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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
Neil A. Grauer
From the Print Edition:
Laurence Fishburne, Jan/Feb 00

On March 14, 1997, Benjamin Peri Nathan, dressed in a suit and tie and carrying a shoulder bag, entered the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron clubhouse in Auckland and asked to see the America's Cup. Nathan, a member of New Zealand's indigenous Maori tribe, went unaccompanied to the room where the cup stood in a glass case, protected by an alarm but otherwise unguarded.

From his shoulder bag he pulled a sledgehammer, shattered the case, and began pounding the cup, smashing it with up to 50 blows in what one club official later called "a frenzy." Chanting Maori slogans, Nathan stripped off his jacket and shirt, revealing a T-shirt bearing Maori emblems. Maintenance men finally tore him away from the cup--but not before severe damage was done.

The cup's bulbous center was flattened like a hubcap. Its spout also was badly bent. Initially, New Zealand's National Radio reported that the cup was "all but destroyed," and a member of the 1995 New Zealand crew that had won it offered some graveyard humor: "We heard we are going to be racing for the America's Plate now."

Although sports trophies have inspired passion for more than a century, the desire has been to possess not destroy them. They are fought for and wept over, kissed and hugged. Hyperbole about them abounds. Just as athletes compete for the trophies, the trophies themselves compete for superlatives: "the oldest" (the America's Cup; the Stanley Cup), "the most valuable" (the Woodlawn Vase; the Borg-Warner Trophy), "the most coveted" (all of them).

From the dawn of organized sports, athletes have received tokens of esteem for their triumphs--from the wreaths of laurel leaves that

crowned the winning competitors at the first Olympic track meet in 776 B.C., to the medals placed around the necks of modern Olympians. Today, even people who pay practically no attention whatsoever to sports have heard of these glittering goblets, bowls, cups, ewers (pitchers), plates, statuettes, medals, rings and, in a few cases, garments that are bestowed upon the best in athletic competition. In order of age (not importance; we're not going there), here are their stories.

Ironically, the oldest of the great sports trophies--the America's Cup--long had the dullest of chronicles. For 132 years it reposed in the same place--the New York Yacht Club, where it rested inside a glass case. It was bolted, through an oak table, to the floor "as if it were a permanent guest. Almost a member," observed The New York Times.

Upstart Yanks aboard the yacht America first won the cup by besting 14 British vessels in a race around Britain's Isle of Wight on August 22, 1851. Queen Victoria was at Cowes, the fabled yachting center, expecting to see one of her subjects' ships cross the finish line first and win what then was known as the Hundred Guinea Cup. (The cup originally cost 100 guineas, or approximately $500 at the time.) Around 4 p.m., a single sail appeared on the horizon. According to legend, the queen inquired: "Who is in first place?" Told it was the America, she is supposed to have asked: "Then who is second?" The purported reply: "Madam, there is no second."

Thereafter, the cup was named for the yacht that had won it, and the New York Yacht Club successfully defended it against all challengers in 24 competitions over a century, beginning in 1870.

In 1983, Australian Alan Bond, a portly tycoon (who later was imprisoned for embezzlement), finally triumphed in his $16 million, 13-year and four-challenge quest for the cup. By employing a revolutionary winged keel on his yacht Australia II, he won the 27-inch-tall, 16-pound sterling silver Victorian cup (technically, it's a ewer) for the Royal Perth Yacht Club. There it resided until 1987, when the United States regained the cup as Dennis Conner's Stars and Stripes beat the Australian defender Kookaburra III in four straight races. That put the cup in the San Diego Yacht Club until 1995, when New Zealand's Black Magic, under the guidance of organizer Peter Blake (who would be knighted for his achievement) and skipper Russell Coutts beat Conner's Young America in five straight races off the coast of San Diego.

The America's Cup was awaiting 2000's competition when it nearly was destroyed by the sledgehammer-wielding Nathan. Evidently it was the hoopla and the cup-related real estate development near native fishing grounds around Auckland's harbor that enraged Nathan, a 27-year-old activist for New Zealand's impoverished Maori tribe.

Astonishingly, for a $250,000 trophy whose 1983 loss prompted editorials nationwide--and whose recapture earned a ticker-tape parade in New York--the near-destruction of the America's Cup elicited extraordinarily scant coverage in the United States. (The New York Times, for instance, buried a five-paragraph Associated Press story about the incident on the bottom of page 15 of its sports section.) "We attribute that to sour grapes," Ewen Campbell, sports editor of the New Zealand Herald in Auckland, says with a chuckle.

The Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron contacted R. & G. Garrard (now Asprey & Garrard), the London silver company that had created the cup 149 years earlier. The cup was flown to London, where master silversmith Rod Hingston spent three months restoring it. "Not only were the splits and gouges repaired, but old dents and poor maintenance work were cleaned up--so the cup returned to New Zealand...looking better than when it first arrived," wrote Suzanne McFadden, a sports reporter for the New Zealand Herald. Garrard did not charge for the repairs. (They do offer a 17-inch-high replica for about $28,000.)

Nathan, who had a record as a failed bank robber and successful armed bandit, was sentenced to two years and 10 months in prison, but he appealed and was freed after only a year in jail. It is hard to say whether he will be among the estimated 100 million television viewers who are expected to watch at least part of the best-of-nine series of races, beginning February 26, that will determine which country will have the honor of hosting--and protecting--the America's Cup.

Yet the cup is not the only trophy associated with these races. The crush of challengers led to the development in 1983 of a special round-robin series designed to determine which group gets the right to race the defender for the cup. Paris-based Louis Vuitton, maker of luxury luggage, handbags and other accessories, underwrote the creation of the Louis Vuitton Cup, awarded to the winning challenger. An 18-inch-high, cone-shaped vase with four supporting buttresses, the Vuitton Cup was made of sterling silver by the celebrated French jeweler Puiforcat.

Like yachting, horse racing--"the sport of kings"--long has offered splendid trophies to those whose well-bred ponies outshine all others.

The Kentucky Derby Trophy, the Preakness's Woodlawn Vase and the Belmont Cup get trotted out and presented each year. Of the three, the Woodlawn Vase is the oldest, most storied and most valuable--although its claim to be the "most valuable trophy in American sports" may not withstand an insurance adjuster's scrutiny. The Maryland Jockey Club, owner of the Woodlawn, had it assessed at $1 million in 1983, but at least two other sports trophies may be worth more. The Indianapolis 500's organizers say their Borg-Warner Trophy--80 pounds of sterling silver compared with the Woodlawn's 29 pounds, 12 ounces of sterling--is worth $1.5 million. And the Hockey Hall of Fame says the Stanley Cup is insured for the same amount.

Nevertheless, you can't put a price on history, and the Woodlawn Vase--made in 1860, first awarded in 1861--has a 32-year head start on the Stanley Cup and 76-year lead on the Borg-Warner. It certainly can justifiably claim (as it does) to be "the oldest continuously contended trophy in the United States."

The vase was among the first sports trophies created by Tiffany & Co., whose artisans wrought it for R. Aitcheson Alexander, organizer of a challenge cup race for the now-defunct Woodlawn Racing Association in Louisville, Kentucky. Its original cost was $1,500--a staggering sum in 1860. A masterpiece of mid-Victorian craftsmanship, it features silver work that would be difficult if not impossible to reproduce today.

The vase was first won by Capt. T. G. Moore's mare, Mollie Jackson, in 1861. Competition for the trophy was suspended during the Civil War, and the Moores, Kentucky natives, buried it with the rest of their family silver to protect it from marauding soldiers, be they the Blue or the Gray. The Moores dug up their silver at war's end and racing for the vase resumed in 1866.

In 1903 and 1904, Thomas C. Clyde won it with the colt Shorthose and decided to keep it indefinitely by not offering it to challengers. Instead, Clyde presented it in 1917 to the Maryland Jockey Club, of which he was a director, where it became the permanent trophy of the Preakness.

The Woodlawn now is housed at the Maryland Historical Society and escorted under guard on the third Saturday in May for the Preakness at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course. There it glitters on the officials' stand in the winner's circle. Half-size, sterling silver reproductions valued at $25,000 and requiring at least eight weeks to make are presented to the owner of the Preakness's winning thoroughbred.

The top trophies in tennis--Wimbledon's Gentlemen's Singles and Ladies' Singles trophies--have avoided the harrowing experiences of other trophies by never having left their original home--the All England Lawn Tennis Club, southwest of London.

The All England Club held its first Gentlemen's Singles competition at Wimbledon in 1877, and the first Ladies' Singles matches were begun in 1884. The redoubtable William Renshaw won the singles title in 1881, 1882 and 1883, allowing him to "retire" the original Gentlemen's trophy. He then claimed three successive championships, from 1884 to 1886, to retire the second trophy. Apparently inspired by Renshaw's growing collection, the All England Club decided to spend 100 guineas to buy a new challenge cup (one actually dated 1883) and decreed that it should "never become the property of the winner." It was not until 1946 that the club even deigned to present its trophies officially to the winners, and another three years before the winners received miniature replicas for themselves. The 18 1/2-inch-high, silver gilt trophy we saw last July 4th being smooched for the sixth time by Pete Sampras is the original 100-guinea cup.

In 1886 the club spent 50 guineas to purchase a silver salver as a trophy for the ladies. (There is a persistent myth that Queen Victoria donated the ladies' trophy to Wimbledon.) Elkington and Co. of Birmingham, England, made the 18 3/4-inch-diameter plate in 1864. It is a copy of an older pewter plate in Paris's Louvre museum--and evidently not the only copy that Elkington made. The All England Club has received many inquiries from people who have identical-looking salvers. Nevertheless, the salver that Lindsay Davenport hoisted this past July 4th is the only one that the club has used as the ladies' trophy, with each winner's name engraved on the plate.

While yachting, horse racing and tennis have elite European origins, hockey is a North American creation--and a true sport of the common man. An English lord, however, created its greatest trophy. At the suggestion of his sons, who were hockey buffs, Frederick Arthur, Lord Stanley of Preston, Governor General of Canada, in 1892 had an aide in London buy a silver punch bowl, made in Sheffield some two years earlier, for some 10 guineas (about $50 at the time). When suitably engraved with his name, it became the Stanley Cup.

In a twist unique to hockey's everyman spirit, each player on the championship team is entitled to take the cup home for a day. This privilege has led to many curious episodes in the cup's long history. It purportedly has been drop-kicked into a frozen canal, abandoned on a curb, defaced by a coach's kids, used as a peanut dish in a bowling alley, and converted into a flowerpot in a private home.

Today there are three Stanley Cups. The original, battered silver punch bowl, which is 7 1/2 inches high and 11 inches across, was retired permanently to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1969. Then there is an exact replica made by a Danish silversmith for ceremonial purposes, copied precisely down to the last scratch and dent. The third is a nickel-based alloy copy affixed atop multiple tiers that add 18 1/4 inches to its height and bear the engraved names of the championship teams and more than 2,000 players and coaches who have had a hand in winning it over the past 106 years. This is the trophy presented on the ice every year to the champions of the National Hockey League. (The NHL took sole control of the cup in 1946.) Each player, as well as team owners and other officials, receives small replicas of the cup--and some of these miniatures have been sold at auction.

"The mini Stanley Cups have become very popular because at $3,000 to $4,000--what they were selling for--they are a bargain," says Joshua Leland Evans, founder and chairman of Leland's, the prominent New York-based sports auction house.

As passionately followed as hockey--but by about two billion more fans--is soccer. Promoters of the sport's top trophy, the World Cup, can reasonably boast that it is "the most sought after of all sporting prizes."

The World Cup competition was the brainchild of Jules Rimet, a French attorney who founded the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) in 1921. The first of the quadrennial World Cup tournaments was held in--and won by--Uruguay in 1930. Since then, the men's World Cup has grown into a truly global event, boasting 24 competing national teams and an estimated total television audience (over the course of the five-week competition) of 37 billion, twice the number of viewers who watch the Olympics. (With the U.S. women's World Cup triumph last year, the women's trophy, created in 1991, has begun to accumulate some of its older sibling's colorful cachet.)

The first World Cup trophy originally was called the Coupe du Monde de Football Association. During the Second World War, the Italian vice president of FIFA, Dr. Ottorino Barassi, purportedly hid it in a shoe box beneath his bed to prevent its capture by Allied or Axis soldiers. After the war, the cup was renamed in Rimet's honor. Removed from the safety of Barassi's shoebox, it would have a precarious future.

On March 20, 1966, four months prior to the opening of that year's World Cup competition in Britain, the 12-inch-high, solid gold cup--then insured for $84,000--was stolen from a locked display case in London's Central Hall, Westminster. Scotland Yard got on the case immediately. Some £6,000 in rewards were offered.

A ransom of £15,000 was demanded. A caller warned that if the ransom were not paid, the cup would be "one for the [melting] pot." In just six days, the Yard had its man--Edward Betchley, a 47-year-old dockworker and occasional "fancy goods dealer." The nine-pound cup was discovered two days later by a mongrel dog named Pickles. (We're not making this up.) David Corbett, the dog's owner, was taking Pickles for a stroll in South London when the pooch began sniffing at a parcel wrapped in newspaper and stashed in a yard. Pickles got a silver medal from the National Canine Defense League, a year's supply of dog food and a film contract at double the normal dog rate. Corbett got the reward money. Betchley (who claimed he was just a go-between for a mysterious man he called the Pole) got two years in jail. And England won the World Cup--the only time it has done so.

Four years later, when Brazil won the World Cup for the third time, it "retired" the Rimet trophy to the headquarters of the Brazilian Football Association, in Rio de Janeiro. A new World Cup--the one currently in use--was designed by Italian sculptor Silvio Gazzaniga and presented for the first time in 1974. It is 14 1/5 inches high, solid 18-karat gold, and is insured for $200,000.

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 garment...in 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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