For collectors of just about anything, there’s a learning curve. Perhaps the most painful lesson: You can’t—and probably shouldn’t—have it all. Alan Novak had already blown his self-imposed budget at a 2006 auction by the time Joe DiMaggio’s 1937 Player of the Year Award came to the block. The West Chester attorney planned to continue until the bidding reached $10,000, then drop out. It topped off at $7,000, and Novak planned to race home with his prize.
But not before dining with auctioneer David Hunt, president of Hunt Auctions in Exton, and his team. At dinner, Hunt took a call from a would-be buyer who offered Novak twice what he paid for the relic. Novak considered it, then concluded, “No, this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to own a piece of history. It will go to the [National Baseball] Hall of Fame when I go. It’s already in my will.”
A president of governmental agency Novak Strategic Advisors, in his spare time, Novak has amassed an extraordinary collection of baseball’s finest memorabilia. The collection was on public display for the first time late last year at the Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College, Novak’s alma mater. While much of Take Me Out to the Ball Game: Legacies of Baseball from the Alan Novak Collection consisted of art and photos, it also included mixed memorabilia from the game’s immortals.
The exhibit marked the first time Novak had ever seen his prized haul in one place. Normally, it’s distributed between three offices in West Chester, Philadelphia and Harrisburg, and two homes—one in West Chester and a Texas ranch.
Originally, the exhibit was only art and photos, until museum director Lisa Hanover saw the rest of his collection. “What she put together is a history of my passion for the game,” Novak says.
Over two years, Novak sold off his meticulously assembled baseball card collection to finance a strategic switch to memorabilia and art—but only after consulting with Hunt, a friend and client. It was six months after Novak finished liquidating the balance of his pre-1950s cards at Hunt’s Louisville Slugger Museum Auction that DiMaggio’s personal estate became available. “David says that a lot of people have cards, but a player’s item is a one-of-a-kind—and he’s right,” Novak says.
Novak’s collection now includes most of the baseballs signed by Yankees championship teams between 1923 and 2000. There are 19th-century woodcuts for covers of Harper’s and Leslie’s magazines, a signed bat from the 1941 All-Star Game, and a prized 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings team card.
Among the extensive sampling of Arthur Miller artwork is a set of the first five Hall of Famers, which Novak bought directly from the Hall, where he’s a benefactor. These days, Novak commissions Miller directly. In time for the Berman exhibit, Miller painted Novak a Yogi Berra.
Clearly, Novak is not done collecting yet. At the end of the Berman Museum show, he added a new purchase: A spring-training game photo of DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle from 1951, the one year the two legends played together. Another DiMaggio estate item—albeit four years removed—the photo has now been reunited with DiMaggio’s 1951 Yankees championship ball, which has both his and Mantle’s signatures.
The son of a Lukens Steel electrician, Alan Novak grew up in Coatesville and attended Downingtown schools. He and his Italian mother were huge Yankees fans. His sister, Cathy Addison, lives in Downingtown and remains a Yankees fan, though she was a rebellious Baltimore Orioles fan in her younger years.
A Texas Rangers fan now, Novak recalls a game he and his sister played with a set of 1960 Fleer baseball cards, which they moved around a makeshift diamond. “Baseball was a constant presence,” he says.
Novak played baseball from Little League into college. He emerged from the old Ches-Mont League at the same time as future major leaguers Jon Matlack (West Chester), Andre Thornton (Phoenixville) and 10 other prospects. Two years ago, the Chester County Sports Hall of Fame inducted Matlack and Thornton into its inaugural class.
“I actually introduced Jon at the banquet, joking how I was one of his many nameless, faceless strikeout victims in high school,” Novak says.
As a kid, Novak’s extra cash went to the corner store for baseball cards. His father’s baseball books provided Novak with endless statistics, and he became enamored with the older players.
Later, his mom threw his cards away. He also had store-model bats for Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig and Mantle. Thanks to his dad, they found their way into the trash when he was away at college.
As an adult, Novak continued to follow the Bronx Bombers—especially Thurman Munson, who died in a 1979 airplane crash. Among his Munson memorabilia, Novak has the catcher’s handwritten acceptance notes from a 1976 roast. He also owns Munson’s 1976 Player of the Year Award.
Novak’s first World Series was in 1978. He saw Munson, Reggie Jackson, Ron Guidry and the rest of the Yanks in Game 5. Jim Beattie pitched. That same year, he began collecting sets of cards—vintage and modern, but mostly those that combined baseball and art.
Back then, Alan Rosen was the industry’s “Mr. Mint,” “King of Cards” and “Duke of Dough” all rolled into one. Novak purchased a Hartland figurine set from Rosen, negotiating in a telephone booth off Exit 9 of the New Jersey Turnpike. “He set each one up on the shelf in the booth, and said, ‘OK, here’s Spahnny (Warren Spahn). Here’s Stan the Man [Musial].’ He stood each one up to prove each could stand on its own,” Novak recounts. “Thereafter, I was hooked.”
Novak became a flea market regular. Every month, there was a card show, then auctions. A self-proclaimed “condition freak,” he always upgraded and bought the best. For 15 years, he built incredible sets—and relationships. His 1950s Red Man tobacco sets—and many like them—came from collectors who “emptied vaults” a little bit each month. Prices increased, but the sellers held to their originally negotiated prices. “Collector-dealers can’t [allow themselves to] fall in love with any of it,” says Novak.
To that end, Novak recalls Rosen holding up both his hands. In one, several cards; in the other, money. “I sell this paper to get this paper,” he told Novak.
At the opening of Novak’s Berman Museum exhibit, the guest speaker was Howie Bedell, the former Major League Baseball player, coach, administrator and organizer behind the stalled move to bring a $40 million minor-league stadium to West Chester. He came to the event wearing his three World Series rings with the Phillies (1980), Kansas City Royals (1985) and the Cincinnati Reds (1990).
“Isn’t this just magnificent?” Bedell said of Novak’s installation. “One of the feelings you get when you walk into this room is a love for baseball.”
Bedell shared his story of DiMaggio, dressed in alligator shoes and black slacks, hitting fungo balls to him in center field. He walked to the outfield and said, “I can’t tell you a thing.”
“It was a compliment,” said Bedell. “Then, he said, ‘Just do one thing: Focus on that ball as it crosses the plate.’ Pretty elementary, but still the ultimate tip.”
As DiMaggio walked off the field, Bedell asked him if it was true that he could turn his back to the pitch and catch the ball by sound. “Everybody has their way,” he responded.
“The purity of the game can’t ever be lost, though it’s in the shadows sometimes,” Bedell said. “Thank goodness Alan has put all this together.”