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The Holy Grails

From the America's Cup to Olympic Medals, Sports Trophies Have Been Kissed, Caressed, Stolen, Smashed, Buried, But Above All, Coveted

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When the Rimet trophy was stolen in London, Abrain Tebel of the Brazilian Sports Confederation told the London Times: "It would never have happened in Brazil. Even Brazilian thieves love football and would never commit this sacrilege." He overestimated the soccer fealty of Brazilian crooks. In December 1983, thieves broke into the headquarters of the Brazilian Football Association and made off with the Rimet trophy. It was never recovered--having evidently found its fate in a Rio melting pot.
While the rest of the world may have its "football," the United States has what it considers the real deal. So quintessentially American is the gridiron classic that the creators of the Heisman Memorial Trophy, bestowed upon the nation's top college player, unabashedly claim it is "the most famous and coveted individual award in American athletics."
For many of the 64 players who have won the Heisman over the past 65 years (Archie Griffin of Ohio State won it twice, in 1974 and 1975), landing it was the stepping-stone to an illustrious--and lucrative--professional football career. For others, it was the apex of their athletic achievements.
In 1935, New York's Downtown Athletic Club commissioned a 23-year-old sculptor, Frank Eliscu, to design the prize, deeming the "traditional cup or bowl...too commonplace...for the athletic talent to be honored and immortalized."
Eliscu chose Ed Smith, a top member of the 1934 New York University football team, as his model. His clay effort was inspected by Fordham coach Jim Crowley--one of the fabled "Four Horsemen" of Notre Dame--who suggested that Eliscu have some of the Fordham players also pose for him to further refine the statuette.
In 1936, Downtown's athletic director, John W. Heisman (a former football player at Brown and Penn and a coach from 1892 to 1927) died, and the club decided to name the trophy in his memory.
Each honoree gets a replica of the 40-pound bronze trophy to take home, as does his school. Heismans are valued at $5,000, but as collectibles few have ever found their way onto the sports memorabilia market. A notable exception: O. J. Simpson's Heisman (University of Southern California, 1968) fetched $230,000 in February 1999 from an anonymous telephone bidder during a Los Angeles auction of his assets to cover the civil court judgment against him in the slayings of his former wife and her friend.
Unlike trophies that originally were created at the behest of private sportsmen or clubs, the first of the great corporate-affiliated sports prizes is linked to one of America's biggest industries: automobiles. Yet the founder of the Borg-Warner Trophy for the Indianapolis 500 never had a driver's license.
Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker also never held a pilot's license, but he was America's "Ace of Aces" in air combat during the First World War, winning a Congressional Medal of Honor for shooting down 22 German planes. In 1927, Rickenbacker became owner of the Indianapolis Speedway, home of the 500 since 1911. (Before the war, a teen-aged Rickenbacker was a record-setting, and very wealthy, race car driver.) He introduced the trophy in 1936, having induced the Chicago-based Borg-Warner Automotive to sponsor it, and paid the Chicago jewelry firm Spaulding & Co. $10,000 to make it--a stunning sum in the depths of the Great Depression.
The Art Deco-style, 4-foot, 3-inch-high trophy features the bas-relief likenesses of 70 drivers on an 18-inch marble base. In 1986, a new base was constructed to provide enough space to last until 2003.
The Borg-Warner is permanently displayed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum. In 1989, Borg-Warner began providing a 14-inch-high, 5-pound sterling silver replica--the "Baby Borg," currently valued at $25,000--to the winning driver. In 1998, the company established the Borg-Warner Automotive Award, another replica of the larger trophy, with a band of Art Deco racing cars accentuated in gold, that goes to the owner of the winning team.
Though silver or gold may be the material of choice for most of the world's great sports trophies, about three yards of wool and polyester (polyester!) constitute the essential ingredients of what is said to be perhaps "the most recognized all sports"--the Masters' green jacket.
Winners of the Masters tournament in Augusta, Georgia, receive a replica of the permanent Masters trophy--a miniature sterling silver version of the Augusta National course's clubhouse, first introduced in 1961. They also get an impressive gold medal. But the Masters' prize best known to the public is an elegantly simple, single-breasted, three-button, tropical-weight wool-and-polyester green blazer, said to be the color of a perfectly cut fairway at Augusta, home of the Masters since its inception in 1934.
The green jackets first appeared in 1937, when legendary golfer Bobby Jones and his associate Clifford Roberts, cofounders of the Masters, ordered a supply of them and urged club members to buy one and wear it during the tournament so that visitors thereby would be able to identify "a reliable source of information," Roberts wrote years later.
Initially, members didn't like wearing the conspicuous jackets, and the original coats were of heavy material that made them uncomfortably warm, Roberts recalled. "Within a few years, however, lighter weight made-to-measure green coats were available at the club's pro shop, and all members regularly wore them whenever they were at the club."
It is an unwritten rule that members' green jackets should be worn only at the club. The Masters champion alone is entitled to wear the green jacket elsewhere, and then just for the first year he holds the title. And he's never supposed to wear it in a commercial setting, such as an advertisement or appearance. After the champion's year expires, his jacket is stored in a special cedar closet in the clubhouse and worn by him at the annual Champions Dinner.
The first Masters winner to receive a green jacket--and honorary lifetime membership in the club--was Sam Snead, in 1949. Ironically, Jack Nicklaus, the only champion to win the Masters six times, is the only one not to have a green jacket from the club.
At the award presentation following the tournament, the previous year's champion helps the new winner into a "loaner" jacket from the club's cedar closet. A custom-tailored one is supposed to be provided later. When Nicklaus first won the Masters in 1963, he received the loaner from Arnold Palmer, but by some oversight, he never received his custom jacket. When he returned for the Champions Dinner in 1964, he was given another loaner, which he wore for 12 succeeding years. Finally, Nicklaus telephoned Hart, Schaffner & Marx, the clothing firm he represented, to have a coat custom-made. When he later told Jack Stephens, the Masters chairman, about his self-ordered jacket, the embarrassed Stephens quickly said he would have an official one made. Nicklaus declined, saying all the official jacket would do was rob him of a great anecdote.
(Another "garment trophy" of sorts has symbolized the pinnacle of boxing since 1921. That was the year the World Boxing Association first presented the eight-pound leather World Championship Belt to title bout winners. The buckle is made of 24-karat gold-plated pewter, 8 inches high by 10 1/2 inches wide, embedded with semiprecious stones. The champion keeps the belt for life.)
Although Major League Baseball's World Series goes back to 1903, the present World Series trophy dates only from 1967. Called the Commissioner's Trophy, it was created by L. G. Balfour Co. of Attleboro, Massachusetts (now known as Commemorative Brands Inc.). It measures 30 inches high, 30 inches around the ebony and lucite base, and weighs 30 pounds, with a pewter baseball in the center. The number of its gold-plated brass pennants has increased as the leagues have expanded, with the trophy now holding 30 pennants to represent the 14 American League and 16 National League teams. It is valued at $15,000, and each year's World Series winner keeps the trophy.
The National Football League's World Championship Game Trophy also debuted in 1967. Made of sterling silver by Tiffany, the trophy measures 22 inches high and weighs nearly 7 pounds, with a regulation-size football on top; the winning Super Bowl team keeps it. It was renamed the Vince Lombardi Super Bowl Trophy in 1970 following the death of the legendary Green Bay Packers and Washington Redskins coach.
The first National Basketball Association championship game was played in 1947, but it was not until 1978 that the NBA produced the current trophy, taken home by the winner. Also made by Tiffany, the Walter A. Brown Trophy, named for a former Boston Celtics owner who was a pioneering league official, was renamed the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy in 1984 for the outgoing NBA commissioner. Made of sterling silver vermeil beneath 24-karat-gold overlay, the 14 1/2-pound trophy, valued at $13,500, stands 25 inches high with a 10-inch diameter basketball above a hoop.
Players and officials of the winning teams can order miniature copies of the baseball, football and basketball championship trophies for themselves. These reproductions are sometimes put up for sale on the sports memorabilia market.
Olympic medals also occasionally appear on the auction block. Although the modern Olympic Games began in 1896, it was not until 1904 that gold medals were awarded to the first-place winners, with silver and bronze medals going to second- and third-place finishers. Since that time, a variety of jewelry firms have created the Olympic medals. Tiffany, for example, designed the medals awarded at the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York. The medals for the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta were designed by Malcolm Grear Designers and produced by Reed & Barton of Taunton, Massachusetts. (The Olympic gold medals actually are made of sterling silver but gilded with at least six grams of 22-karat gold.)
Championship rings for professional sports also are made by a variety of companies. The designs change with each year and team, but usually are made of gold inset with diamonds. In recent years, Commemorative Brands and Minneapolis-based Josten's have been the top manufacturers.
Olympic medals and professional sport championship rings are among the most common of high-end sports memorabilia on the market--but caution is recommended when purchasing them. Reproductions have surfaced over the years.
"Buy rings from players and front office [personnel], rather than salesman's samples," says Evans of Leland's auctions in New York. "Buy from top people only and get second opinions as to what you are buying. Buy trophies with a traceable provenance, as there are remakes."
Purchasing such mementos may enable a collector to own a remnant of an athlete's glory, but the thrill of winning these trophies, rings and medals is reserved for the athletes themselves.
Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore-based freelance writer, caricaturist and author of Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber.
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