The greatest collector of sports memorabilia that I ever knew was the late Nick Peters, the Hall of Fame baseball writer who amassed thousands of mementos from a lifetime of loving and covering the greatest games and athletes of the late 20th century and early 21st century.
Peters, who spent the last 20 of nearly 50 seasons covering the Giants as a Sacramento Bee staff writer, created a virtual sports museum in his Sacramento-area home before he died in 2015 at age 75.
From the outside of Peters’ home, one could never guess what was stored on the inside. You had to see it to believe it.
“We would have friends who would come over for dinner and they would end up in one of back rooms, amazed at what Nick had created,” said Lise Peters, his wife of more than 40 years. “It would be an hour later and you would have to drag them out of there.”
A proud son of San Francisco, Peters fell love in with sports as a child and those sports of his youth spoke to him in a profound way. To know Nick was to know someone who personified the essence of a collector.
Collecting truly wasn’t about the money for Peters.
For Nick, or “The Greek” as many of us knew him, the art and the passion was found in the painstaking search for items related to the history of Northern California sports of his lifetime – 1939 to 2015 – and of the years his father Andrew, a Greek immigrant, fell in love with sports before Nick was born.
So in Nick’s collection, there were early 1930s baseball cards of Joe DiMaggio, but not as a New York Yankee. No, Nick had cards of DiMaggio during his years in the old Pacific Coast League with the San Francisco Seals.
“We were in San Francisco, in a junk shop. It was a one-room place and here was this old man sitting there, in a little storefront,” Lise Peters said.
Nick had been alerted to the spot by his dad, this was in the late 1990s, and so of course Nick made the pilgrimage to San Francisco to check it out. The man handed him a bag filled with about 15 cards, which he offered for $100. Nick acted calmly. A sweet man, he could be very gruff and adept at concealing his emotions. He paid the money, went home and pulled his wife aside.
“He said, ‘I have to show you something,’ ” Lise Peters recalled. “I mean, that was as excited as the man got.”
But he was excited. In the bag was a DiMaggio in Seals gear. It as a Zeenut, the early 20th century brand of cards coveted by collectors. It was in mint condition. “Nick’s eyes popped out of his head,” Lise Peters said. She demurs at stating what the card is worth, but put it this way: It’s in a bank vault today.
It’s been separated from Nick’s collection, as many of his pieces have in the nearly two years since his passing. I can close my eyes and see Nick’s collection, but it’s only a memory now. There were programs from countless sporting events – football, basketball and baseball. There were thousands of mint-condition baseball cards, including entire sets. Nick loved the 1953 Topps cards the best. Topps began producing cards in 1952, but to Nick the 1953s were the prize.
They were like oil paintings of the players, a style that gave way action shots of players in cards of subsequent years. Nick collected all of the nearly 300 cards in the 1953 set alone. As a sportswriter whose career began in 1961 after a stint in the military, Nick collected and maintained about every media guide from every year he worked until his retirement in 2007.
His walls were covered with posters, drawings and paintings of the greatest he interviewed – Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds. There were countless bobbleheads and figurines. There were pins, pennants, posters. There were newspaper sections, scorebooks, stat books.
Why did Nick collect? Because he loved his life and kept mementos from the games that inspired his life’s work. But it didn’t stop there. Nick was a world traveler and he filled 200 albums with photos of exotic locales that he and Lise visted after each baeball season.
“He never talked about the great things he did,” Lise Peters said. “I’ve learned so much about him from (the items) he collected.”
In 2009, Nick was inducted into the writers wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame. When it came time for The Sacramento Bee to photograph him for the occasion, he chose to stand amidst his prize possessions. His smile in that photograph still warms the hearts of those who knew him.
“The widows of artists are left with appraising the work of their husbands,” Lise Peters said. “I was faced with a lifetime of items collected over a lifetime.”
Since Nick’s passing, Lise has been like the curator of a museum that’s gone out of business. Now she painstakingly has found homes for Nick’s most prized possessions, After a recent visit, Lise gave me a 1959 San Francisco Giants calendar. It’s a beautiful black and white image of a Giants game at old Seals Stadium. The Giants played their first two seasons there in San Francisco in 1958 and 1959 after relocating from New York.
The calendar hangs in my office and has become a cherished possession – not because of what it’s worth, but because of what it means. It reminds me of the great old ball writer I got to know in the twilight of his career, the one who always seemed to have more fun than anyone I knew. And it reminds me of a time, just before my own birth, that has grown more dear to me as I’ve gotten older.
I’m not a possessions guy, but Nick – and Lise Peters – taught me the meaning of collecting. It’s about love and memories. I look at the calender, I imagine a young Nick on a gorgeous San Francisco day in 1959 and I smile.
That feeling is priceless.