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A fan of the Detroit Tigers who has over 1,200 signed baseballs is looking for a way to share them


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    ADA, MI – In the wee hours of a November morning, Steve Nagengast was a bundle of nerves in front of his computer.

    Entrenched in an all-night bidding war for a piece of baseball history, the West Michigan resident postponed sleep and watched the seconds tick by until the auction’s 30-minute timer expired with his $10,500 offer at the top of the list.

    Around 3 a.m. on Nov. 20, 2021, Nagengast became the new owner of Al Kaline’s 1967 American League Gold Glove trophy, adding a priceless piece to his collection of Detroit Tigers memorabilia.

    More than 1,200 signed baseballs, a handful of rare paper autographs and Kaline’s Gold Glove trophy line the walls in Nagengast’s Ada, Mich., basement.

    But now, 30-some years and a few sleepless nights after he started his collection, he’s trying to find it a new home.

    And, so far, it hasn’t been easy.

    “I just started looking around in the last four or five months,” he said. “Places like the Gerald R. Ford Museum, they say it’s too big, and they don’t have room for it. The Detroit Historical Museum would love it, but they’d want to bring out 20 balls at a time and have the other 98 percent in a warehouse most of the time.

    “That doesn’t interest me as much; I’d like to keep it intact.”

    PHOTOS: See a gallery of Steve Nagengast’s Tigers memorabilia collection

    Nagengast said he is in early discussions with the Illitch Holdings about moving the collection to Comerica Park and with the West Michigan Whitecaps to see if the Tigers’ minor league affiliate has room amid its expansion of LMCU Ballpark.

    Whenever that new home is found, Nagengast knows parting will come with mixed emotions.

    “It will be hard,” he said of parting ways with the collection, which is believed to be the largest privately owned assortment of Detroit Tigers signed baseballs. “I’m 71 years old, and who knows – I hope I have another 10 years – but I don’t want to leave it for my wife and kids to figure out what to do with this. To give it to a grandkid, what are they going to do with it? They have to go to college, and it would just sit in boxes, or my wife would have to sell it off in an auction, and she wouldn’t really know how to do that.

    “So, I figured during the last lap of my life would be a good time to find a place where it could be shown to the public and protected and secured properly.”

    Nagengast guesses his collection to be worth around $300,000, though that’s a very rough estimate, given the monetary value of specific items can skyrocket if the right people are in a bidding war.

    With signatures from 25 of the Detroit Tigers’ 27 hall of famers, plus Babe Ruth’s autograph alongside those of the 1933 Tigers players, there is a lot of value wrapped up in the baseballs Nagengast has collected over the last three decades, but unloading a collection of that size on the open market would be a massive undertaking, said Lou Brown, who is the president of Grand Rapids-based sports memorabilia retailer Legends Sports and Games.

    “In stock at any given time, we have 200-300 baseballs on display, so that’s a ton, and it’s a lot of effort to try to sell that,” Brown said. “If they want to retail it, it’s a ton of work; it’s a massive amount of work. Some autographs are extremely liquid, but overall, from A to Z, it’s a lot of work.

    “Our turnover on sports memorabilia compared to trading cards is much slower. Some items, like a Gold Glove trophy, would be auction house pieces, not something someone would necessarily retail out.”

    The difficulty in selling off his collection doesn’t bother Nagengast because he’s not looking to profit from it.

    Instead, he’d rather donate it to a public entity for others to enjoy.

    “What I see happening is the younger people focusing on the 1980s and 1990s and bringing back memories, but for the guys like me in their 70s or 80s, they’re going to go back to the 1950s and bring back memories of their favorite players,” Nagengast said. “There may be a small number of fans that are historians and could appreciate the 1900s, but that’s going to be a small segment.

    “For most, it’s about bringing back memories.”

    Oddly enough, the collection started with a Mickey Mantle signed ball that Nagengast purchased on QVC in the late 1980s.

    Born in New Jersey, Nagengast grew up amid an era of New York Yankee dominance, with the Bronx Bombers capturing six World Series titles in the 1950s.

    His father’s job relocated the family to Metro Detroit in 1961, and at that point the Tigers were wrapping up one of the most dismal decades in franchise history, so his allegiance remained with the Yankees.

    “When we moved, I was about 10 years old, and I remember when the Tigers beat the Yankees, I cried,” Nagengast said. “I was such a Yankee fan, but it took me about a year of reading the Detroit newspapers as a kid for me to convert to a pretty loyal Tiger fan now.”

    Nagengast started a family of his own and settled in West Michigan, where he collected his first pair of Tigers autographs when Curtis Pride and Maury Willis came to a signing event at Woodland Mall.

    Unfamiliar with best practices for collecting sports memorabilia, Nagengast had the two former Tigers sign his Mickey Mantle ball.

    “I didn’t know any better, and if you look back on it now, that’s a huge mistake,” Nagengast said. “The value of that ball with Mickey Mantle by himself would be a solid $500, and by putting these other guys on the same ball, that thing’s probably worth $50 now, but that’s how I got started into this.”

    Denny McClain and Mark “The Bird” Fidrych were among Nagengast’s other early autographs, and his collection of signed balls really took off when he interacted with former players at 12 Detroit Tigers fantasy camps in the 1990s and 2000s.

    “It kind of accumulated, and I said, ‘You know, I’m going to build the best autographed Tiger baseball collection in the world,’” he said. “It’s just a mission of mine that kind of steamrolled over the years.”

    Nagengast ramped up his efforts by purchasing a book containing the addresses of former Major League Baseball players, then mailing out baseballs and return postage.

    About two-thirds of the recipients sent Nagengast signed balls, but costs added up for the former Tigers who didn’t respond.

    “I decided after a while to send a letter with a postcard inside that they could return to me,” he said. “I explained who I was and my collection and that someday I want to donate all this, probably to a museum, and then I’d have them check a box on the postcard indicating if they would send a ball back, if they won’t send a ball back or if they wanted a certain amount of money to send a ball back.

    “That really lowered my costs down a lot. Either I got the postcard back and knew I should send a ball, or if the postcard never came back, I knew not to waste my time.”

    While the signed balls sent through the mail were relatively inexpensive, Nagengast splurged to add some notable names and rare autographs to the collection.

    Any item in the collection valued at more than $100 receives authentication from one of three of the field’s leading firms – Beckett Authentication, Professional Sports Authenticator or James Spence Authentication.

    “They have devices that can hone in on the ball, and it shoots the image of the autograph back into the computers, and it somehow compares them against the authentic autographs, and then they have experts, who have been around and know what to look for,” Nagengast said. “It’s a combination of computerization, as well as human judgment, and then they issue a letter and put a picture on it and give it a unique serial number, so whenever I sell a baseball, if I did, it has a serial number, and the buyer can validate the ball matches the paperwork.”

    Whether it’s someone as synonymous with the Tigers as Al Kaline or someone as obscure as Harold “Doc” Daugherty and his one career at-bat, there’s a good chance Nagengast has their name on a ball.

    Before Wally Pipp became famous for losing his starting spot to a Yankees rookie name Lou Gehrig over a headache, he was a member of the 1913 Tigers, and Nagengast has his autograph.

    Nagengast also has one of 10 confirmed autographs from Eddie Gaedel, a professional performer, who, at 3-foot-7, became the shortest person to ever play major league baseball when St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck signed the 26-year-old as a part of a publicity campaign for a 1951 game against the Tigers.

    A four-pitch walk from Tigers’ pitcher Bob Cain was the only at-bat in Gaedel’s career, as American League president Will Harridge voided his contract the next day and reprimanded Veeck.

    Perhaps the most prized possession in Nagengast’s collection is a ball autographed by pitcher Allan Travers, a 20-year-old student at St. Joseph’s College, who made his first and only major league start in a 1912 game that the Tigers used replacement players off the street to protest American League president Ban Johnson suspending Ty Cobb a day earlier for fighting a fan that made racist comments from the stands.

    Travers allowed 26 hits, seven walks and 24 runs in eight innings of the 24-2 defeat, before going on to become a Catholic priest.

    “The whole story of Al Travers, that’s amazing, and he never signed much after that,” Nagengast said. “He was embarrassed by it and didn’t like to talk about it, so that ball is really rare and very special.”

    It’s those especially rare signatures with an interesting backstory, as opposed to the Ruths, Cobbs and Kalines, that hold a special place in Nagengast’s heart.

    “You would think it would be the hall of famers, but I like those unique-situation baseballs,” he said.

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