been low enough for Topps to retire the set before the 1991 season.
“I would have collected Big Baseball if it hadn’t stopped,” Wilson said. “I enjoyed it. I think the set catered to a younger crowd, which is where I was at the time. I think that’s why it resonated so much with me.”
But by then, dealers and consumers had more options than ever when it came to purchasing trading cards, with the addition of Upper Deck in baseball, and numerous other companies entering the football, basketball, hockey and non-sports card markets. Carrying an oversized baseball card set that most collectors did not want to buy – or buy specific pages to store them in – did not make sense.
Like virtually all baseball cards from the late 1980s, Big Baseball cards were printed in massive quantities and are easy to find today. Complete sets sell in the $10 to $25 range. Unopened boxes of Series One and Series Two from 1989 and 1990 sell for around $5 to $15. Boxes of Series Three from both of those years can sell for upwards of $20 to $30 per box, mainly because of speculators trying to pull mint copies of cards for grading. On the other hand, unopened boxes of any series from 1988 are the most plentiful by far.
“I still have unopened boxes in my store for $10 each,” Szczesek said with a laugh.
Topps would later return to making retro-styled baseball cards, most notably with its immensely popular Heritage set starting in 2001, but did not repeat its prior mistake and adhered to the standard trading card size.
“The format of Big Baseball, where you had a bust shot of the player in front and an action picture in the background, was great,” Ruocco said. “It was a shame that Topps didn’t make them into the regular size, because it would have been like Heritage, but in 1988.”
Sal Barry is a frequent contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @puckjunk.