ODESSA, Fla. - Assembling more than 4,000 autographed baseballs, it turns out, may not have been as tough a task for Dennis Schrader as proving the collection was a world record.
The Guinness Book of World Records originally rejected Schrader's claim because the signatures on all 4,020 balls couldn't be authenticated.
About a year ago, he started up his campaign again in earnest. He made copies of authenticity documents for the balls he got at auctions and such, and prepared his own papers for signatures he obtained himself. He even had to get an accountant to do an inventory, and included letters from St. Petersburg's mayor and other prominent people who have seen the collection.
"I had to have videos, I had to have photographs, along with the inventory list," he says. "It was $119 worth of postage going to London. And four days after it got there, they notified me that I have the world's record. I have the certificate to prove it finally."
The 65-year-old Schrader got hooked on collecting signed baseballs when he was 9 and New York Yankees star Mickey Mantle inked one for him at spring training in St. Petersburg. The semi-retired mobile home executive now boasts more than 4,000, some so rare that it's hard to put a price on them. He spent the past five years or so bugging the Guinness people to put him in the book, finally succeeding this summer.
Schrader, who grew up in nearby Largo, is a likable curmudgeon who loves to talk baseball and show people around what he has dubbed "Little Cooperstown" in his posh home on a golf course north of Tampa. His baseballs which he figures are worth $2 million to $3 million are displayed in a 12-by-14-foot room that has walls a foot thick, a bank vault door, motion sensors and video-camera surveillance.
"Shoeless Joe" Jackson? Yep, he's got a ball signed by him. The famously illiterate Chicago White Sox star learned to write his name so he could endorse his paychecks, but he didn't give many autographs especially after he was tossed out of the game for throwing the 1919 World Series.
Babe Ruth? Schrader's got nine Bambino balls. Not only that, he's got a ball signed by Ruth and the other 10 Baseball Hall of Fame members who attended the opening of the Cooperstown, N.Y., museum in 1939.
That one's his favorite.
Schrader even has a ball signed by Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe during their brief marriage. He paid $25,000 for it. Another one just like it sold at auction a few years ago for $191,000. One of his latest acquisitions is another DiMaggio ball, inscribed to team owner Del Webb when the Yankee Clipper retired in 1951. That one set him back $5,000.
In August, Guinness certified him as the owner of 4,020 baseballs signed by major league baseball players. Duplicates and balls signed by non-baseball celebrities including President Barack Obama bring his collection of baseballs to 4,600. Highlights include a tribute to the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League of "A League of Their Own" movie fame, and a section dedicated to the Negro Leagues. He's got a baseball signed by Millvina Dean, the last known survivor of the Titanic sinking in 1912. After two years of searching, Schrader found her living in a nursing home in England and got the signed ball back in the mail several months before she died in May 2009.
"I've never seen a collection to compare with it," says Norman Chester of All American Sports Collectibles, who has been dealing in signed memorabilia for a quarter century and wrote a letter of support for Schrader to Guinness.
Schrader insists that home's security measures, plus the fact that he keeps some guns around, make it pointless for him to insure the collection.
"It's fireproof, it's bomb proof," he says of his showroom/vault. "If there's a tornado warning, we come in here with a beer and sit down."
Schrader has collected and dealt in signed memorabilia seriously for about 25 years. He's become adept at spotting fakes, and deals only with trusted authenticators, auction houses and dealers who are similarly serious about the hobby.
Oddly enough, Schrader and his wife Mary have never been to the Hall of Fame museum in Cooperstown. He says he'll get there someday, but he's in no big rush. He's quick to point out he owns more signed balls than the Hall, anyway.
The Schraders are longtime Tampa Bay Rays season-ticket holders who rarely miss a game at Tropicana Field. Mary is an avid collector herself, displaying through the house an impressive cache of cookie jars, Hummel figurines and other curiosities. Not only is she a good sport about her husband's obsession, sometimes she's a collaborator.
"A bunch of the balls that we get at Tropicana Field, I'm the one who gets them," Mary says. "They'll always sign for a woman, you know."
While Dennis traces his obsession back to the first ball signed by the Mick, alas, that one is not part of his record-setting collection.
Like a lot of kids in the 1950s who didn't realize the future value of autographs, he went out and played baseball with it.