Don’t think Trice, it’s alright (Part Two)

Author’s note: A previous post here examined the largely dismissive portrayal of the Negro Leagues by Topps in the early 1950s. This sequel simply expands the focus to other card makers of the era.

1949 Leaf

For hobbyists who regard the Leaf issue as 1948 or 1948-1949, this set would unequivocally be the first major U.S. release to feature ex-Negro Leaguers. For my part, I regard it as tied with 1949 Bowman. Either way, the Leaf issue included cards of three black players with Negro League resumes.

Card 8 in the set featured the legendary Satchel Paige. The card back, which among other things notes Satchel’s prior team as the Kansas City Monarchs, is pretty amazing.

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First we’ll note that Satchel is assigned an age, 40 years old, which should make just about everything else in the bio seem like fiction. Second, the praise for Satchel is through the roof! Though it’s possible one could assign a negative connotation to “most picturesque player in baseball,” the words that follow cast doubt on such a reading. Satchel is billed as a “high-powered talent” with “fabulous gate-appeal” who is expected to “sizzle into his old stride” in 1949. The folks at Leaf seemed to get it that Satchel was the real deal.

The next black player in the set was Jackie Robinson, and his card bio leads off with the historic line, “First Negro player in modern organized baseball.”

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As was the case with early Topps cards, the direct implication here is that the Kansas City Monarchs and the Negro Leagues were not “organized baseball.” On the flip side, the phrase “modern organized baseball” pays homage to 19th century black players whose histories were often erased in telling the Jackie Robinson story. This 1980 Laughlin card serves to illustrate the point, as do Robinson’s 1960 and 1961 Nu-Card releases.

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The final Negro Leagues alum in the set was Larry Doby, identified as the “first Negro player to enter the American League.” The last line of the bio is notable in that Doby is not simply described as a speedy base-stealer but a smart one as well. This strikes me as enlightened writing for its time.

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For legal reasons, if not financial ones as well, Leaf would not offer another baseball set until 1960. We will see shortly how the set handled the Negro League origins of pitcher Sam Jones.

1949 Bowman

The 1949 Bowman set featured the same three black players from the Leaf set plus one more, Roy Campanella. The Robinson card notes that “he became the first Negro to enter the ranks of pro ball.” At once this phrase dismisses the Negro Leagues as less than professional while ignoring nineteenth century pioneers like Moses Fleetwood Walker.

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The Roy Campanella card in the set describes “an exhibition game with Negro All-Stars at Ebbets Field.” This game, part of a five-game series against Major Leaguers, took place in 1945 and prompted Charlie Dressen to recommend Campy to Branch Rickey.

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To my knowledge, the Bowman card of Satchel contains the earliest use of the phrase “Negro Leagues” on a baseball card.

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The idea that Satchel “traveled around” the Negro Leagues may be taken one of two ways. On one hand, he did play for several teams. On the other hand, it may suggest a lack of seriousness and organization to the Negro Leagues themselves.

As with the Leaf card, we see the word “fabulous” used to describe Paige. New to the Bowman card is the treatment of Satchel’s age. While a precise birthday is offered (September 11, 1908), the bio makes it clear that “his exact age is not known!”

Larry Doby is the final Negro Leaguer featured in the set, and his card describes him as “one of the few Negroes in the American League.” Depending when in 1949 the card was produced, in addition to Doby and Paige, the description might have been referring to Minnie Minoso (April 19, 1949) and/or Luke Easter (August 11, 1949).

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1950 Bowman

Four cards in the next Bowman release referred to the Negro Leagues tenure of its players. Card 22 of Jackie Robinson is similar to its 1949 predecessor in referring to Jackie as the “first Negro to enter organized baseball.”

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The Larry Doby card similarly draws on its previous bio, again recognizing Doby as “one of the few Negroes in the American League.”

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Ditto for Roy Campanella whose role with the “all-star Negro team” first brought him to the attention of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

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The Hank Thompson (SABR bio) card highlights his role in a famous first of the integration era, “the first time in major league history that a Negro batter was up before a Negro pitcher.” The card also identifies Thompson’s pre-MLB tenure with the Kansas City Monarchs.

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1951 Bowman

Three cards in the next Bowman offering are relevant to the topic of the Negro Leagues and the integration of MLB.

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The Campanella card recycles Campy’s exhibition game origin story for a third time, though this time there is no reference to the makeup of his team. Meanwhile, the Easter card follows a familiar tradition of discounting Negro League service in its statement that Easter “entered organized baseball in 1949.” Finally, the Ray Noble card, which does an awesome job teaching kids the right way to say his name, makes reference to his time with the “New York Cubans of the Negro National League.”

1952 Bowman

An interesting evolution in the 1952 Bowman set occurs with the Luke Easter card.

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Having previously “entered organized baseball in 1949,” we learn now that Easter “began in baseball in 1949.” What an odd statement if we take it literally! (By the way, the use of terms like “professional baseball,” “organized baseball,” and “baseball” to refer specifically to MLB/MiLB is still commonplace today. I would love to see baseball writers move away from this practice.)

1952 Num Num Foods

This potato chips set is one I only learned of in doing research for this article. The regional food issue features 20 players, all Cleveland Indians, including four black players: Luke Easter, Harry Simpson, Larry Doby, and Sam Jones. Apart from single-player sets such as the 1947 Bond Bread Jackie Robinson issue, this set has the largest proportion of African American players of any I’ve seen from the era.

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The Easter card notes that he “played softball for several years before entering [the] Negro National League” and even referenced Luke’s support role with the Harlem Globetrotters. A couple funny stories are shared as well before ending on the down note of a fractured knee cap.

The Harry “Suitcase” Simpson card picks up where Easter’s leaves off, recognizing Simpson’s daunting role of having to fill in for an injured Luke Easter. Then again it’s hard to imagine anyone more qualified to fill large shoes than Simpson, who according to at least some stories got his nickname “Suitcase” from the size of his feet!

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The back of Larry Doby’s card is injury-themed as well. However, rather than add insult to injury, the writer actually defends Doby against any insult that he was a disappointment. The paragraph ending almost reads as a (very dated) math story problem and left me ready to set up an equation.

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The Sam Jones card closes with a phrase that posed a road block to the careers of at least three very talented black pitchers: Dave Hoskins, Mudcat Grant, and Sam Jones himself. The “Tribe’s already formidable big 4” were of course Hall of Fame hurlers Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, and Early Wynn, along with all-star Mike Garcia. Even as Cleveland brought up tremendous black hurlers, two of whom would eventually become “Black Aces,” there was simply nowhere in the starting rotation to put them.

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1954 Bowman

I didn’t run across any interesting cards in my review of the 1953 Bowman sets, so I’ll skip ahead to 1954. Card number 118 of Bob Boyd (SABR bio) references his start in the Negro National League while (as usual) recognizing his start in “organized ball” coming afterward. As a side note, Boyd’s Negro League team, the Memphis Red Sox, played in the Negro American League. As another side note, the trivia question matches that of Hank Aaron’s Topps card, again recalling (and ingoring/discounting) a famous Negro League feat attributed to Josh Gibson.

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Hank Thompson’s bio is a funny one for reasons unrelated to his Negro League lineage. For whatever reason, the Bowman folks felt the need to clarify what was meant by “a quiet fellow.” It’s also a rare thing to see a baseball card bio so critical of a player’s weight! In a less humorous vein, as was the case four years earlier, Thompson’s card identifies his tenure with the Kansas City Monarchs.

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1954 Dan Dee

A notable card in the 1954 Dan Dee (potato chips) baseball set is that of Pittsburgh Pirates infielder and one-time Kansas City Monarch Curt Roberts (SABR bio needed).

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The first line of his bio identifies Roberts as the “first Negro player ever to be placed on Pittsburgh club’s roster.” This contention has received scrutiny over the years since it overlooks Carlos Bernier (SABR bio), a black Puerto Rican player who preceded Roberts by a year.

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1954 Red Man

While the 50-card set also includes cards of Negro League vets Roy Campanella, Jim Gilliam, and Willie Mays, the Monte Irvin card is the only one whose bio can be considered relevant to his Negro League service.

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As usual, we see that he “began in organized baseball” once he started playing on white teams. Something new I did learn from the card was that—at least here—the AAA Jersey City Giants were known as the “Little Giants.” How’s that for an oxymoron!

1954 Red Heart

Whether a gum chewer, chip cruncher, dip wadder, or dog feeder, it’s hard to imagine a better year to be a card collector than 1954. Packaged with Red Heart, “The Big League Dog Food,” that year was this card of Dodgers infielder Jim Gilliam.

 

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A quaint aspect of the card is the blank entries for all of Gilliam’s career numbers. The bio area of the card explains why this is so. “As a rookie in 1953, he has no life record…”

Regarding his Negro League lineage and role in MLB integration, the opening of the bio tells us that Gilliam “was the youngest member of the Baltimore Elite Giants” and that “he is one of the fine negro ballplayers that have been taken into organized baseball during the past decade.”

1955 Bowman

In what must by now feel like a tired theme, here is Hank Aaron’s 1955 Bowman card citing 1954 as Aaron’s “third season in organized baseball,” omitting his season with the Indianapolis Clowns.

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1955 Red Man

The sequel to Red Man’s 1954 issue included five black stars: Larry Doby, Minnie Minoso, Brooks Lawrence, Willie Mays, and Hank Thompson. The Thompson card as usual notes that he “began in organized baseball in 1947, which was the year he jumped straight from the Kansas City Monarchs to the St. Louis Browns.

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1958 Hires Root Beer

The Hires Root Beer card of Bob Boyd is similar to his 1954 Bowman card in recognizing him as a “product of the Negro National League” instead of the Negro American League.

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1960 Leaf

After an eleven-year hiatus, the Leaf set is back, and its card number 14 is of MLB’s second Black Ace, Sam Jones (SABR bio).

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Toward the end of the bio, we learn that Jones “started his pro career with Wilkes-Barre in 1950…” though he pitched professionally for the Cleveland Buckeyes (and possibly Homestead Grays) of the Negro Leagues as early as 1947 (or possibly 1946).

1979 TCMA Baseball History Series “The 50s”

First off, what a great set! When I first came across this Hank Thompson card I initially assumed it was a slightly undersized reprint of his 1953 Bowman card. Then I realized he had no 1953 Bowman card! Of course the back of the card provided plenty of other clues that this was in fact a more original offering.

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The card bio includes some information about Thompson’s Negro Leagues resume as well as how he became a New York Giant.

“Thompson, who spent much of his playing career in the old Negro Leagues, got his first chance in the majors with the St. Louis Browns in 1947. But for some unknown reason the Browns let him slip away to the Giants two year later…”

The reality behind the “unknown” reason is that Thompson (along with teammate Willard Brown) was signed by St. Louis to a short-term deal whose extension would require additional payment to the Kansas City Monarchs who held his rights. While Thompson was one of the better players on the Browns, he was neither Jackie Robinson nor Babe Ruth. It goes without saying that a black player needed to be a lot better than  “better than average” to find a home on a Major League roster in 1947!

End notes

Either in conjunction with the Topps article or on its own, there was of course a “beating a dead horse” element to this post. We get it; we get it…the baseball cards back then did not regard the Negro Leagues as organized, professional, or even Baseball. While modern writers and historians do recognize the Negro Leagues as all three, the stubbornness of language is such that even today these terms and their meanings persist nearly unchanged. Until we change them.

1954: The Year of the Regional

1954 was a very eventful year in the USA. The Baby Boom was in full swing. Commercial sale of color television sets (15”!) began. The Army-Senator Joseph McCarthy hearings captivated the nation and ultimately led to his censure in December.   Ohio State and UCLA were co-national champions in college football, and Wisconsin’s Alan Ameche galloped off with the Heisman Trophy. In baseball the St. Louis Browns migrated east to become the Baltimore Orioles.   And ‘’The Catch’’ by Willie Mays in game 1 of the World Series etched its way into baseball lore.

1954 was also a significant year in the world of baseball cards. The two major companies manufactured extensive sets (Topps with 250 cards, Bowman with 224). In addition a wide array of regional issues dotted the collecting landscape.   This article will highlight several of the more prominent and unique local offerings, with emphasis on sets that include major league players.

Red Heart Dog Food was produced by John Morrell & Company of Cincinnati.  Dubbed the ‘’Big League Dog Food” it issued a 33-card set in ’54. Divided into three 11-card series (with background of red, blue, or green), each group could be obtained via a mail-in offer (10 cents plus 2 can labels).  In contrast to most regional issues “Red Hearts” featured players from a majority (14) of the 16 MLB teams. Eleven HOFers grace the set. Not surprisingly Mickey Mantle and Stan Musial are the most valuable; neither was included in that year’s Topps set.  Centering can be problematic, with this Bob Lemon card an example. Overall this set is quite reasonable in cost.

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Wilson and Company (Chicago, Illinois) enclosed individual cards in packages of hotdogs. 20 players comprise this ‘’Wilson Franks’’ set, including HOFers Bob Feller, Ted Williams, Enos Slaughter, Nellie Fox, Roy Campanella, and Red Schoendienst.   Six representatives of the Windy City are featured, among them managers Stan Hack (Cubs) and Paul Richards (White Sox).  Condition sensitivity is a major concern; grease stains from the frankfurters often mar card surfaces.   The relative scarcity of these cards makes Wilson Franks very pricey, with a near-mint condition Williams fetching upwards of $10,000.   (enter Wilson S. White here)

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The New York Journal American was the result of the merger of two NYC newspapers owned by William Randolph Hearst. It was published from 1937-66. In 1954, during the heyday of baseball in Gotham, the Journal American offered a 59-card set. Featuring only Dodgers, Giants, and Yankees, individual cards were distributed at newsstands with the purchase of a paper. Card fronts bear player photographs (quite grainy in quality) and advertise a contest offering cash prizes.   The reverse displays the ’54 home schedule of the player’s team.   Common cards are comparable in price to those of the Topps issue.

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Turning to the Great Lakes, the Dan Dee Pretzel and Potato Chip Company was a family-operated snack food business for over 70 years throughout Ohio, West Virginia, and western Pennsylvania.   Founded near Pittsburgh in 1913 the company relocated to Cleveland in 1916.   The 1954 “Dan Dees” are nearly as uncommon as the Wilson Franks.   The cards were placed in boxes of potato chips; despite being wax-coated they frequently became stained with chip residue. This 29-card issue features 14 Cleveland and eight Pittsburgh athletes. Three Yankees, two Dodgers, one Giant, and one Cardinal round out the roster. Short prints (Cooper, Smith, & Thomas) are notable, but by far the key to the set is the Mickey Mantle pasteboard.

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Speaking of Dan Dees photos of its New York players were also used in two other regional issues. Stahl-Meyer Franks (of NYC) offered cards from 1953-55. The ’54 version was a 12-card set featuring athletes from the Big Apple.   This set is very rare and expensive, with the HOFers (Mays, Mantle, Irvin, Snider, & Rizzuto) setting the price pace.   Similarly Briggs Meats issued sets in 1953-54.   28 Washington Senators and 12 New York players comprise the ’54 group.   With the slogan ‘’save these cards, collect them!, trade them!” two-card panels were issued in hotdog packages and distributed solely in the Washington, DC area. These are quite difficult to locate, and intact panels are very scarce.   Thus, these cards are big ticket items. In addition to Mays and Mantle, the short prints of Gil Coan and Newton Grasso are lavishly priced.

Several other regional issues deserve a brief mention. Esskay Hot Dogs Orioles celebrated the arrival of the new Baltimore AL franchise with a 34-card collection.   2-card panels were placed in packs of franks. These cards currently carry very high prices, reflective of their scarcity and significant condition-sensitivity.   Hunters Wieners Cardinals were manufactured from 1953-55. The ’54 set was unique: each 2-card panel included one with a player photo, the other with that player’s statistics.   HOFers Musial, Slaughter, & Schoendienst highlight this 30-card Redbird group.   Johnston Cookies headquarters was located near Milwaukee’s County Stadium. Johnston Cookies Braves were available from 1953-55, with a card inserted in each confection package. The ’54 series of 35 cards includes Braves assistant trainers (Joseph Taylor and Dr. Charles Lacks).   These cards are much less pricey than their Esskay and Hunters counterparts.

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One can easily argue that 1954 was truly a golden year for card collecting.   Topps and Bowman competed bitterly, and these rivals failed to secure signed contracts from several key players (notably Stanley Frank Musial).   Regional issues helped to fill the void. Today’s vintage collector can enjoy the local flavor and pursuit of these fascinating collections.

 

Bell Brand Sandy Koufax Cards: All That And A Bag Of Chips

My apologies for the cheesy headline.

I couldn’t resist.

In case you’ve never heard of the Bell Brand Dodgers baseball cards, they were small regional issues that were inserted into bags of Bell Brand potato chips and corn chips in 1958, 1960, 1961 and 1962. They’re yet another great oddball set for collectors of Sandy Koufax baseball cards to hunt down.

Along with the Morrell Meats issues, these are some of my favorites as a Koufax collector.

And speaking of the Morrell Meats cards, if you read my previous article about those issues, you’ll remember how I had been trying to find a copy of the 1959 Morrell Meats card for about five or six years with no luck. Well, within about three weeks of writing that article, one popped up on eBay and I instantly snagged it. Go figure! Maybe that article appeased the collecting gods or something, who knows?

Anyways, back to the Bell Brand cards.

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Why Bell Brand skipped out on making a 1959 set, I don’t know. It’s been noted that the 1958 cards weren’t very popular and were pulled from production. So, it’s likely that they didn’t think it was worth producing a 1959 set. How I wish they would have made a 1959 issue–guess I’ll just have to daydream about what it may have looked like.

Since the Dodgers would go on to win the 1959 World Series, that was apparently enough to ramp up Bell Brand’s interest in producing cards again as they’d make three more sets from 1960 to 1962.

The cards were originally offered as free inserts inside bags of Bell Brand potato chips and corn chips. I’ve scoured the Internet for pictures of the actual bags in which they came but haven’t had any luck. If anyone comes across a picture I’d sure appreciate it if you could point me to it in the comments section below this article.

Given that they were placed inside potato chip and corn chip bags, you can imagine the wear they endured and how hard they can be to find in top condition. And even though they were wrapped in plastic, you’ll still frequently find copies that show evidence of contact with the potato chip oil.

In this picture of a wrapped 1962 Bell Brand Koufax, you can clearly see the oil stain along the lower lefthand border.

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1958 Bell Brand Koufax

This is probably my favorite of the four Bell Brand Koufax cards. It’s not necessarily the best-looking, in my opinion, with its sepia color tone and somewhat foggy image of Koufax inside the picture frame border. But that unique design is what makes it easily standout from the other three. Its historic value is quite high, too, given this was Bell Brand’s way to contribute to the hype of the Dodgers first season in Los Angeles. One of my favorite parts of the card is actually the reverse side as it mentions his blinding speed and inexperience. His K/9 of roughly 10.6 in his 1957 season stat line was a hint of the dominance that was to come.

The Koufax card is the key to the 10-card set that featured fellow Hall of Famers Roy Campanella, Don Drysdale, Pee Wee Reese and Duke Snider. I usually see these in PSA 8 condition sell for $3,000 to $4,000. There are a couple of PSA 9 copies floating around somewhere and I’d love to watch the bidding on those if they ever come up for auction.

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1960 Bell Brand Koufax

This is the second most difficult of the four to collect. Card #9 in the 20-card set features a young Koufax hunched over on the mound at the Dodgers spring training facility in Vero Beach, FL. The color photo is a big improvement over the 1958 sepia image but I wish the weather would have been nicer the day of the photo shoot. The cloud cover leaves the image with a gloomier feel compared to the sharp, bright images on the 1961 and 1962 cards. The back side mentions Koufax tying Bob Feller’s then record of 18 strikeouts in a game and offers clues as to which products featured these cards: bags of 39-cent, 49-cent, and 59-cent potato chips as well as 29-cent and 49-cent corn chips.

As a side note, Snider and Walter Alston are the only other two Hall of Famers in this much larger set. For some reason, Don Drysdale was dropped and wouldn’t appear again until the 1962 set.

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1961 Bell Brand Koufax

The 1961 Bell Brand Koufax card looks very similar to the 1960 issue except for the bluer sky and different camera angle. There were again 20 players in the set but you’ll notice that Koufax’s issue is actually #32 in the set. That’s because Bell Brand deviated from sequential numbering and went instead with a system that utilized each player’s jersey number. Confusing, maybe, but it earns a couple of points for creativity in my book. It’s a special card as it marked the first of his six-season run of absolutely torching the competition during the back half of his career.

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1962 Bell Brand Koufax

This would be the last year that Bell Brand would produce Dodgers baseball cards. And these were their highest quality print runs. The photos were higher resolution and were much glossier. The Dodgers would move from the Los Angeles Coliseum to pitcher-friendly Chavez Ravine in 1962 but unfortunately Koufax would not be able to enjoy a full season there due to injury. He would, however, throw the first of his four no-hitters in June that year and would earn “Player of the Month” distinction. Surprisingly, that was the only time in his career he had earned that title.

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Oddball cards, yes. But the Bell Brand Koufax cards are some of the most fun and challenging to collect. Great imagery, huge historic value, and a small piece of regional Southern California history are enough to place these high on the list of any Koufax collector.