ODESSA — Dennis Schrader was a baseball-crazed kid when Mickey Mantle autographed his ball at spring training in 1956. "First signed ball I ever got,'' he says. "It was a pretty good day.''
Decades later, on another good day, he acquired a ball signed by Babe Ruth — this time, by writing a $3,500 check.
On Sept. 9, life got even better for Schrader, a 65-year-old Hillsborough County mobile home magnate.
"We are pleased to confirm that you have successfully set the new Guinness World Records title for 'Largest collection of autographed baseballs,' '' said a long-awaited letter from London.
Schrader plans to display the letter and the accompanying certificate at "Little Cooperstown,'' a jam-packed, 150-square-foot shrine that occupies a spare bedroom protected by a heavy, reinforced door. The room contains more than 4,000 baseballs signed by the likes of Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Mel Ott, Christy Mathewson, Ted Williams and just about everybody important who ever wore spikes and spat tobacco juice.
He values his collection at more than a million bucks. He's proud to be recognized by the Guinness folks, too.
He thought his coronation by Guinness was going to be a snap. After all, the British organization in the past has celebrated the world's largest ball of string and the swami who owned the world's longest fingernails.
"It was actually very hard to get in,'' Schrader said. He spent four years gathering e-mails, photographs, videos and certificates to prove each signature was authentic. He enlisted testimonials from a University of South Florida ethics professor and St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster.
It's simple to get into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Pay your money and walk in. It's much harder to see Little Cooperstown. Schrader has to know you or know somebody who will vouch for you. Even then he may require a copy of your driver's license so he can conduct a criminal background check.
The guards at Fort Knox would applaud his state-of-the-art burglar-alarm system. They might also admire his "Dirty Harry" handgun. His wife, Mary, carries a .45-caliber pistol in her purse, along with a baseball.
"Just in case I run into somebody famous,'' she says of the baseball, not the gat. "Then I'll get a signature.''
In the old days, Schrader and his checkbook were regulars at baseball memorabilia shows. Now, when he returns from games at Tropicana Field — he and Mary rumble to every home game on his custom Harley — he heads for his office and turns on the computer.
"There's a whole world of collectors on the Internet,'' he said.
The Holy Grail of baseball signatures?
"I've got it,'' he said.
"Shoeless" Joe Jackson, among the greatest hitters to play the game, was banned from baseball for consorting with gamblers and throwing the 1919 World Series. Illiterate, he was ashamed of his penmanship and rarely signed his name. But he signed at least once on a baseball that now resides inside "Little Cooperstown.''
Schrader's most expensive acquisition was a ball autographed by Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe during their 9-month marriage in 1954. He got it a quarter-century ago for $25,000. Turned out to be a bargain. Another Joltin' Joe-Norma Jean-autographed Spalding sold a few years ago at an auction for $191,000.
Among his prizes is a ball autographed by an obscure outfielder for the Cincinnati Red Stockings, William "Dummy" Hoy, in 1889. According to baseball legend, it was the deaf Hoy who first inspired umpires to use hand signals to indicate safe and out, ball and strike.
Schrader has never visited the Hall of Fame in New York, but he'd like to one day.
"I know they have more baseball stuff,'' he said. "But I've got more autographed baseballs than anybody.''
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8727.