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Features

Having a ball

Deep inside his steel and concrete bunker, Dennis Schrader is smiling. Baseball has been very, very good to him.

By JEFF KLINKENBERG
Published September 10, 2006


The spare bedroom turns out to be a bank vault. Dennis Schrader  stops at the door and punches numbers into a combination lock. Then he rotates the locking wheel that clicks open the tumblers that release the door.

“Welcome to Little Cooperstown,’’ he says, snapping on the lights.Inside the room is his collection of autographed baseballs. Last time he counted, he owned 1,400 signed by the greatest players in the history of the game.

“This one’s my favorite,’’ he says, pointing to a ball inside a glass case. It was autographed the day the players who signed it were inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1939.

Babe Ruth had the ball in his hand. So did Ty Cobb, Cy Young, Nap “Larry” Lajoie, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson, Connie Mack, George Sisler, Eddie Collins and Tris Speaker .

“I got it for $12,000,” Schrader says. “It’s worth at least $35,000 now.’’

Schrader is a balding, white-haired guy of 58 who made his fortune building and selling mobile homes. During his life he has collected many expensive things. Last time he needed a new kick, he started buying baseball memorabilia.

He didn’t think it was going to consume him the way it has. Now he values his private museum at more than $1-million.

Very few people know about his museum. Fewer have gotten a tour.

Schrader is the kind of achiever who enjoys the limelight. Who will tell him, “You did this, Dennis, you put this together,’’ if nobody knows about it? There is no glory in anonymity.

Yet in his dark moments of the soul, he wonders whether he wants people to know. From personal experience he knows that some folks are just no good.“We have all kinds of security here,’’ he says. “And I’m armed.’’

***

Most baseball fans became baseball fans when they’re kids. Perhaps they join Little League and dream of starting in  centerfield for the Yankees. Maybe Dad throws them pop-ups after work; on the weekend Mom takes them to the game and teaches them how to keep a scorecard because her grandpa taught her.

Fans with gray hair remember exchanging soda pop bottles for money spent joyfully on baseball cards that were stored under the bed and taken out dozens of times during the day for worship.

Baseball fans of a certain age remember when they could imitate the batting stances of every player named to the All-Star team, when even Dad said “Give it a rest’’ after hearing, for the umpteenth time that night, the batting averages of every player on the favorite team.

For a baseball fan with gray hair or no hair or a sagging waistline, following baseball is all about romance and escape. It’s a link to childhood, to the time when Mom and Dad were still alive, when the most exciting thing on television was the game-of-the-week broadcast by Pee Wee Reese and Dizzy Dean. When you were immortal.

Of course, nobody worried about thieves breaking in to steal that Mickey Mantle rookie card from the shoebox.

***

Here in the 21st century, Dennis and Mary Schrader still try to act like kids when it comes to baseball. They still are romantic about it.

They have season tickets to the Devil Rays. Of course, it takes more than spare change to pay for them. Every year Schrader writes a check for $11,000 for his two prized seats behind the home dugout.

He still gets excited about the games. Last month the new shortstop got his first major-league hit . Later he struck a foul ball and Schrader managed to snag it. After the game Schrader got Ben Zobrist’s  signature on the ball.

That autographed orb has not yet made it into Little Cooperstown. It rests on a table outside the vault. Let’s see how the rookie does. Then perhaps he’ll find a place of honor near Derek Jeter.

Schrader is a Yankees fan. He attended many of their spring training games as a boy. When he was 11 he leaned over the railing and implored, “Mister Mantle?’’ Mickey tousled his hair and signed.

He can’t remember what happened to that special ball. Fortunately, he owns others signed by No. 7. In an auction he also bought a ball signed by Roger Maris in 1961, the year he broke the Babe’s homer record.

Schrader has a ball signed by Tracy Stallard, the unlucky Boston Red Sox pitcher who gave up homer No. 61 that season.

Schrader has a signed photograph of Joe DiMaggio  from his rookie year, 1936, when he wore No. 9 on his jersey. The next season the great DiMaggio wore the famous No. 5. “The fact he’s wearing No. 9 in my photo makes it different and more valuable,’’ Schrader says. He paid $500 for it and thinks he got a steal.

On another shelf is an autographed photo collage of Joltin’ Joe’s ill-fated bride, Marilyn  Monroe. Schrader would love to find a baseball autographed by the pair of them. Of course, so would every millionaire collector on the planet.

At least one exists.

According to the Internet site sweetspotnews.com , it recently was auctioned  for $191,200.

***

Schrader and his wife, Mary, met at Largo High. She was the curvaceous beauty and he was the 5-foot-9 guard with the fabulous outside shot. He scored 46 points in a game against Northeast and averaged 28.5 points a game and made the All-Pinellas team in 1965.

In the locker room one night, as he unlaced his shoes, a visitor towered over him. “Know who I am?’’ asked the white-haired man.

Yes.

“Have you had any college offers?’’ the old man asked.

Georgia Tech and the University of Florida.

“If you want to be an engineer, go to Georgia Tech,’’ the old man said. “If you want to be close to your mama go to Florida. But if you want to be an All-American come to Kentucky.’’

Then the man they called the Colonel, Adolph Rupp, said goodbye.

Schrader wasn’t a conscientious student. He was more interested in sports and girls. He and Mary exchanged wedding vows only a few months after graduation. Forget about college: He wanted to make some dough.
He joined a semi-pro basketball league.

He played for the Scranton (Pa.) Miners for $50 a game and the Minnesota Muskies for $75 a pop. He felt rich until the moment he was in the air for a layup and a larger player knocked out four teeth.

“What was I doing thinking I could play with those big guys?”

Anyway, he told friends when he arrived back home, he hated the cold. He got a job at a mobile home manufacturing company, became president at age 28 and retired a wealthy man at 40. He came out of retirement six months later to head Jacobsen  Homes, now the 17th largest builder of manufactured residences in the United States.

He can afford a swimming pool that comes with a waterfall. He can afford Hummers and custom-built Harleys.

He and Mary take the Harley to Tropicana Field only 32 miles away.

***

Once upon a time he collected expensive vintage cars. He restored 20 himself before arthritis spoiled the fun.

In the smaller of two garages, he parks a 1995 Monte Carlo once driven by NASCAR superstar Jeff Gordon, who autographed the sun visor. Schrader sometimes sits behind the wheel and cranks up the engine of the conversation piece “just to keep the battery charged.’’ He never takes his prize out for a spin. It has 48 miles on the odometer.

At 1,900 square feet, the other garage is large enough to contain a small fleet of Hummers. But it is mostly filled by his old car show trophies, more than 500 of them.

He and Mary moved into the house after a trauma that still haunts them.

In 1998 they were living in another expensive neighborhood. They’d been out on a gambling ship. They’d won some money. Thieves followed them home and waited.

Around dawn, Schrader walked out of his house to go to his office in Safety Harbor. A man wearing a clown mask demanded the money.

Pretending to reach for his wallet, Schrader slapped the gun away and socked the guy in the nose. “Shattered it. He thought he was dealing with this old bald guy.’’

But someone he didn’t see knocked him silly with the butt of a gun. He wondered if they were going to try to get inside the house, steal their precious belongings and kill him and Mary.

In the house, Mary heard her husband yell. She grabbed her favorite gun. The thieves dragged Dennis into the garage and headed for the kitchen door.

Mary turned on the alarm and pointed her rifle at them. The thieves used Dennis as a shield. She ducked behind a wall. When she looked again the gunmen were gone.

“All I could think of is we’re going to die,’’ Mary told the St. Petersburg Times then. Bruised and bloody, Dennis refused to go to the hospital. But he says now, “We’ll never recover.’’

Their new 7,000-square-foot house boasts state-of-the-art security.

The previous owner had a million-dollar gun collection and little faith in humanity. The vault’s walls, ceiling and floor are concrete and steel and a foot thick. The vault is additionally protected by sensors in the floor. Simply moving a case on the shelf summons the police. Schrader says his collection is uninsured. Doesn’t think he needs it.

He and Mary have his-and-her guns. She favors a compact .45 that fits into her purse. Sometimes he carries a .357-caliber Magnum — in his trousers.

Don’t show up at his house unannounced thinking you’d like to have a game of catch.

***

The Schraders are party people. During the evening they inevitably usher guests into the 168-square-foot room that holds Little Cooperstown.

Mary is a collector, too. She has a grand and expensive collection of figurines, including Disney rarities. She collects rare china. She has Thomas Kinkade paintings. She has a rare coin and currency collection. Former President Grover Cleveland’s picture is on a $1,000 bill. She keeps that one in Little Cooperstown under the Joe DiMaggio wing.

“Here’s a ball signed by Jim Thorpe,’’ Dennis Schrader says, giving a tour. Thorpe was an American Indian, an Olympian, a professional football player and  an outfielder for the New York Giants. “I paid $5,000 for it. Last I looked it’s worth $28,600.’’

He is a regular visitor to Web sites dedicated to big-time baseball memorabilia collectors. He buys balls by auction, bidding against collectors who often lack his financial resources.

He buys only memorabilia authenticated by experts who make a living identifying autographs. Without their expensive assistance it is easy to be cheated.

“Here’s a rare one. He signed this ball 'Theodore Samuel Williams’ and '.406.’ That was his batting average in 1941.’’

Shoeless Joe Jackson, banned from baseball after the Black Sox scandal in 1919, was illiterate. But he knew how to sign his name on a baseball. Schrader has proof.

Don Larsen pitched a perfect game against the Dodgers in the 1956 World Series. Yogi Berra was the catcher. They both signed.

Charles “Old Hoss’’ Radbourn won 58 games while pitching for the Providence Grays in 1884. He signed a ball, now the oldest memory in Little Cooperstown.

***

First thing in the morning, Schrader ambles into his back yard along the fourth hole and picks up balls that golfers have sliced into the thick grass next to the patio. In three years he has collected 2,000.

He contacted the Guinness Book of World Records  people to see if he had a record collection of golf balls. “No. I’m weak. There’s a guy who has already collected 74,000.’’

He is certain he will be included in the next edition for owning the “World’s Largest Collection of Autographed Baseballs.’’ He is doing the paperwork now.

“I’m somebody, damn it,’’ he says with a small smile that says “I’m sort of joking.’’

Everybody wants to be immortal.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at (727) 893-8727 or klink@sptimes.com.

[Last modified September 10, 2006, 14:27:28]


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