This article was written by Rory Costello
Pitcher Mike Nagy jumped from Class A to the Boston Red Sox in 1969 and became the American League Rookie Pitcher of the Year. The 21-year-old righty was 12-2 with a 3.11 ERA. Yet he never recaptured that form, winning only eight more games in fractions of five more seasons in the majors. Nagy hung on in the U.S. minors through early 1975 and then enjoyed much success in Mexico from 1976 through 1979. Upon retiring, he came home to the Throggs Neck section of the Bronx, New York, becoming a successful realtor.
Nagy had bursitis in his elbow, but that was just one ingredient, despite what a couple of sources say.i There was no structural damage, like a torn rotator cuff or elbow blowout. He just never quite got back on track after a six-month stint in the military following his rookie year. In 2011, he told the story himself.
“I was a sinkerball pitcher. In 1969, I never had a gun on me, but on a good day, I threw 91, 92 miles per hour – possibly. The second year, the bursa sac in my elbow popped. I couldn’t bend my elbow. I had to put it in a bucket of ice after every game. I don’t know for sure, but I may have lost a little something.
“My big problem was that I walked a lot of people. I was pitching from behind in the count all the time. Guys in the major leagues don’t swing at pitches that are too low. Then I made the pitches too good. I picked too much, and I shouldn’t have. And when they put me in the bullpen, it didn’t help my confidence. I didn’t have the mentality to be a reliever.”
Michael Timothy Nagy was born in the Bronx on March 25, 1948. His parents were Henry Nagy, a yardmaster for the New York Central Railroad, and Beatrice Callahan. Henry’s parents came from Hungary, where the name rhymes with Raj. In America, though, the family pronounced it “NAY-gee” with a hard ‘g.’
Contrary to what many may think, the Bronx contains some attractive, suburban neighborhoods. Throggs Neck is “the mainland Bronx’s most southeastern redoubt. . . . The peninsula . . . is a peaceful, tranquil area with a couple of private communities that enjoy terrific views” of Long Island Sound.ii It is also known as Throgs Neck, the modern alternate spelling that city planner/power broker Robert Moses bestowed. In particular, though, people who lived there before 1960 – when the Throgs Neck Bridge was built – still prefer the double ‘g’ spelling.iii
Mike Nagy, who was the younger of two brothers, grew up devoted to baseball. As he reminisced in 2011, “There weren’t many homes in Throggs Neck then. It was like the Midwest – everybody knew each other. It was fun, an innocent time. Every weekday, we’d play sandlot ball at 6 p.m. On weekends, there were three games a day. My team, the Cavaliers, won 90 straight once. We ate and breathed baseball. Kids today, they eat and breathe computers and soccer.”
Unsurprisingly, the lad grew up as a Yankees fan. “I bet I played ball on every vacant lot between my home and Yankee Stadium,” Mike recalled in 1969.iv In 2011 he added, “We used to go to the Stadium, Mickey Mantle and all that, it was like a religion. Five O’Clock Lightning – the games would start at 2, and the Yankees would be down early, then boom, 6-5, they win the game. A lot of great players: Yogi Berra, Bobby Richardson, so many.”
When he was about 14, Nagy even got to pitch in Yankee Stadium while attending P.S. 72 in Throggs Neck.v He talked about it in 1969. “The New York Daily Mirror sponsored a kids league and I pitched in a three-inning exhibition before a Yankee game against another public school. I remember they moved the mound closer to the plate and put up a temporary fence in the outfield. I was just laying the ball in there and one kid hit a home run. My coach asked me what I was doing and I told him the sponsors told me to let them hit the ball. He said nothing doing and that was the end of that.”vi
Nagy attended St. Helena’s High School for Boys, at the foot of the Whitestone Bridge, which also connects the Bronx to Queens.vii At St. Helena’s teenaged Mike also played basketball, although there was no football program. He was an All-City baseball player.
Nagy, who had reached his full size of 6-feet-3 and 200 pounds, played a lot of semipro ball in New York. “There were many leagues and organizations,” he recalled in 2011. “All we did was play ball. All the fathers were really into it, giving their time, training. No one was jealous, no one was better than anyone else.”
Frank “Bots” Nekola, the Red Sox area scout who signed Carl Yastrzemski out of Long Island, noticed Mike – who was then a third baseman. The Red Sox selected Nagy in the sixth round of the 1966 June amateur draft.viii “I didn’t like it that the Yankees didn’t draft me! The Red Sox were the ones who gave me the money. There might have been other teams interested, but I don’t know – my father handled it.”
Nagy reported to Covington (Virginia) in the rookie Appalachian League, where he was 3-1 with a 1.95 ERA in 37 innings pitched. Although he walked 26, he also struck out 29. He moved up to Greenville in the Western Carolinas League (Class A) in 1967, but he got into only four games all year. “I had tendinitis in my elbow. Not the bursa sac, like later. They gave me cortisone shots.”
Remaining at Class A in 1968, Nagy had a good if not dazzling year for Winston-Salem in the Carolina League: 9-8, 3.24, with 135 K’s in 147 innings. The Red Sox were impressed enough to put him on the 40-man roster. That December, former major-league pitcher Mace Brown (by then a Boston scout) included Nagy on a list of farmhands who he thought looked promising.ix
In spring training in 1969, Nagy got to pitch because of assorted injuries to others, and made it to the last cut. Red Sox beat writer Larry Claflin said, “Nagy was given every opportunity to become a starter. He was hit hard by the Tigers and soon thereafter was on his way back to the minors.”x Nagy felt as though he’d blown a big chance – but he also vowed to manager Dick Williams that he’d be back.xi
Indeed, before Nagy appeared in a minor-league game, Boston recalled him, as they optioned Fred Wenz and Ken Brett to Louisville. Jim Lonborg’s shoulder was also ailing. After two relief appearances, Mike made his first big-league start on April 29 – in Yankee Stadium, no less – and delighted his friends and relatives by winning 2-1 over Mel Stottlemyre. “I was nervous,” Mike said afterward. “Who wouldn’t be?” To open the game, he walked Horace Clarke and Jerry Kenney, then hit Bobby Murcer. But then he got Roy White to hit into a pitcher-to-catcher-to-first double play and got out of the inning unscathed. He walked five men but allowed just three hits in 6 2/3 innings, and Sparky Lyle went the rest of the way for the save. “The kid showed his poise, didn’t he?” said Dick Williams. “That’s one of the reasons why we have so much faith in him.”xii
“I have to love the guy,” said Nagy of Williams in 2011. “He showed confidence in me. He left me in and trusted me to get out of it. He was like a father figure. He had control of everybody. He was great.” Nagy added, “Darrell Johnson, the pitching coach – what a nice man he was.”
Nagy went on to start 28 times in 33 games, though military service and a severe blister on his right index finger limited his action somewhat.xiii He also had a bad back late in the season. He threw seven complete games with one shutout, in which he scattered nine hits against the Royals at Fenway Park on June 7. Although he walked 106 and struck out just 84 in 196 2/3 innings pitched, he allowed only ten homers and had a solid 3.11 ERA. The Red Sox won 22 of the games he started.
All in all, Nagy’s season was good enough that he came in in second place behind Lou Piniella in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. Carlos May, the early favorite, finished third after losing part of his right thumb in an accident. “We had no right to expect this much from him, and we didn’t,” said Dick Williams that September (not long before he was fired). “But when Mike keeps his pitches low, he’s almost unbeatable.” Nagy also received a comparison to Bob Buhl.xiv
Around that time, he attended Manhattan Community College “for about a year and a half. I did it to satisfy my father. I didn’t want to do it.” That offseason, Nagy’s military service also continued. “Frank Robinson wanted me to go play for him in Puerto Rico [with the Santurce Cangrejeros], but I had to go into the Army.” When his six-month hitch ended, it was toward the tail end of spring training 1970. He went home to New York to get married on March 28. His fiancée, Barbara, also came from a Bronx family named Nagy. This is a common Hungarian surname, and they were not related (her parents had come from the old country).
The Red Sox sent Nagy first to Winter Haven (Class A) and then to Triple-A Louisville to get in game shape. He threw two one-hit shutouts for the Colonels in his only two outings with them, and he went up to Boston, where he was just 6-5 with a 4.48 ERA. Late in the 1970 season, though, he pitched four complete games in five starts, although he lost one of them, 3-2, on Curt Blefary’s ninth-inning pinch-homer with two men on base in Yankee Stadium. “I remember that game clear as a bell,” said Nagy in 2011. “I should have thrown the fastball away, but I threw it inside. It looked like it was going out of the Stadium, but the wind blew it back in. It landed one row in, 296 feet away.”
At some level, injury was a problem, but in 2011 Nagy reconfirmed a point he’d made in 1971, saying, “I was always around the plate, guys got comfortable. I learned a change-up later, I wish it had been before.”xv Of the move to the bullpen, he added, “I never understood why. As a starter, you either got me early or you didn’t get me.” He was sent down to Louisville on June 4, which made way for one of the greatest moves in Red Sox history: the arrival of Luis Tiant.xvi
Nagy had a good camp in ’72, and manager Eddie Kasko said he was in the thick of the competition.xvii However, he was with the big club for just one relief appearance in September that year, and the Red Sox finally traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals in January 1973. Near the end of camp, the Cardinals moved Nagy along to the Texas Rangers to complete their end of an earlier deal. “[St. Louis manager] Red Schoendienst gave me the news. I had to go through spring training for another five weeks.”
Nagy was assigned to the Rangers’ top farm club, Spokane in the Pacific Coast League, to start the 1973 regular season. Texas then sent him back to St. Louis, as part of the deal for another righty, big Jim Bibby, and Nagy turned his season around with Tulsa, the Cards’ affiliate. That summer, he said, “I’m strictly a hot-weather pitcher. I just couldn’t get started at Spokane because of the dampness.”xviii He reiterated that point strongly in 2011. “Don’t use me in April when it’s freakin’ rainin’! In hot weather, you throw a sinker, it sinks. In cold weather, it doesn’t sink, and they hit the crap out of it!”
The Cardinals called Nagy up in August after dealing Wayne Granger to the Yankees, and he made seven starts in nine appearances. “I loved the Cardinals,” Nagy said in 2011. “I loved playing there. Red Schoendienst: fantastic. If I was getting racked around every game, they wouldn’t have kept me around. Lou Brock said to me, ‘You’re doing what they want you to do. . . . You’re keeping us in the game.’”
After a trade to Houston that December, Nagy made the Astros’ squad in 1974 as a member of the bullpen. In 2011 he thanked the manager, “Preston Gomez, another great guy.” Nagy pitched his last nine games in the majors during April and May 1974. “The Astrodome – a good place for fly-ball pitchers, not good for groundball pitchers, with that turf and the topspin, the ball got through fast. But that was a big thing to me, getting that 20th win! Even if it took me six seasons.”
After spending the rest of 1974 at Triple-A Denver, Nagy went to camp with the Astros in 1975. He pitched four games for their new Triple-A club, Iowa, an experience he preferred not to dwell on. In 1976, however, he decided to head south of the border – where he emerged as a workhorse. Over his four seasons in Mexico (1976-79), he won 67 games and lost 50, with 19 shutouts and a sparkling 2.01 ERA – the best ever in the Mexican League with a minimum of 500 innings pitched. After spending one summer with Reynosa, his remaining three came with Tabasco. The 1978 season in particular was outstanding: 21-11, 1.64, as he led the league in both wins and ERA. He completed 93 of 124 starts overall, leading the league from 1976 through 1978. He also topped the circuit in starts and innings pitched in 1977 and ’78.
“I did so good in Mexico, they thought I was Tom Seaver!” Nagy said in 2011. “They treated me like a king. The hotel was paid for me, with hotel food, a car. They had a day for me in Tabasco, Mike Nagy Day, I got half the gate. But the closest trip from there was 12 hours, to Mexico City. One winter I came back 175 pounds, and my wife said, ‘What happened to you?’ ”
“I got a call from the Giants, my second or third year, they offered me a Triple-A contract. The Dodgers wanted me too, but the team wanted too much for them to buy out my contract.” In the winter of 1977-78, Nagy played winter ball in a third league, Venezuela (Aragua Tigres). Previously he had been in Puerto Rico (1972-73, with the San Juan Senadores) and the Dominican Republic (1973-74, with the Licey Tigres).
After the 1979 season, Nagy retired. “The kids [daughters Johnna and Kara] were getting older, my mother-in-law was sick, and the arm was starting to wear down.” He was prepared for life after baseball, having obtained his real-estate license. Michael T. Nagy Real Estate was a leader in serving the needs of the southeastern Bronx until he retired from business in late 2011. He and Barbara moved to West Yarmouth, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod.
Mike Nagy is an ebullient and friendly man who sounds like he’s in his 20s, not his 60s. He still loves and follows baseball. He noted with pleasure how his name was back in the news when Iván Nova of the Yankees and Vance Worley of the Phillies posted great won-lost records as rookies in 2011. Looking back on his career, he said, “I was in the big leagues, which was great. I made it on my own, no one helped me. When I got in a bind, no one helped me. Now you got all these guys helping. In my next life, I’ll know the mistakes I made, and I’ll be a superstar!”
Grateful acknowledgment to Mike Nagy for his memories (telephone interview, September 27, 2011).
The Topps Company
Treto Cisneros, Pedro, ed., Enciclopedia del Béisbol Mexicano (Mexico City: Revistas Deportivas, S.A. de C.V., 11th edition, 2011)
www.planeta-beisbol.com (Venezuelan statistics)
i Leigh Grossman, The Red Sox Fan Handbook. (Boston: Rounder Books, 2005), 200. Mike Shatzkin, ed., The Ballplayers (Westminster, Maryland: Arbor House, 1990).
ii Kevin Walsh, Forgotten New York (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 48.
iii “Throggs With 2 G’s Preferred By Pre-1960 Throggs Neckers,” Bronx Times Reporter, June 22, 1995.
iv Larry Claflin, “Rocky Start, Smooth Finish for Nagy,” The Sporting News, September 13, 1969, 17.
v George Vecsey, “Red Sox Beat Yanks, 2-1; Bombers Stopped by Nagy, a Rookie,” New York Times, April 30, 1969.
vi “Sox Rookie Loves Such Bronx Cousins,” Associated Press, April 30, 1969.
vii In 1972 it merged with its sister school, St. Helena’s High School for Girls. The coed school became Monsignor Scanlan High.
viii Larry Claflin, “Nervous Nagy? He’s Hub Starter Now,” The Sporting News, May 24, 1969, 12.
ix Peter Gammons, “Sox Farmhands Impress Scout Brown,” Boston Globe, December 1, 1968.
x Larry Claflin, “Hub Forecast – Clear With Cloud Over Hill,” The Sporting News, April 19, 1969, 19.
xi Will McDonough, “Nagy Recalls Telling Williams He’d Return Day He Was Cut,” Boston Globe, June 8, 1969.
xii Claflin, “Nervous Nagy? He’s Hub Starter Now.”
xiii Claflin, “Rocky Start, Smooth Finish for Nagy.”
xiv Claflin, “Rocky Start, Smooth Finish for Nagy.”
xv Claflin, “Rocky Start, Smooth Finish for Nagy.”
xvi “Bosox Call Tiant from Louisville,” The Sporting News, June 19, 1971.
xvii Dave O’Hara, “Nagy Making Pitch for Job,” Associated Press, March 21, 1972.
xviii The Sporting News, August 18, 1973, 8.