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Baseball collection has personal value

If only the three baseballs could talk. Maybe one of the balls was hit by Babe Ruth for a game-winning RBI.

Maybe one was scorched down the first base line, only to be snared by Jackie Robinson's outreached glove.

Or maybe one was used by catcher Mickey Cochrane to gun down a would-be base stealer.

Ray O'Keefe doesn't know the exact stories behind the baseballs given to him years ago by his father, Ray O'Keefe Sr., who died in 1967.

But the semi-retired, 64-year-old who lives in Port Richey said he does know the baseballs all were used in World Series play.

Scrawled between the seams of the three baseballs are the autographs of legends: Jackie, Mickey and the Babe. There also are the signatures of Lou Gehrig, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese and other Hall-of-Famers.

"I've always been a big baseball fan, but when my father gave me the balls it wasn't really anything that special. No big deal," O'Keefe said. "Of course, they were nice to have. But I was never big on saving things like that. Now, I realize they're a part of history.

"Just touch them.

"They really mean a lot to me now."

O'Keefe said one baseball was used in the 1926 World Series between the New York Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals, one was used in the 1929 World Series between the Philadelphia Athletics and the Chicago Cubs and one may have been used in the 1955 World Series between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Yankees.

"I'm positive about the first two, but I'm not sure about the third one," O'Keefe said. "I know it was used in a World Series game, but I'm not sure about the year."

For years those three baseballs rolled around whatever drawers were not filled in the O'Keefes' home in Margate, N.J. Now the balls are wrapped and kept in a safety deposit box at a local bank.

"I would be devastated if they were ever stolen," he said. "I have no idea how much they're worth. I've never had them appraised because they're not for sale. I would not sell them for any price."

According to the October edition of Tuff Stuff, a monthly price guide published in Richmond, Va., the 1926 ball is worth $3,800, the 1929 ball is worth $1,900 and the 1955 ball is worth $750.

O'Keefe plans to pass them down to his three children. "I hope they stay in our family forever."

The most worn ball is the one that says, "World Series, 10/10/26."

Many of the names have been smudged into the brownish exterior, but standing out in big letters is "Babe Ruth." Turn the ball upside down and there are the signatures of first baseman Gehrig and shortstop Tony Lazzeri. Turn the ball around some more and there is left fielder Bob Meusel's autograph.

The Yankees went on to lose the World Series four games to three. The next year, the 1927 Yankees, one of the greatest teams ever, won the World Series 4-0 over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

On the 1929 ball, between the seams that are just an inch apart, is the autograph of Cochrane of the Philadelphia Athletics.

"I think Cochrane was the greatest catcher to ever play the game," O'Keefe said.

Of course, O'Keefe might be a little biased. He grew up as a Philadelphia Athletics fan, and still roots for the Oakland version of the team.

"I didn't like the (Philadelphia) Phillies back then," he said. "But now I do."

On the ball signed by the Dodgers, the names of manager Walt Alston, Billy Cox, Reese, Carl Furillo, Campanella, Snider, Junior Gilliam and Robinson all appear. Of the approximately 25 autographs on the ball, all were signed with a brownish/black pen except Robinson and two other names that were not legible. Robinson, the first black man to play in the Major League, signed with a blue pen.

O'Keefe was at the last game played at Shibe Park (renamed Connie Mack Stadium) and at the first game played at Veterans Stadium, both in Philadelphia. He said he has been to hundreds of baseball games.

But he has been to only one World Series game, when the New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals met in 1942.

"It was the day the big Army bomber came so low in the stadium that when it pulled out, it damn near clipped the roof of left field," O'Keefe said. "My brother Don and I were sitting on the first base side and saw the whole thing."

O'Keefe did not get a baseball from that World Series.

And as much as the baseballs mean to him, his fondest memory of the sport stems not from the October Classic but from a regular season game of the Philadelphia Athletics.

"I can tell the story like it was yesterday," said O'Keefe, who was about 13 at the time.

He and his family were walking down a narrow ramp of Shibe Park after a doubleheader. O'Keefe saw a door that said "Office" and knocked on it.

"I couldn't believe it _ Jimmy Foxx opened the door," he said. "Then Mr. Mack (the Athletic's longtime manager and owner) motioned me in. I was there with the whole coaching staff talking with Mr. Mack. It was probably only five minutes but it seemed like an eternity."