From rapper to baseball collector, the wild tale of Peter Nash
Peter Nash was in the group 3rd Bass before turning attention to memorabilia
Smart and knowledgeable about the game, Nash wowed people with history
Nash loved to live the fast life and got into trouble with business dealings
Peter Nash struts around a Hollywood soundstage, brandishing a silver-knobbed cane and spitting acid rhymes. "Getting paid to peddle sneakers and soda pop," he raps. "The thin ice you skate upon will break and set ya straight." In his boxy suit and slicked-back hair, Nash, 24, has a vaguely thuggish demeanor at odds with his Ivy League bachelor's degree in English. To his fans he is Prime Minister Pete Nice, of the interracial rap trio 3rd Bass. It is 1991, and the group is on The Arsenio Hall Show performing its biggest hit, the No. 1 rap single Pop Goes the Weasel. It's an extended verbal beat down of white rapper Vanilla Ice, whom it reviles as a culture thief, and it has helped pay for Nash's tinted-window Mercedes and his penthouse apartment in New York City. "Ya boosted the record, then ya looped it, ya looped it," Nash raps, "but now you're getting sued kinda stoopid."
Eighteen years later Nash sits in a café in lower Manhattan. At 42 he wears cuffed khaki pants and a short-sleeved button-down cotton shirt. He lives in a rental home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., with his wife and young son, and he has driven a sensible Honda SUV to this meeting. Since his moment of fame as a rapper for Def Jam Records, Nash has achieved a markedly different kind of renown -- among hard-core baseball memorabilia collectors who wouldn't know Def Jam from Def Leppard. Over the past two decades Nash has become known as the most prolific source of the rarest old-school material, especially from the 19th century.
But on this afternoon in late July the tough-guy rapper turned baseball historian is mired in a widening scandal over the holiest relics of America's pastime. Nash recently lost a lawsuit against a leading memorabilia auctioneer in which he admitted to fraud, and, according to sources, the FBI is investigating whether he sold forged memorabilia. (Nash declined to comment on the investigation.)
Even so, he retains some of the old Prime Minister's swagger, seemingly confident that he has turned the tables on his antagonist. He riffles through a fat case stuffed with files of evidence he says he has compiled, and tells stories about innocently buying memorabilia that turned out not to be authentic. "In the baseball field, you have to question pretty much every single thing that's out there," he says. "It's like the Wild West."
As he sits in the café talking, his car is ticketed. The next day a judge in New Jersey will issue a bench warrant for his arrest for repeatedly ignoring court orders.
Long before his unlikely rise to fame as a white rapper, Peter Nash was obsessed with the history of baseball. MC Serch, also of 3rd Bass, recalls the first time he visited the home of Nash's parents on Long Island, in the late 1980s. "Here was this 20-year-old kid," Serch says, "and he had all this stuff: three-fingered mitts and Ty Cobb baseball cards. It was his passion, more than I think emceeing was his passion."
Nash, whose father was a high school basketball and baseball coach and history teacher, joined the Society for American Baseball Research when he was 12 and became a pen pal of old-time major leaguers such as Waite Hoyt, the Hall of Fame pitcher who played for the Yankees in the 1920s. "I would collect anything and everything," he recalls. "I even had a sheet that I was sending to everyone, and I had it signed by at least 20 Hall of Famers, Satchel Paige and everybody, and when I sent it to Lefty Gomez, it disappeared." Gomez was apologetic. "I came home from school one day," Nash says, "and my mom said, 'Oh, some guy named Lefty called.'" Nash partly paid his way through Columbia by selling his baseball-card collection, and even during his celebrity moment in hip-hop he remained preoccupied with the sport.
3rd Bass came together just after Def Jam lost the Beastie Boys, leaving it with a white-rap slot to fill. The two LPs 3rd Bass recorded -- The Cactus Album and Derelicts of Dialect -- both went gold. When the group toured Japan, Nash led the other members to the Tokyo Dome to watch the Yomiuri Giants play. Baseball references (Giants Get the Gas Face) and archival footage (Jackie Robinson stealing third) found their way into the trio's videos.
As 3rd Bass flourished -- playing MTV's Spring Break, opening for Public Enemy on a European tour -- Nash made real money for the first time, enabling him to feed his memorabilia jones. Backstage, between sets, he'd be on the phone placing auction bids. He focused on a precious subset of artifacts. Conventionally ambitious collectors might be satisfied with the relatively rare 1952 Mickey Mantle rookie card, but Nash was consumed by the pursuit of much rarer objects from the early decades of professional baseball, with its quaintly named teams such as the Gothams, Excelsiors, Knickerbockers and Olympics.
The first of many high-priced items he would acquire was a "cabinet card" photograph of Harry Wright, the manager and centerfielder of the first professional baseball team, the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, for which Nash paid $9,000 at auction. But autograph expert Charles Hamilton told him it was a fake, and Nash says he eventually got his money back from the auction house. "I bought a lot of stuff from a lot of auction houses," he says, "and ended up having some problems with things that I bought and returning them. Early on I found out that the business was a little bit shady."
3rd Bass came apart after a few years, and while Nash made a brief stab at a career as a music producer, by 1993 he had moved to Cooperstown, N.Y., and begun a series of ventures capitalizing on the proximity of the Baseball Hall of Fame. He helped start a baseball-themed wax museum and then a baseball youth facility, Cooperstown Dreams Park, while continuing to amass memorabilia.
He was obsessive about his research. "Pete's knowledge is off the scale," says a collector and onetime friend of Nash's. "All he did all day was hang out at research libraries and the Hall of Fame. For him it wasn't work. Going through 1870s issues of the New York Clipper on microfilm, that was the best way you could ever spend your day." Nash combed courthouse records for the wills of Hall of Famers, using them to locate the players' descendants. He also tracked down the family of Henry Chadwick, a sportswriter who came to be known as the father of baseball -- he pioneered the modern box score, advocating the use of more sophisticated statistics like the batting average and the ERA -- and scored a cache of material that included poems exchanged by Chadwick and his wife.
Telling Chadwick's relatives, and those of other 19th-century baseball figures, that he was building a collection for a planned museum, Nash obtained a trove of rarities as loans, purchases and gifts. He won over the families with his deep knowledge, obvious passion and apparent high purpose. "Every communication I had with Peter, I learned something I didn't know about [Chadwick]," says Fran Henry, a great-great-granddaughter of Chadwick. "Peter just brought that [history] to life. He had a wonderful sparkle in his eye when we spoke about these things."
Over the next decade Nash wrote and published two photo-heavy books about arcane nooks of the game's history. One focused on 19th-century players buried at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. The other was devoted to the rabid early 20th-century Boston fans known as the Royal Rooters. Nash also produced a documentary about the Rooters, with interviews filmed in an old gas station in Cooperstown that he was turning into a museum of baseball fan history stocked with much of the memorabilia he was gathering. He named his dog Dooley, after a famous family of Red Sox fans, and got an e-mail address with the prefix pob70, an allusion to Peter O'Brien, manager of the champion 1870 Brooklyn Atlantics.