The Beckett Blog

Hobby-minded journalist John Leptich dies at 60 by Chris Olds

By Mike Sakal

John Leptich, a former contributor of stories for Beckett Media during its early years who was a longtime Chicago and Arizona journalist that covered a story about the great debacle of the 1968 Topps Nolan Ryan Rookie card when an Illinois card shop clerk mistakenly sold it to a 12-year-old boy for $12 instead of $1,200 what it was worth then, has died.

Leptich, 60, of Glendale, Arizona, whose stories in the Chicago Tribune in 1992 also were instrumental in persuading the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., to put Willie Mays’ glove on permanent display that he wore when he made “The Catch” in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, lost his long and hard-fought battle with bone marrow cancer on July 6 with his family by his side at Banner Thunderbird Hospital in Glendale, Ariz.

Leptich, an avid Chicago Cubs and sports fan with a penchant for pizza and chasing autographs of professional athletes for decades, worked for the East Valley and Scottsdale Tribune in Arizona from 1997 to late 2008, when he joined Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold (formerly Phelps Dodge) in Phoenix as an internal communications specialist.

A native of Chicago who frequented Wrigley Field where he met his wife-to-be in 1975, Leptich had relocated to Arizona in 1995 after working 16 years for the Chicago Tribune as a sports writer and sports copy editor. While there in 1984, he co-authored a book, This Date in St. Louis Cardinals History.

Described by his family or colleagues as “personable,” “tenacious” or “old-school” when it came to collecting and his profession, Leptich gained national notoriety for the 1990 story about Bryan Wrzesinski, the 12-year-old boy who bought the Ryan rookie card for $12 at Joe Irmen’s Ball-Mart, a Chicago suburb card shop when a store clerk mistakenly sold it to the middle schooler for the bargain-basement price.

Irmen later sued Wrzenski in small claims court to get the card or the difference of $1,188, but the dispute was later settled when the card resurfaced and was sold at an auction with the proceeds going to charity. The card fetched a whopping $24,500.

The story landed Leptich an appearance on the late-night news television show “Nightline” and the story in the Tribune was selected in 1991 by the Associated Press Sports Editors as one of the Top 10 Sports Stories in the United States.

Leptich was as equally as proud about his 1992 stories connected to “The Catch,” the one Mays made in the eighth-inning of Game 1 in the 1954 World Series for the New York Giants enroute to beating the Cleveland Indians, 5-2, on Dusty Rhodes’ three-run homer in the 10th inning.

Craig Liddle, a sixth-grade schoolteacher and the son of former Giants pitcher Don Liddle, who threw the pitch to Wertz that he hit to deep right-center field, had the glove tucked away for years in a safety deposit box. Mays gave Liddle the glove in 1955. Liddle was six years old then, and when the Liddle family was sitting behind Mays and Ruben Gomez on a flight to St. Louis when the Liddle family was talking about Craig was getting ready to start playing Little League.

Mays went up to Liddle with the glove and said, “I heard you’re going to start playing ball,” Mays said. “You’re going to need a glove.” Mays reached out – and handed Liddle his Rawlings HH model glove – and Liddle used it throughout Little League.

In the early 1990s, Liddle expressed interest in loaning the glove to the Hall of Fame. However, Hall of Fame officials told Liddle they would love to have the glove, but they could not guarantee that it would be on permanent display. After Leptich got wind of that story, he interviewed the Liddles about their request and the story ran. When Craig Liddle was flooded with offers from people wanting to buy the glove for large sums of money, the Hall of Fame quickly reconsidered what it initially told him and said they could find a permanent place for the glove, so Liddle donated it.

Leptich’s career had many other highlights and he helped friends pull off good work.

In 2004, when pitcher Greg Maddux won his 300th game against the San Francisco Giants as a member of the Chicago Cubs, Allen Cone, a former sports copy editor and page designer for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, sought Leptich’s advice for a four-page special section about the Las Vegas native’s career published on Aug., 8, 2004. Leptich and Cone had worked together at the East Valley Tribune in the late 1990s.

“He was a great help,” Cone said, who still stayed in touch with Leptich. “Because of him, he put me in touch with the right people at Topps, who e-mailed me jpeg files of all of Maddux’s cards beginning with his rookie card. We placed the cards at the top and bottom of one of the pages in the section. It was a pretty cool page. When people saw that page, they always commented on it. It was a nice thing. John knew a lot of people in the collectibles business.”

While at the East Valley Tribune, Leptich worked in various capacities, including managing editor of Scottsdale Views, and later writing the popular community columns “Our Scottsdale” and “Everyday People,” a column he enjoyed writing and included interviews with former Cubs third baseman and WGN Cubs broadcaster Ron Santo being placed on the ballot for the Hall of Fame and former catcher and Hall of Fame broadcaster Joe Garagiola when he released his latest book, “Just Play Ball.”

While interviewing Garagiola at his home, Leptich discovered another aspect about the famous picture of “The Catch” not known to many – In full-view, panoramic views of the picture, the face of a bald-headed guy can be seen looking out of the upper level team clubhouse window above the fence down on Mays as he made the catch – the face in the window is Garagiola, who was on the Giants’ roster then. The picture was signed, “To Joe: You had the best seat in the house.” Garagiola said of Mays making “The Catch”:  “I could see his eyes.”

As a teenager, Leptich was the president of the Fergie Jenkins Fan Club, the Hall of Fame pitcher who played for the Chicago Cubs early in his career and retired as an active player from the team in 1983. Leptich, who lived in Glendale, and Jenkins, who lives in Anthem, remained in touch through the years and often spoke during the various Old-Timer benefit games held during spring training.

Leptich also wrote the story about Jenkins’ retirement from baseball for the Chicago Tribune in 1983.

Jenkins said he first met Leptich when he was a teenager in 1966 soon after Jenkins was traded from the Philadelphia Phillies to the Cubs. Leptich, who also was a big Chicago Blackhawks hockey fan, had asked Jenkins for some autographs and came to Cubs games. Soon after, Leptich invited Jenkins and his first wife, Kathy, to his home for dinner with his parents, and Jenkins accepted.

“He was a good man,” Jenkins said. “He was hard-working, and when he worked for the Tribune, he wanted to write good stories. Sports was his life. Unfortunately, he fought cancer for several years, and battled it as long as he could until it took his life. He was a happy individual who enjoyed working and he loved his kids and family. He was a good friend.”

While Leptich was out of the newspaper business for two years in Arizona, he worked for Evening Star Productions (now LiveNation), a concert promotion firm owned by Danny Zelisko, a childhood friend, whom he met at Wrigley Field in 1963.

Even back then, Leptich had enthusiasm for the hobby and offered Zelisko some advice.

Zelisko said he showed up at Wrigley and had a stack of baseball cards he hoped to get autographed.

“John said, “Can I see those?,” Zelisko said. “When John was looking at them, he says, ‘You’re not going to get these signed are you?’ Well, I hope to!, Zelisko said. Leptich then told him, “You’ll mess them up if you get them signed. You want to leave them exactly the way they are. Get them to sign an index card. But if you’re going to get your cards signed, make sure to get a second one.”

Leptich, also was described as an “expert” of sports memorabilia, and was registered as an expert witness to testify in hearings dealing with sports memorabilia when authenticity or if other issues arose.

Leptich’s cousin, Mike Leptich, of Chandler, Arizona, was quick to point out that if there was a piece of sports memorabilia or something commemorating a Cubs event or if it had to do with one of his favorite team’s, said, “John had to have it.  Whether it was s shirt or a cap, he would go out and get it right away. He didn’t mess around.”

Diagnosed with cancer in 2005, Leptich remained positive and upbeat.

“Besides being a genuinely positive force in the newsroom, a talented writer and energetic reporter, the thing that always struck me about John was how much he loved his family,” said former Scottsdale Tribune City Editor Bill Bertolino. “He often spoke about his wife and daughters, and how family was the most important thing in his life.”

Bertolino said Leptich underwent regular medical treatments while working at the newspaper. “But if you didn’t know him, you’d never know it,” Bertolino said. “He never complained, and he always kept a positive attitude – and a repertoire of one-liners and jokes to keep the vibe in the newsroom upbeat and loose.”

Last year, Leptich won first place in the Arizona Press Club’s writing contest, breaking news category, for a story about a woman who saved her six children from a burning house trailer. The story also won first place in the best news story category of the Associated Press Managing Editors/Arizona Newspaper Association’s writing contest.

Leptich is survived by his wife, Rosa Leptich; daughter Arielle Leptich; and daughter Amanda Blagg and her husband Marc. He also is survived by one grandson, Jameson Edward Blagg.

Services have been held and the Leptich family is requesting that donations be made to the Myeloma Research Foundation.


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