ST. PETERSBURG — Dennis Schrader's first piece of sports memorabilia kind of just rolled his way.
In 1956, when he was 9, Schrader worked for 25 cents per day helping the bat boy during New York Yankees spring training at Al Lang Field, the forerunner of Al Lang Stadium.
One afternoon, a wayward ball scooted toward him just as Mickey Mantle was headed to the locker room. “The Mick” grabbed the pen hanging from the dugout and signed the ball.
An obsession was born.
“All the kids were collecting baseball cards,” Schrader said. “Here was all these players; I could get their autographs, so why not collect them?”
Over 57 years, Schrader amassed more than 4,600 baseballs signed by baseball stars, American presidents, movie stars, athletes and rock legends. Recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest private collection of autographed baseballs in the world, it includes balls signed by Fidel Castro, Elvis Presley, Neil Armstrong and Margaret Thatcher. There are seven balls autographed by Babe Ruth alone and a ball that has the autographs of Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart.
Now, the collection, which is valued at more than $2 million for insurance purposes, has a new permanent home at the St. Petersburg Museum of History. The exhibit formally opens Tuesday.
Officially, the museum has the balls on a 20-year loan from Schrader. The museum invested $300,000 to build display cases and design the exhibit.
The collaboration came after local businessman and benefactor Gus Stavros saw a picture of the collection that Schrader kept in a concrete vault in his Odessa home.
At Stavros' urging, museum directors and Mayor Bill Foster viewed the collection and began two years of negotiations and planning to bring it to the city.
“We wanted a world-class exhibit, that 'wow' factor, and he wanted to share his collection,” said Nevin Sitler, the museum's director of education and outreach.
With balls autographed by baseball Hall of Famers, including Jackie Robinson, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron and Wille Mays, the exhibit is sure to draw baseball aficionados.
But the museum is also hoping to use America's pastime as a teaching tool, with sections of the exhibit devoted to the Negro leagues, the All-American Girls Baseball League and Jackie Robinson breaking Major League Baseball's color barrier. The exhibit also ties into St. Petersburg's baseball history. Spring training began here with the St. Louis Browns playing at Coffee Pot Park in 1914, an anniversary the city is planning to mark next year.
Schrader bought baseballs at collectors events and once paid $25,000 for a signed ball. Most, though, cost him little more than the price of postage.
He wrote to celebrities, athletes and world leaders, telling them he was compiling a collection that would one day be recognized as a world record and asked them to be part of that history.
If people wrote back, he would send them a ball in a package that included a return box. The approach worked
His wife, Mary, got into the habit of carrying spare baseballs in her handbag in case they bumped into anyone famous. That included 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who sat near them at a Tampa Bay Rays game. Mary Schrader wove her way between Secret Service agents to get his signature.
“We're not bashful,” Dennis Schrader said.
The collecting isn't done yet, either. Schrader's latest goal is to get the Los Angeles Dodgers' new phenom, Yasiel Puig, to sign a ball.
“I'm a still a kid,” he said. “I'm still collecting baseballs.”