‘The game’s over now’: Ada man to donate epic collection of Tigers’ autographed balls

Detroit News

The Grand Rapids Public Museum will take possession of the 1,000-plus baseball collection in 2024, after the appraisal process is complete.

Going, going … and soon, they’ll be gone.

Steve Nagengast, the Ada man who claims to have the largest private collection of Tigers’ autographed baseballs, has decided to donate the lot — more than 1,100 balls, the product of 35 years’ worth of bidding wars — to the Grand Rapids Public Museum.

Nagengast had meetings with representatives of the Detroit Tigers and the West Michigan Whitecaps, the Tigers’ high-A affiliate, as well as the Detroit Historical Museum, but chose the Grand Rapids Public Museum because it has a plan to display the collection for multiple years, for the public to view.

“I feel good about it,” Nagengast, 71, told The News this week, after committing to the Grand Rapids Public Museum. “Yean, I’m gonna miss it, there’s no question. I’m gonna miss it.

“You know, I look at it, I go through it, I see it every day. … But it’s probably once a month is when people come over to see it. … I’d like to have more people access it and see it.

“I feel really good the way they’re going to take care of it.”

Nagengast, whose collection takes up an entire basement and nine custom-made display cases, began collecting autographs in 1988, when he was watching the Home Shopping Network and dialed the number to buy an autographed baseball of Mickey Mantle.

Eventually, his passion turned to Tigers’ autographs, and he’s got just about everyone you can think of — Ty Cobb, Al Kaline, Hank Greenberg, Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, most of them singled-signed on a baseball.

The News profiled Nagengast and his collection in February, and since, he has received a lot of inquiries from baseball fans about viewing the collection.

That’s what convinced him to move up his plans to donate the collection, which also includes some signed photos. He’s not sick. It just felt like this was the time.

“The story spurred a lot of interest,” he said. “I’d like to have it viewed more, and protected and preserved.”

A signed contract with the Grand Rapids Public Museum hasn’t happened yet, so museum officials prefer to wait to comment on their plans for the collection until that’s finalized. But Nagengast’s intentions are clear. But there’s still more work to do.

For tax purposes, Nagengast first has to get the collection appraised, and for that task, he’s commissioned Leila Dunbar, noted for her work on PBS’s “The Antiques Roadshow.” Nagengast has to provide Dunbar with a ton of information on each piece — the history of each autograph, how it was acquired, whether the ball is an official Major League Baseball ball, and more — as well as a photo of each piece.

That process is expected to be completed by the end of the year, and the donation should be official early in 2024.

“I told them I’m willing to do this,” said Nagengast, of the museum’s display plans, “but I want a five-year commitment before they put it in storage.”

Nagengast’s memorabilia collection also includes Kaline’s 1967 Gold Glove trophy, which he bought in the estate auction for $11,200, his most-expensive purchase. He will give that to the museum on a multi-year loan, before it eventually is returned to the family, and goes to one of Steve and Mary Nagengast’s four grandchildren.

Nagengast also plans to keep possession of his collection of baseballs autographed by non-Tigers, including such luminaries as former presidents Gerald Ford, George Bush and Jimmy Carter, Hall-of-Famers Mantle, Nolan Ryan, Bob Feller, Pete Rose, Ernie Banks and Willie Mays, and their Notre Dame collection that includes Lou Holtz, Ara Parseghian and Brian Kelly. He’ll keep a bat autographed by Hall-of-Famer Eddie Mathews.

He also still will have a lot of memorabilia with personal touches, like the framed picture display of Jim Leyland from the day Nagengast got to “manage” a spring-training game after winning a charity auction, and pictures and items from his many trips to Tigers Fantasy Camp.

In other words, the baseball of their west Michigan home will still be outfitted in all things baseball, even if most of the baseballs soon will be gone — and not to be replaced, Nagengast has to keep telling himself. Even after verbally committing his collection to the Grand Rapids Public Museum, Nagengast, a Birmingham Brother Rice alum, found himself still bidding on some items via a Heritage Auctions sale.

“I’ve gotta get this out of my blood,” he said with a laugh. “The game’s over now.”

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984

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