It's one of the controversial stories I remember most from my childhood.
Back in 1990, in a baseball card shop just a few Chicago suburbs over from where I grew up, a 13-year-old named Bryan Wrzesinski bought one of the iconic 1968 Nolan Ryan/Jerry Koosman Topps rookies for $12.
Twelve bucks was a whopping sum for us early teen types back then, but Wrzesinski knew it was a wise investment and couldn't get his wallet out fast enough. The card was normally valued at $1,200, but a card shop worker who didn't know very much about baseball cards put a decimal point in a spot where there shouldn't have been one when pricing it.
So the sticker on the protective case read $12.00, instead of $1200. Yeah, BIG-time fail.
Of course, the card shop's owner, a fella by the name of Joe Irmen, knew the correct price of the Ryan rookie that was once in his display case. And he naturally wasn't too happy when he discovered that one of his workers had let it walk out the door at a 99 percent discount.
Nor was he happy to hear Wrzesinski contend he had purchased the card in a fair manner — hey, the posted price in the shop said $12! — and wouldn't simply give it back because a mistake had been made by Irmen's clueless worker.
From there, the story went a predictable route. Irmen hauled Wrzesinski into small claims court and once the media got a whiff of the dispute, it became headline fodder for newspapers, television stations and standup comics across the country. Really, it was the woman suing McDonald's for their hot coffee a few years before that woman even dumped the coffee on herself while going through the drive-thru.
It wasn't difficult to see the allure of the story. For one, the baseball card market was exploding and everyone wanted in on the escalating prices of the cards, particularly from the 1960s. For another, the case involved an adult suing a knowledgeable middle schooler. There were two very different sides to the story and everyone was in one camp or the other.
Most importantly, the case allowed all of us to put ourselves in Wrzesinski's shoes and ask ourselves the question: What would we have done in that situation?
Would we have purchased the card knowing full well that it wasn't priced correctly? Did the arbitrary price of a piece of cardboard make the situation different from, say, buying a new Corvette for $50 from someone who didn't know the price of cars? Would we have given the card back if asked by the owner? What would our parents have made us do?
I can still remember the little morality debate that my dad staged at the dining room table for my brother and I one night during the case. He argued that it was a matter of integrity and that what Wrzesinski did was no different than walking away with eleven $100 bills that a cashier mistakenly gave you in change.
Being my 12-year-old smartass self, I countered with my mother's oft-repeated and Beckett-hating maxim of "a baseball card is only worth whatever someone is willing to pay you for it" and that I was only willing to pay $12 for. I also argued that if Irmen was really concerned about his cards, he would have hired someone who knew what they were doing. It was only later that I realized my dad was right, because contrary to what most kids believe, money and baseball cards are not everything.
Luckily, the story had a more savory ending than its beginning. After threats of counter lawsuits and other legal wranglings, Wrzesinski and Irmen agreed to auction the card off for charity. It sold for $5,000, and the premium paid was worth it, because a gem mint 10 Ryan/Koosman card was recently auctioned off for $24,500.
And as crazy as that price may sound to some of us, all the decimal points were presumably in the right spot for that one.
* * *
By the way, if you're wondering why I'm writing about this little trivial story on a random July morning 20 years later, it's because I just learned of the passing of John Leptich. He was the Chicago Tribune reporter who covered the controversy and seeing it cited among the biggest stories of his career jogged my memory. Our condolences to his family.