World's Largest Collection of Autographed Baseballs
St. Petersburg, Florida
"People come for miles around just to see my balls," Dennis Schrader tells us, with a big smile on his face. We suspect he's used that line before.
The St. Petersburg Museum of History has designed two prime rooms to display his World's Largest Collection of Autographed Baseballs. You don't have to be a sports fan to sense the energy crackling off so many totems. Standing among the thousands of balls in Schrader's Little Cooperstown is like standing in a saint bone reliquary.
The museum features other items of interest -- we appreciated the Egyptian mummy, the Criminal Brassiere, and a freak two-headed calf. It's the autograph collection, though, that slyly lures in baseball fans, then throws a curveball to deliver 140 years of world history and culture.
Dennis started collecting when he was a 9-year-old kid in 1956, at St. Pete's Al Lang Field, where the Yankees were playing a spring training game. The young tyke was holding a ball, helping the ball boy, when a player walked up, took the baseball, signed it, and handed it back.
The player was Mickey Mantle. Dennis became addicted for life.
Part of his collection is arranged on tightly aligned shelves, each autograph carefully positioned. As a visual aid, many have thumbnail photos of the signer affixed to the plexiglass. The count was at 4,818 when we visited (Schrader is not customarily on site, but we were fortunate he happened to walk in with a freshly autographed ball to add).
The first room is devoted to the game of baseball. There are balls from Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Cy Young, Ted Williams. Try naming almost anyone important to the sport and you'll find an autograph. Large interpretive panels highlight milestones and eras, giving context to particular balls.
For example, you may not know the name William "Dummy" Hoy -- a deaf major league player from 1888-1902. The display around his autographed ball tells how Hoy was instrumental in teaching teammates sign language and making umpire "hand signals a part of the game."
Schrader makes acquisitions through his collector connections, but also wanders the minor leagues, looking for tomorrow's star performers. Some balls are more rare than others, taking Schrader years to obtain through research, trades, purchases, or direct contact with the signee. The scarcity of a particular autograph, or the signer's willingness to sign anything has a big impact on the dollar value.
"A Pete Rose ball is worth five bucks -- he'd been signing them in every casino in the world."
We imagine that Schrader travels with a car trunk filled with blank balls, wearing special order umpire pants and a Sharpie(R) behind his ear. But often he's simply mailing a persuasive letter to someone to join his assemblage of immortals.
Autographed balls help tell the story of the Negro Leagues, as well as the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (fictionalized in the movie "A League of Their Own," but with real teams such as the Rockford Peaches, Racine Belles, and the Milwaukee Chicks.). Extending out beyond players, Schrader collects balls signed by coaches, managers, and umpires, even sportscasters.
Balls of the Stars
Though Schrader has clearly pursued getting autographed balls from baseball's greats, he also has a zeal for non-baseball celebrities and notable persons. He liberally sprinkles celebrity balls in the historical timelines, and devotes a whole section to the cream of his TV and movie signers.
Without even meeting Schrader, you can learn a lot what catches his interest. In a section of signed balls by music luminaries, Jimmy Dorsey is next to MC Hammer. There's Elvis, daughter Priscilla, and Vanilla Ice.
Here's a baseball signed by both Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio in 1952 (she gave it to him as a gift while they were dating). Here's one signed by legendary aviators Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. Just not at the same time (there's no rule that a baseball gets autographed in one session -- some take decades to complete).
Dennis said that the time-shifting of signatures vs. events confuses some visitors: "They ask: How can this be the first ball thrown out at a game in 1880s?" (It isn't, the guy who threw that ball signed this newer ball a half century later).
Certain signers with no connection to baseball still attract intense interest.
"The women love Tom Selleck," Schrader said. The hunky 1980s superstar actor is shelved below actress Tina Louise. Selleck starred in the abysmal 1992 film "Mr. Baseball," so he's obviously sought for other reasons. (We spotted Selleck balls exhibited in two different areas, a rare duplication that's either a mistake, or a concession to assure that women leave satisfied.).
Balls in World History
Schrader connects with political leaders -- at least, those who probably like baseball and also agree to sign a ball. He has a Nixon, a Ford, a Carter, and an Obama. Ronald Reagan's signature shares a ball with Doris Day.
Schrader also scored a Fidel Castro, perhaps because the only thing Cuba and the U.S. shared consistently was love for America's National Pastime. Pre-revolution and up-and-coming pitcher Castro turned down a contract with the New York Giants, though according to the display he took a few days to think about it.
Some signatures are unfamiliar names, forever associated with world-changing events and disasters. Millvina Dean, last survivor of 1912's Titanic sinking, signed a ball for Dennis in 2008, and died in 2009. Morris R. Jeppson and Dutch Van Kirk were part of the Enola Gay crew which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. Jeppson's ball appears on the world event timeline, and Van Kirk is back in in the Celebrities section, sandwiched between Carl Reiner and Rob Reiner.
With the real Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame an inconvenient 1,300 miles north, Schrader's Little Cooperstown is an inspiring and entertaining all-seasons alternative. And don't forget about the museum's mummy and the 2-headed calf.