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Lord of the Rings

Those who find ultimate glory in sport are rewarded with massive rings of gold
Kenneth Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Joe Mantegna, July/August 2011

(continued from page 1)

The importance of a championship ring was never more evident. The Los Angeles Lakers were to receive their title gold in a public ceremony and the jeweler, Jason of Beverly Hills, was taking no chances. Two cars—one of them a bulletproof Rolls Royce—were procured to carry $1 million worth of 16-karat-gold and diamond 2010 NBA World Championship rings to the Staples Center in Los Angeles. “We wanted to be 100 percent sure,” says Jason Arasheben, who designed the title gold. “You can imagine the repercussions if we didn’t get the rings there on time, on opening night on national television.” The precious cargo arrived.

After three months in the making, after line drawings, 3-D computer renderings, after prototypes and repeated consultations with Laker players and brass, the finished rings—which cost more than $10,000 each—were large enough to cover an entire digit on an ectomorph’s finger. “They are not for everyday wear,” Jason explains. “They are kept behind a glass mantle. It’s not a practical ring—it’s in your face. It has layers of meaning.”

For the Lakers’ second consecutive title ring, Jason (who also designed the 2009 versions) decided on something unique. The inside of each ring contains a piece of the actual ball used in game-seven of the finals against the Celtics. Team owner Dr. Jerry Buss had requested 16 larger diamonds—one for each world title—to frame hundreds of tinier diamonds and the Larry O’Brien Trophy to represent the 2010 title. Derek Fisher and Kobe Bryant desired laser-engraved player images, names, and jersey numbers on one shank.

General manager Mitch Kupchak wanted the records 4-2, 4-0, 4-2, and 4-3 to record the tallies of the playoff conquests of Oklahoma, Utah, Phoenix and Boston.

At an opening-night ceremony some 80 members of the Laker family (from massage therapist Marko Yrjovuori to Laker immortals such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and, yes, Jack Nicholson) were presented with rings before the 16th championship banner was hoisted. Who said that only the Yankees could carry off such dignified ceremonies?

Rings in 2010 stand alongside the simplicity of old jewelry in the way a chunky Hummer compares to a 1968 Cadillac. While a championship ring from 50 years ago may have had one diminutive gem, modern-day title rings are storyboards, veritable trophies with a tale inscribed. Less is more? Never. Let subtlety be damned. When New York upset New England in Super Bowl XLII, Giant defensive lineman Michael Strahan made clear his preference. He wanted a dazzler, what he called a “10 table ring”—as in large enough to be spied “10 tables away in a restaurant.” The trend to be gaudier appears set in stone.

In our century, sports rings are ersatz creations—a kind of hyper-jewelry. Every millimeter of size may be required to summarize the title season. “It’s the detail included in the ring that really tells the story,” says Richard Stoebe, communications director for the Minneapolis-based Jostens, the jeweler that has made 28 of the 44 Super Bowl rings.

To some athletes, neither the ring nor the bling is as important as what the jewelry symbolizes: the possessor recalls sweet victory. The leftfielder and slugger on the 1968 World Championship Tigers, Willie Horton lost his ring, got it back years later, and now wears it every day. First-time World Series winner Alex Rodriguez treasures his 2009 Yankees World Series ring. “I know a lot of guys are talking about they’re not going to wear it because they’re too cool,” the third baseman says. “Well, I call B.S. on that. I’m going to wear it and wear it every day. Heck, if they let me wear it to third today, I’ll try to do that. But I think that would break the rules.” And a tale surely destined for sporting mythology is how Pat Riley lured free agent LeBron James to Miami—not by playing “The Sopranos” reruns as Cleveland and New York did, but by brandishing championship hardware. At one point he slid a bag of rings on a table saying to James, “Here, try one on.”

Jewelry and victory have long been intertwined, but the tradition of the championship ring wasn’t always set in stone. Take Yogi. According to a colloquial legend, Yogi Berra “has 10 rings.” While the record book shows 10 championships, Yogi didn’t own 10 World Series rings because Yankee management once gave players a choice of jewelry, such as rings for their wives or watches—The 1956 World Champion Yankees were given 14-karat-gold Rolex Oyster Perpetual watches. (Berra later received replicas of 10 World Series rings representing his 10 championships.)

While baseball and football come to mind first in the world of sports rings, hockey rings may have been the first in major sports, dating to 1893 when the inscription “MHC” (for Montreal Hockey Club) was etched above crossed hockey sticks and awarded to those first Stanley Cup champions. That same year jewelry in the form of a white metal pendant hanging from two chains was awarded to Kid Nichols, a 33-game winner with the championship Boston Nationals. Other goodies—such as gold press pins and tie pins, pocket watches and watch fobs—go back even further, associated with major sports as much as cloth pennants and Champagne.

The first World Series ring was awarded in 1914. A misconception is that the 1922 World Champion New York Giants produced the first, but the “Miracle” Boston Braves beat them to it. The ring—handsomely wrought with a deep brown stone set against a gold background and centered on a baseball diamond—once belonged to Rabbit Maranville, their Hall of Fame shortstop. It is inscribed “1914 World’s Champions.”

The ring made its way to the Sotheby’s auction of the mammoth Barry Halper Collection in 1999, where a combined 2,481 lots sold for $21.81 million. It sold for $8,050. The price seems low, considering the style and age and what the Braves accomplished. On July 4, 1914 they languished in last place with a 26-40 record, 15 games behind the pace-setting Giants.

The Braves then began an astounding streak of 41 wins and 12 losses and, after snatching two of three from the Giants in early September, took over first place. They won going away, finishing 25-6, while the Giants limped home at 16-16. Despite entering the World Series an underdog against the Athletics, the Braves swept Connie Mack’s crew, the first Series sweep in the history of the game.

Other World Series rings have sold for far more. Lou Gehrig’s 1927 World Series ring, complete with its original Dieges & Clust presentation box, fetched $96,000. Items once belonging to icons Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle fetched similar offers. Mantle’s 1956 World Series ring is the unofficial champion, selling for $123,500 at Sotheby’s.

Significant historical rings include the 1955 Dodgers and 2004 Red Sox, who seem entitled to the biggest, gaudiest rings ever. Who would begrudge them rings that shouted to the mountaintops with joy? The Dodgers got out from under the thumb of the New York Yankees in ’55 after five failed attempts to beat them. The simple beauty of that World Series ring includes a single diamond set off by a Dodger-blue background, all encased in gold. One shank shows the Dodger logo, and viewers can feel the sigh of relief in the word “first” above “1955.” The 2004 ring for the Red Sox shows a “B” encircled with diamonds.

One shank declares “Greatest Comeback in History 2004” above a pair of red hose, referring to the Sox unnerving of the Yankees, who coughed up a three-games-to-none lead in the American League Championship Series. The other shank reads “4-0 sweep,” a nod to the Sox straight-games win over the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. (Although swept, the Cardinals designed a National League title ring depicting a red bird on a sea of diamonds proclaiming “2004 16th World Series.” It’s hard to imagine anyone on the Cards being proud of receiving those rings after the Series.)

The first pro football ring made by Jostens predates the Super Bowl—the company created the ring for the 1952 Detroit Lions. It had a gold face including the words “1952 World Champions” with a single diamond across the raised golden threads of a football. Today, the NFL provides for a much more elaborate award, and foots the bill for a maximum of 150 rings per Super Bowl winner at $5,000 per ring. The tab may soar higher, as ring companies bear the costs of customizing them with embellishments. (The league also pays for the Super Bowl loser, allowing 150 pieces of jewelry at a cost no more than half the price of the winner’s ring.)

The Saints Super Bowl XLIV ring was made by Tiffany and Co., which also makes the Lombardi Trophy and has made rings for the Giants, Buccaneers and Redskins. It is 14-karat, yellow gold with a sea of diamonds supporting a diamond-studded, black-outlined fleur-de-lis, the Saints logo and the emblem of the New Orleans region. The Saints proudly exceeded the league allowance of 150 rings, ordering 219, so that every full-time staff member, from the general manager to the secretaries, received one. The 2.2-karat weight probably pushed the ring above the prescribed $5,000, but Tiffany shouldered the additional cost.

Those hefty rings are a long way from the first Super Bowl ring in 1966. The top design included a single diamond, symbolizing the first triumph. One shank recorded the score, a 35-10 shellacking of Kansas City, and an NFL shield logo. The other recorded the cardinal virtues of Vince Lombardi’s philosophy—harmony, courage and valor—all of which he believed were keys to the Packer’s success.

College teams also celebrate victories with rings, and some are every bit as popular as professional models. The Miami Hurricanes own several, including one from the perfect 1991 season, and their 1989 ring has a large “1” on its face formed of diamond bits. The 2006 Florida Gators BCS National Championship Ring features a blue oval stone and fetches $4,000—a thousand less than the 1989 University of Miami ring.

The Boston Celtics have dominated basketball as the Yankees did baseball, but it was 22 years between titles when they earned no. 17 in 2008. For that that championship ring, made by Balfour, Boston exhaled, making the kind of fashion statement that a team waiting two decades for a championship makes. The highlight was an emerald shamrock on the top, surrounded by 64 diamonds. One shank read “Banner 17,” commemorating the 17th championship. The other included a brow raiser—the word “Ubuntu,” coach Doc River’s choice and the team’s mantra during the 2007–2008 season. The African word translates “I am, because we are.” The 14-karat white-gold ring contained some 92 diamonds and emeralds, making nine karats of gemstones. Topping it all off was Red Auerbach’s signature, engraved inside. The rings were reportedly worth $30,000 apiece.

Not all ring stories are triumphant. A dark side concerns the great number of players who have needed to sell their rings. Such sales often owe “to one of the four D’s—divorce, destitution, drugs and death,” explains T. J. Kaye of TJ’s Collectibles, which specializes in championship rings. Many athletes down on their luck pawn their treasures, which collectors in turn resell. Others not in dire straights still sell them anyway. Bill Buckner and Harmon Killebrew, Carl Yastrzemski (who sold a career ring), Pete Rose and Luis Aparicio are but a few stars who sold their gold.

“People sell off rings for the same reasons that people sell off other things—their circumstances change,” Kaye says. Harmon Killebrew, the recently deceased Twins Hall of Fame first baseman who hit a legitimate 573 home runs, sold his 1985 All-Star ring and the Twins’ 1987 World Championship ring. He retired in 1974, but the ’85 All-Star game was played in the Minneapolis Metrodome, and the Twins honored him with a gold ring for his lifetime association with the franchise. The 10-karat 1987 World Series ring was another award for his time with the club.

Giants’ running back Dave Meggett tried to sell his 1990 Super Bowl ring on eBay for $40,000 in 2005. This attempt followed a string of charges for lewdness, soliciting sex and rape. According to Kaye, Clete Boyer sold his 1961 World Series ring in the late 1990s for $25,000. TJ’s Collectibles bought it back and sold it back to Clete at the same price. Boyer’s son then tried to auction it for $40,000. A Steelers front-office person whose estate went into bankruptcy sold his 1975 and 1976 rings on eBay in 2008. The 1975 ring went for $32,751 and the 1975 ring fetched $34,100.

Pete Rose sold both of his Cincinnati World Series rings. The rings sold for $18,400 and $12,650 respectively at the Halper auction, but it is unsurprising that the tale of Rose’s rings contained a bit of scandal a decade before the sale. At first, Rose claimed that he had displayed his 1975 and 1976 rings, as well as his 1980 Series ring with the Phillies, at the Kentucky National Bank in downtown Cincinnati in April 1989, just to prove that he hadn’t sold it to a convicted Massachusetts bookmaker Joseph C. Cambra to cover a debt. Cambra only had a copy of the ring, Rose explained in his deposition to baseball investigator John Dowd on April 20 and 21, 1989. The bank also had copies. “The authentic rings are owned by Barry Halper,” Rose affirmed. 

There are warm and humorous ring sale stories, too.

Patriot safety Je’Rod Cherry raffled his ring from Super Bowl XXXVI in 2008 to benefit charities working to help children in Africa and Asia. The cost of raffle tickets and the sale generated more than $200,000. And tight end Shannon Sharpe gave his first Super Bowl ring to his brother Sterling, whose career was shortened by an injury. Bill Buckner didn’t get a coveted ring in the 1986 Series, but the Boston first sacker did sell Halper the glove and cleats that he wore in game six. In a note to Halper he wrote “To my pal Barry—this glove has way too many holes in it! This is the glove I wore in the 1986 World Series when I missed Mookie Wilson’s ground ball in the 6th game. What a nightmare. Best Wishes, Bill Buckner.” Buckner’s Nike Air high-top cleats, showing heavy wear like the glove, merited their own note, much the same as the first. We don’t know what Buckner fetched for the tools of his misery, but some buyer wanted the glove and cleats badly enough to pay $51,750 for them at auction.

At least one player was able to increase his World Series shares by selling all his rings. Johnny Hopp, an outfielder and first baseman for the World Champion Cardinals in 1942 and 1944 and the Yankees in 1950 and 1951, collected winning World Series shares each year and also sold his four rings. The winner’s share in 1942 and 1944 totaled $10,818.54 and the winning shares on the two Yankee title winners added up to $12,184.04. Together, the 1942 and 1944 rings and Hopp’s 1950 and 1951 rings—one the size of a man’s pinkie ring, which might have been made smaller for Mrs. Hopp—were sold for $40,825. Hopp earned significantly less from the sales, but he certainly increased his income. The Yankee ring was inscribed “Johnny Hippity Hopp,” an apt moniker for such a nomadic player.

Hopp played with Joe DiMaggio on the ’51 Yankees. DiMaggio later reported that his rings were stolen from his room at the Hotel Lexington in New York. Halper later acquired the 1951 ring in a sale, and claimed that the item, engraved “Joe DiMaggio” on the inside, was Joltin’ Joe’s only surviving ring. It sold for $37,375. (When DiMaggio made his last Yankee Stadium appearance at Joe DiMaggio Day at Yankee Stadium on September 27, 1998, owner George Steinbrenner presented DiMaggio with replicas of his nine World Series rings, as he would later do for Berra.)

The record for the largest sale of rings belongs to Del Webb, who with partners Dan Topping and Larry MacPhail bought the Yankees for $2.8 million in 1945 and sold them to CBS during the 1964 season. Webb—whose Yankees won 10 World Series and five pennants during his tenure—was fastidious about keeping his entire collection of rings, all of which are 14-karat gold, excepting a 10-karat ring in 1949. The Series rings each have a ¾-karat diamond in the center, while the American League championship rings are decorated with several smaller diamonds, rubies and sapphires. The Webb collection was complemented by a 1949 10-karat-gold tie clip with “Del Webb” engraved on the reverse and a 10-karat-gold “ladies” ring, identical in design but considerably smaller than the standard Series ring.

The two most prized rings in the collection are the 1953 ring, made by Balfour, which designates the year the Yankees won an unprecedented fifth consecutive World Championship. Its design includes a large “5,” with the curve filled with a large diamond. The 1961 ring recalls the year that Roger Maris hit 61 home runs and Mantle hit 54. The Webb collection, obtained by Halper from Mrs. Del Webb and housed in a custom-made black leather jewelry box with Del Webb’s initials (“D-E-W”) in gold letters on top, sold for $310,500.

Many years later, players still have the same affection for the rings. Former boxing champ Joe Frazier is rarely seen without his enormous gold heavyweight championship ring on his lethal left paw. Mark Teixeira finds his 2009 Yankees’ ring subdued enough to be at home on his finger. “It’s wearable,” Teixeira says. “That’s what I love about it.” He would consider wearing it to charity and speaking engagements, not to mention “nice dinners with his wife.” Brett Gardner said he would tuck his Yankee treasure away in a safety deposit box. “It’s something that won’t be going on eBay, you know what I mean?” Gardner says. “It’s something you’ve got to take good care of. Hopefully I can give it to my kids one day and they can pass it down.”  

A less-known story is how Willie Horton lost his 1968 ring. “I was shoveling snow and it came off,” Horton says. He gave it up for lost. But the ring wound up in a pawn shop in Miami. A real estate broker from Auburn Hills, whose grandfather owned the shop, acquired the ring before it could be sold and returned it to Horton. “He didn’t want anything,” Horton relates. “I wanted to take him to dinner, something. Now I put it on when I shower.”

By 2010 standards it’s rather plain—yellow gold with a single diamond against a dark background. No matter. To Horton—who hit 325 home runs at a time when people earned that number—it’s precious. It reads “Detroit Tigers World Champions” on the face and “Horton” on the side. “There are Hall-of-Famers without rings,” he says, explaining his affection for it. “I wear it everyday.”

Kenneth Shouler is a regular contributor to Cigar Aficionado. He blogs at kenshouler.com

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