Ramblings: Remembering the $12 Nolan Ryan Rookie Incident

Sometimes one just wonders about items from the past. One particular item which has always intrigued me because of the shades of gray involved was the famous 1990 incident where a $1200 1968 Topps Nolan Ryan Rookie Card sold for $12 at a card shop.  It turned into quite a national hubbub.  ABC’s Nightline was among the media outlets who discussed what became a morality play.

In a brief recap, the store owner (who had just opened his shop a few days earlier) had that prized ’68 Ryan in a showcase marked ‘1200’.  Remember this was during the Topps Nolan Ryan rookie cardpeak of Ryan’s popularity as the ageless hurler kept tossing fastballs and no-hitters into his 40s.  Anyway, when the owner stepped out for lunch, he got a woman from a jewelry shop next door to watch the counter.  Not realizing the value of the Ryan card, she took a look at the sticker and agreed to sell it  for $12 to a young man named Bryan Wrzesinski who scooped up the great deal.  Sounds simple… or was it?

The first issue is the marking on the card may not have been clear.  While the owner knew how much the card was, the associate helping out was not familiar with cards and probably assumed no card could sell for more than a thousand dollars. The young man who purchased the card certainly knew the value  and took advantage of the worker’s lack of knowledge to scoop up the great deal.  Many felt it was the duty of the boy’s father to step in and tell the young man to be honest and tell the clerk the real value.

Ironically, the boy could have avoided all of the attention if he had kept his mouth shut.  I know everyone wants to share news about how well they did at shows and stores.  For proof of that, just check any message board in which collectors show off their purchases. In my case, it was even funny in a way when a customer at the soon to be moved Craig Ranch show in McKinney, Texas showed off the cards be purchased at a great price and I recognized them as being mine. In my case, since I posted about the show and my cards were marked and I was the only one behind the table, then if something was too cheap that was totally on me and no one else.

Was there a way for the store owner to mark the card more clearly?  Remember the story I told recently about the 35 cent George Brett rookie card.  What if someone who really did not know had purchased that Ryan rookie?  Whose fault would it have been if the clerk sold the card to someone because no one knew any better.  In this case, the child knew the value of the Ryan rookie.

This case ended up in court and I think some sort of dual ownership was created and this Ryan rookie which had gained a ton of fame ended up being auctioned for charity purposes.  When I was searching for some more information I see we covered this story on this site several years ago and I remember being interviewed in 1991 about that card.

I know I bought a 1968 Topps set from the old Sports Corner store for all of $55 back in the ‘70s and now wish I had bought more sets at that time. Can you imagine a complete set at that level (the condition was beautiful) and since that was the first set I really bought packs of as a child, the memories of seeing 1968’s never leave me.

Sadly, I did not start buying 68’s until the third series and thus never pulled a Ryan rookie card out of the packs although I had plenty of Bench rookies. Thinking of this story always brings back memories of the 1968 Topps set and the way I really started appreciating baseball and the cards by having my cards out while watching either the Yankees or the Mets on free TV. Remember when you could actually watch games on over the air television? I can still picture as I write this the Tommy Davis and Cleon Jones photos that made up two-thirds of the starting Mets outfield in 1967.

And, of course, I can picture the 1968 Topps Horace Clarke card.  Horace had a decent APBA card and I never understood at the time why baseball fans made so much fun of him as the symbol of the Yankees bad years.  Well there was also Mickey Mantle in that series so at least one great player was involved. And although I really only collected through the fourth series in 1968, as you have read I have discovered you can sell nice ’68 Topps Lee May cards all day long. When I was talking to Joie Casey at the National, we briefly discussed Jim Kovacs, truly one of the first dealers to monitor how tough certain cards were.  I think there is an old Baseball Hobby News article (BHN) from Kovacs explaining exactly that. Well we now know more than about scarcities like May, Joe Sparma, Bill Freehan, Tommie Agee and others than we did in 1968 but it’s that $12 Nolan Ryan rookie that always comes to mind first.


  1. […] before. Thus for many generations of collectors, Ryan was then and still is a legendary figure. Last Friday’s Rambling on that Ryan rookie spurred a few of great memories from collectors who got in touch with me by email.  We thought […]