ST. PETERSBURG — His red-haired wife in the front row behind the Rays' dugout is B.J. Upton's good luck charm, declares Dennis Schrader.
Schrader, who holds the Guinness record for the world's largest collection of autographed baseballs, just might be that for the St. Petersburg Museum of History.
Plans are afoot to move all 4,609 of his baseballs — most secured in a room-sized vault in his Odessa home — and other baseball memorabilia to the museum for a long-term exhibit.
Those involved anticipate the million-dollar collection will become a major attraction.
"I've shared this idea that we will be getting it and I've heard friends and clients say, 'I'd love to see that,' '' said Ronald Hersch, a financial adviser on the museum's executive committee.
"It will be a tremendous draw to the museum, to the city.''
Mayor Bill Foster has seen the collection at Schrader's home.
"It's the most incredible collection of baseballs I have ever seen in my life,'' Foster said. "Not only does he have balls signed by every Hall of Famer, he's got one ball signed by Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe.
"It's a collection people will want to see, because there is such a diversity of players represented and to see the memorabilia and autographs. … There is nothing like it in the world. What will make this exhibition so special is there's literally a story behind every ball.''
Officials hope to have the collection installed next year, but the project will require thousands of dollars to reconfigure space in the waterfront facility, pay for insurance, increase security and establish what is being planned as a state-of-the-art interactive display.
In the days since Schrader signed a May 1 letter of intent to house the baseballs in St. Petersburg, the museum has organized a gathering to build interest and encourage donations. The private event will be tonight at the museum.
Schrader, 65, will speak of the collection he began as a 9-year-old, when Mickey Mantle signed his ball at Al Lang Stadium during spring training.
"We are in the planning stages,'' he said Wednesday of the museum deal. "It's not cast in stone, but it's probable. … I get investors every day wanting to buy it. I really don't want to sell it.''
While an "astronomical" offer might tempt him to sell, "I don't think I would. I would like to share it with the public and the city.''
"We've been working on this for a while,'' said Joel Cohen, the museum's volunteer director. "We thought it was going to slip through our hands. Dennis really wants the exhibit to stay in the area."
The museum hopes to raise $250,000 for the project, Hersch said.
"We want to make it a world-class exhibit with the appropriate security,'' he said. "He has a wonderful exhibit already. … We want to make it a much more interactive exhibit, where we have Mr. Schrader on tape, where people can look things up, where we put parts of this exhibit online, where people have the capability of adding information, asking information.''
Schrader, who made his fortune in the mobile home business, is no stranger to Rays' fans. He usually exhibits a couple of hundred or so of his baseballs at the Rays' annual FanFest.
Museum officials say Schrader's collection will fit perfectly with their vision statement, which includes setting up an exhibit to celebrate the 100th anniversary of spring baseball in St. Petersburg. Schrader said his collection will be on a 20-year loan. What happens after?
"I'd be dead,'' he said, laughing. "If something happened to me, it would be my son's. After 20 years, it would be between him and the museum."
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.