ST. PETERSBURG — It was at Al Lang Stadium, named for the man who brought Major League Baseball to St. Petersburg almost a century ago, that a 9-year-old boy's passion for collecting autographs took root.
It was there that Mickey Mantle signed a baseball for a young Dennis Schrader, who didn't know then that signed balls aren't for play. The signature faded, but a lifelong hobby was born. The 67-year-old Odessa man now owns a record-making 4,600-plus autographed baseballs — three Mickey Mantles among them.
The St. Petersburg Museum of History opened an exhibit of the collection Tuesday that will have a long run — 20 years. "Schrader's Little Cooperstown" boasts balls signed by legends Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, entertainers Elvis Presley and Chubby Checker, celebrity couple Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe, and even one by Fidel Castro.
The impressive collection is worth an estimated $1 million to $2.5 million, but it's not without controversy.
Tampa collector John Osterweil of Memorabilia Magic, a business that sells sports and entertainment collectibles, has questioned the authenticity of some of Schrader's balls. He has spoken of his suspicions to the museum and shared them with the Tampa Bay Times.
Schrader's response is that he has what's called in the trade "certificates of authenticity" for the balls he has bought over the years. For others, like the one signed by Titanic survivor Mellvina Dean, he has a signed response saying she agreed to autograph a ball. There are some he personally saw signed, like balls autographed by B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria. Further, in 2011, Guinness World Records recognized that he had acquired the Largest Collection of Autographed Baseballs. The organization required documentation for each item.
If Guinness "says it's all right, then it's all right," Schrader said.
The museum, which raised $250,000 to create the exhibit, is unperturbed by Osterweil's doubts.
"Dennis has provided us with all the letters of authenticity, and he also had to provide those to Guinness," executive director Rui Farias said. "As far as the museum is concerned, the balls are authentic."
"Every forgery I've ever seen in my life has a certificate of authenticity," Osterweil said, though he acknowledged that Schrader "has a lot of good (balls)" in his collection.
The sports memorabilia business has seen its share of scandal.
Major League Baseball launched its own authentication program in 2001. "We knew that as a brand, baseball had a problem," said senior vice president of licensing Howard Smith.
The league has at least one authenticator at every game to act as "chain-of-evidence caretakers," said Michael Posner, the program's manager.
Only items the authenticator witnesses being signed or being used in a game are eligible for authentication. Each item is given a hologram and a number.
"We have built in a lot safety valves," Posner said. "People can't come in and forge the hologram or move it to another item."
"It gets rid of the need for the certificate of authenticity," Smith said.
Schrader said hundreds of his baseballs have been authenticated by JSA, a respected authenticator in New Jersey and Florida. But Osterweil said he saw others that were authenticated by people who had been caught up in an FBI investigation of the sports memorabilia trade.
"I would just tell anybody that is looking at an object that comes with a certificate to look at who it is signed by," said Brian Brusokas, a special agent with the FBI's national art crime team.
"Schrader's Little Cooperstown" exhibit is a nod to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., which boasts 40,000 pieces. Brad Horn, vice president of communications and education, said the museum takes in about 30 items each season and is offered about 300 to 400 pieces a year from collectors and fans. The integrity of what goes into its collection "is of paramount concern," he said.
"We will take all of the necessary steps to make sure we can have a strong understanding of its provenance," Horn said. "In the event that we cannot prove that provenance, we will say 'no.' "
Farias, the St. Petersburg Museum of History director, has no doubts about the Little Cooperstown collection.
"Every ball had some sort of document," he said. "We feel comfortable that the balls are authentic."
Times researchers Caryn Baird and Carolyn Edds contributed to this article. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.