Under the heading of “It takes one to know one,” it’s hard to imagine a better source to talk about a hobby icon than Bill Mastro, CEO of the auction giant MastroNet, and something of a hobby institution in his own right.
Mastro is almost without exception passionate and animated when he’s talking about the hobby, but all of that gets amped-up a good deal when the topic is Frank Nagy, arguably one of the most influential figures in hobby history.
Nagy died on Nov. 30, 1994, and much of his lifelong accumulation of vintage cards and matchbooks has long since made its way into the hands of private collectors, but as is the case with virtually everyone who really loves cards and memorabilia, some stuff got held back by his widow, Louise.
Mrs. Nagy died this past summer, and their son, Frank Jr., called Mastro shortly thereafter. Over the last decade Mastro had auctioned a number of things for the family, and Nagy himself had sold a lot of material in the last couple of years leading up to his passing.
The December MastroNet bauction will feature some of those treasures, including a T206 White Border near set and T205 Gold Border, Turkey Red set and other prewar classics, but despite that kind of lineup, Master Mastro (Master and Mentor; Get it?) insists that the story of the man himself is infinitely more compelling than the recitation of what he accumulated.
“It’s so much more about him than it is about the cards,” is the way Mastro put it in the introduction in the December auction catalog.
“He was my mentor. I knew him better than anybody else. We were best friends. I would spend summers at his house. I would stay weeks on end at his house,” he continued.
“The only reason he went to the National Conventions as long as he did was because I set it up for him. He was getting older and he didn’t want to travel. He went to Parsippany, and the Chicago one after that. He went to the earliest Nationals. He would go to the conventions and buy big piles of stuff.”
And while the legendary stories seem to center around the cards, or more precisely the incredible volume of cards, Mastro puts a more personal slant on the discussion. “(Nagy) was really an innovative human being in our hobby. One of the really interesting things about Frank, and I remember him talking to me about it when I was young, he was one of the few hobby guys back in the late 1960s and early 1970s who didn’t really mind the stuff becoming worth more money,” Mastro said. “And it wasn’t because he wanted more money for himself, but he knew that for the expansion of the hobby the stuff had to be worth something.”
According to Mastro, Nagy envisioned the hobby as becoming more respectable and a wider hobby than coins and stamps. “He saw where the hobby came from, with guys with pocket protectors and their pants pulled up to their nipples writing letters to each other and wandering around like cloistered, embarrassed old men. He saw that the hobby could reach a point where it could be something that everybody could do and that it could be the hobby,” Mastro said.
“(Nagy) saw the hobby becoming very much what it is today. He recognized that the only way for that to happen was for the stuff to become more valuable, and he encouraged that to happen, even though he knew it was going to cost him more money to get the stuff that he wanted.”
And though that might startle younger collectors who know only of a hobby dotted with price guides and an investor mentality, it wasn’t always that way. “Many of the old hobby pioneers were really aggravated that stuff became worth more money because they were going to have to pay more. It was like a little, closed fraternity,” Mastro continued. “They were strange guys. We would not have enjoyed hanging around and hanging out with most of the hobby pioneers. There was a certain embarrassment factor to it, because they were collecting something that was meant for kids and they didn’t want people to know.”
Not so with Nagy, Mastro says, calling him a progressive thinker whose big thing was making collecting a family hobby.
“He really had a tremendous impact on the hobby. He was so different in so many ways. He started out in the hobby when it was nothing more than letter writing and it was really a teenie weenie society. What caused it to explode were the conventions.
“When I was a kid I would write him, and he would write me two-, three- or four-page, handwritten letters on legal pages. These would be letters about the hobby, about what to collect, about how to collect, about condition, these are good, these are not.
“And then the conventions started, and all these guys got to meet each other around 1969-70. As soon as guys got to meet each other, then there were personalities involved. There were no price guides, so the art of trading was the biggest thing and Nagy was the most phenomenal trader in the world. He would have been the best poker player, because you never knew what he was thinking.”
Like most of the venerated hobby old-timers, Mastro revels in telling stories about the almost mystical days when massive collections were often built on something other than deep pockets. “You would sit there and try to trade with him and he had the best poker face in the world. You never had any idea whether he approved or disapproved, because he would just nod his head.”
Mastro followed that observation with an admission that would no doubt surprise many of his contemporaries. “He was one of the only guys who got the best of me on most of the deals we did. He was so patient. We would just sit around in his basement and talk for hours, and one night we were sitting around and trading, and we both had tons of cards with us.
“It was probably around 6 a.m. and the sun was coming up, and there was a pile of Batter Ups that I had traded him at around 11 p.m. the night before, and now at 6 o’clock in the morning they were coming back to me in another trade.
“And I looked at him and said, ‘I don’t know how I ended up with these things; I just traded them to you six or seven hours ago. And he looked at me and smiled and said, ‘You better go to bed, because pretty soon you’re not going to have any cards left at all,’ ” Mastro recalled with a laugh. “The idea was that if I stayed and traded with him long enough, I would end up going home with nothing.
“And we both laughed, because at the beginning of the night I had this huge pile of stuff, and at the end, I had about a third of it left. This guy was going to trade me right out of my shirt. He was that kind of guy.”
Mastro also noted that, first and foremost, Nagy was a Detroit Tigers collector. “No matter whatever trade you did, you never got any Tigers cards from him. Didn’t matter who it was, it didn’t matter, every pile of cards you ever got from him there were no Tigers, because he put them in a cabinet with boxes of Tigers cards. There were some cards he had 1,500 of them,” Mastro recounted with a laugh.
And he also pointed out that Nagy was the pre-eminent matchbook cover guy. Mastro noted that, in his words, “all the matchbook covers in the hobby came from (Nagy). According to Mastro, back in the 1950s, before anybody knew anything about matchbook covers, Nagy got this collection from this guy who was getting divorced. And he had literally millions of matchbook covers, and the guy’s wife called Nagy and told him to come and take the collection away.
“When the conventions first started, it was like the haves and the have nots,” Mastro said. “Ninety percent of all the best cards in the hobby were in 10 percent of the collections. And the rest of us were all trying to get them.
“Eventually people started taking stuff out of their attics, but this was in the early 1970s when the hobby was in its infancy. There were just certain guys that were known for having tons of cards. There were a few guys who had so many cards that they just couldn’t get rid of them fast enough. And most of them wanted to trade,” he continued.
“So when the conventions started, everybody and their grandmother wanted to go to Nagy’s house. And his basement was filled with cards. He would trade for runs of cards, not individual cards. He had runs of T206s.
“As a guy who had all the cards, he recognized that the other guys didn’t have these. The first time I went to the Detroit convention, he sent me home with a T205 Gold Border set and a 1933 Goudey set. And I was 17 or 18 years old, and he just told me to send him something when I had it. And he did that to everybody who went to his house.”
It’s that particular quality in Nagy’s dealings with his fellow collectors that seems to have touched Mastro so profoundly. “He understood the thrill of getting stuff for people. A lot of guys never took care of him, and that got old after a while, and I think that was part of the reason that he lost interest in the hobby around the mid-1980s.
“Some of the guys didn’t really understand; you really had to find him something.”
Mastro recalled with some affection Nagy’s famed auction sheets, a mimeographed, 15-20 page listing. And whenever he mailed you a package, he always included some free cards.
Mastro also commented on the distinctive language he used in listing his auction lots. “He had a horrible vocabulary. I called them “Nagyisms.” He would say, ‘These here are good. These here are tough. These here are tougher.”
But ultimately, it was Nagy’s kindness and ultimately his friendship that so touched a teenaged collector, who just as easily could have been turned off to a hobby by a grumpy veteran hobbyist. “He was one of these guys who believed in spreading the wealth and joy throughout the hobby. That was who he was. The first time I wrote to him was 1966 or 1967, when I was 13 or 14 years old, and he took the time to write me long letters. Who would bother to do that? It was amazing.
“When our hobby was small and intimate, Nagy was our guy. Everybody recognized him. When the hobby got huge, everybody recognized Halper. So Nagy was kind of like the guy before Halper,” Mastro said, offering an epitaph that would be the envy of anybody who every opened up a pack of cards.
“There are certain guys in the history of our hobby who did tremendous things to promote the hobby, not just through articles, but through their personalities. Nagy was that kind of guy.
“I don’t know anybody that didn’t like him. He was larger than life. And it was neat to have him in our hobby, kind of the way Halper was neat to have in the hobby, but Halper was on a much grander scale,” Mastro added.
With that kind of introduction, here’s a peek at what the December auction has in store. “He collected everything, non-sports, British cards. It was a typical collection of a guy who collected when getting the cards was more important than the condition. It’s all over the place, and we sent thousands of the cards in to be graded, and, at least with SGC, the holders all carry the notation about The Nagy Collection.”
Nagy himself had sold almost all of his modern Topps and Bowman stuff.
“At the time before he started getting rid of anything, when I started going over to his house in the early 1970s, his card collection was 10 times bigger than what we are offering. It was so comprehensive and so huge that people would come from all over the country to visit with him and just sit in his basement and look at the cards.
“Everybody would come and spend time at Frank’s house in Grosse Isle, Mich., an island south of Detroit.
“This is a guy who put together a Burdick-like collection that never was in a museum, but so many people got to come to his house and see it. And they got a little piece of it when they left,” Mastro added.
And like so many serious collectors, Nagy always kept his Wagner, which he got from Preston Orem in the early 1960s and he reportedly paid $100 for it. Orem wrote the book on early baseball, Baseball 1845-1881, a tremendous reference source for 19th-century collectors. The self-published book chronicles the significant games played from that period. “So that’s a tremendous lineage for the T206 Wagner card that Nagy had in his collection,” Mastro said.
The Wagner is graded a GAI 3.5, described as a nice-looking card with tremendous eye appeal.
The auction also features what Mastro describes as the White Sox Collection, coming from another legendary hobby figure, Pat Quinn.