This thing was occupying a window seat on United's Flight 232 out of San Francisco—a five-foot trophy of chrome with a blue velvet crown nestled among columns, above that a platform of rampant eagles, above that a loving cup and above that, supreme, a boxing figure. The morning after his world championship victory over Jerry Quarry, Jimmy Ellis was not trusting his heavyweight prize to anyone. It was flying right along with him in its own first-class $217 seat to Louisville.
In London on another day in another year, Arnold Palmer toted a wooden box into Heathrow Airport. Stickers and seals were peeling from its sides, the corners were splintering apart. Standing in a press of porters, airline officials and customs authorities, Palmer undid the catch of the old box, reached inside and pulled from a green sock the one item of his baggage he was not letting out of his hands—the slender silver British Open cup.
A major sports trophy is the prize of superlative men—the strongest, swiftest, deftest—and therein lies its true fascination. Money could not buy Jimmy Ellis' garish monument or Palmer's antique pitcher encrusted with its golfing history. Achievement earned them. The exhilaration of winning moments fades, purse moneys are spent, but the trophies remain. Without them the magnificent performances of sport would be obscured, reduced to lines in a record book, faded newsprint and a few men's reminiscences. Were it not for their venerable trophies, emotional competitions like the World Cup, the Stanley Cup and the America's Cup might never have attained their present prominence. Not long ago a British sportswriter described the America's Cup, quite accurately, as that "tatty old cup, with a hole in the bottom of it, bolted to the table in the New York Yacht Club." The vase, at most, cost $500 when it was new in 1851, yet yachtsmen have spent close to $100 million trying to win it. Indeed, what price glory?
With age, the major prizes of sport have developed legends epic as the Holy Grail. Some have served as funeral urns, flowerpots and bowls for holding chewing gum. Others have been pawned, buried, counterfeited and lost at sea—only to be recovered all the richer in tradition.
Consider the drama of the Woodlawn Vase, a Tiffany creation that is the trophy for the Preakness. It is supposed to have been buried during the Civil War to prevent Union soldiers from turning it into bullets. One can conjure up that scene—live oaks, cascading wistaria, a stately columned portico on the Lexington road. The war news comes on horseback: Union soldiers are surging south! Picture the mistress of the plantation. Surely her husband and sons are at the front. Swiftly she packs the racing trophies into a steamer trunk, calls a trusted servant and....
Pimlico racetrack tells this tale better than Bruce Catton ever would. It is a sterling story, and no matter if a descendant of the family that owned the trophy at the time won't vouch for it. He says, "The story is not unbelievable. It has been repeated for years. However, anything of value considered not safe on the Kentucky plantation was probably sent away."
The Woodlawn Vase might have been left in Kentucky when other valuables were shipped off, because, despite its baroque splendor, it was worth only $1,000 at the time. As Tiffany trophies went in those days, it ranked as a bibelot. For 50 years before it became the Preakness prize in 1917, the vase was handed out at various race meetings in places like Elizabeth, N.J. and Coney Island. Now the trophy is valued at $50,000, and it is locked in the vault of a Baltimore jeweler.
It was after the Woodlawn Vase became the Preakness trophy that the race attained sporting prominence, and this poses a question. Does the trophy make the event or the event the trophy? The Stanley Cup was an unpretentious bowl when it was first offered. Now silver base has been piled upon silver base and the trophy resembles nothing so much as a magnificent barrel. More than $14,000 has been spent altering a cup that cost Lord Stanley $48.67. His lordship was named Governor General of Canada in 1888, and on his arrival from England he became an ice hockey enthusiast. He built his own rink, had his own team and in 1893 put up a trophy to be awarded annually to the leading amateur hockey club of Canada. Things soon began to happen to the Governor General's prize. In 1905 the Ottawa Silver Seven won the cup, and on their way home a celebrating member of the team boasted he could drop-kick it into a nearby canal. Fortified by strong wine and goaded by his teammates, the athlete succeeded, and the hockey players went to bed leaving the cup on the canal bottom. The next morning, discovering the trophy was missing, they returned to the canal and fished it out.
A year later a Montreal championship team took the cup to a photographer's studio to sit for a portrait. They got the picture but forgot the cup. Several weeks passed. The photographer's mother filled the pretty bowl with earth, planted geraniums in it and placed it in the studio window, where it stayed for months. On still another occasion the cup was kept in a bowling alley, where it was heaped high with chewing gum.
Even after it had become the symbol of professional hockey supremacy, the Stanley Cup continued to suffer indignities. On the way to one Montreal victory celebration the car carrying the cup had a flat and, while the spare tire was being put on, the cup was removed and placed on a curb. The players drove away, and it was not until sometime later they realized the cup was gone. They drove back and found it, right where they had left it.