If there were a baseball collectors’ hall of fame, they’d be in it

Shirley and Lowell Hinkle have more than 2,200 autographed baseballs that are part of their vast collection related to America’s pastime.
Shirley and Lowell Hinkle have more than 2,200 autographed baseballs that are part of their vast collection related to America’s pastime.

If you collect autographed baseballs by the dozen, which I do, you might think you’re hot stuff in the collectibles field. Not me. I’m bush league compared to Lowell and Shirley Hinkle. They’ve got a couple thousand of them.

The Hinkles are legends, true hall of famers among collectors of baseball memorabilia. They live right here in the Toledo metropolitan area.

No, I’m not telling you where. The Hinkle house is a museum unlike any other, and the value of the items stored and displayed there could never truly be calculated.

Call it Cooperstown West. Every room is crammed from floor to ceiling with display cabinets, pennants, signed photographs, old baseball bats and gloves, 400 bobblehead dolls, magazine covers, lunch boxes, umbrellas, Christmas ornaments, and even menus from restaurants owned by ballplayers.

Every room but one, the bedroom. The Hinkles have to sleep somewhere.

Lowell Hinkle was an all-star pitcher at Anthony Wayne High School in the 1950s. He even had a professional tryout with the old Washington Senators.

After his playing days ended, his love of the game endured. Over time, he became a collector. That passion really took off after he married Shirley, a lifelong baseball fan.

Theirs is a mixed marriage. He’s a Cleveland Indians fan; she’s Detroit Tigers all the way. Somehow it works — they’ve been married 35 years.

To call what they do a hobby seems terribly inadequate. They travel all over the country to flea markets and antique stores. Their vacations revolve around memorabilia shows from Secaucus, N.J., to Chicago.

They keep detailed records of everything they have acquired. Every so often, their granddaughter Jenae comes by to update their voluminous records with their newest acquisitions and re-alphabetize all the baseballs.

At last count, they have more than 2,200 autographed baseballs, all in acrylic containers, including balls signed by all living Hall of Famers.

Now that a new baseball season has begun, that number is already out of date. Add in all the other stuff hanging from hooks, balanced on ledges, and displayed in cases and cabinets, and the total inventory surpasses 6,600 items.

What do their four children think of their parents’ obsession with baseball? “They think we’re nuts,” Mrs. Hinkle says with a laugh.

Even though they have paid for some of their items, most of their autographs were acquired the old-fashioned way, by putting a ball and a pen in a player’s hand and asking. Like all other collectors, the Hinkles worry about forged signatures, which is why they try to acquire as many autographs as they can in person. The older players, especially, are usually cooperative and flattered to be remembered.

One of the nicest players they’ve encountered was Cal Ripken, Jr. One of the rudest was Deion Sanders. “He told me to get out of his face,” Mr. Hinkle recalls.

Undaunted, both Hinkles say the key to autograph success is to be bold and act like you belong. “You win some and you lose some,” Mrs. Hinkle says, “but you keep asking.”

One of their prized autographs occurred when they approached the great Willie Mays at a show. He signed even though they hadn’t paid. “We didn’t know,” Mrs. Hinkle explains, “and Willie didn’t care.”

She is especially fond of one item: Hall of Famer Jim Palmer’s signature on an underwear ad.

They have the first issue of Sports Illustrated, dated Aug. 15, 1954, in mint condition, encased in a holder. Inside — intact and unseparated — are 18 baseball cards that were part of Volume 1, Number 1.

They do not buy baseball cards, although they’ll tape a card to a player’s autographed baseball holder for its statistical information.

Another thing they don’t do: tours. Occasionally, they’ll show someone they know through the house. That’s about it.

A full home-security system protects the contents, and the neighbors keep a watchful eye on the place.

They discourage photographs of their collection. The Hinkles carry insurance, but what good would collecting on a claim do if a collection so priceless were lost?

Which raises the logical question: What will happen to all their collection when the time comes? They’re still working that out.

Maybe an auction. Maybe donations to museums. For now, there are still too many ballparks to visit — they’ve been to 133 of them so far in their travels — and too many players to track down to worry about that.

It’s the thrill of the hunt. They tried to get an autograph from Bryce Harper, the Washington Nationals’ phenom, in Cincinnati two weeks ago, but just missed him as he walked away.

Young Mr. Harper needs to be advised: He hasn’t seen the last of the Hinkles.

Thomas Walton is the retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday. His commentary, “Life As We Know It,” can be heard each Monday at 5:44 p.m. on WGTE-FM 91.

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