Maris On Hickok Belt: ‘The Top Award An Athlete Can Win. It’s Tops.’

FARGO — It is likely most of the visitors to West Acres Mall who perused the items in the Roger Maris Museum had no idea what the Hickok Belt was before Tuesday. That was the day a thief broke into the shopping center and stole the ornate belt from an enclosed glass case.

The clueless legions would include a former sportswriter, now general columnist and talk-show host, who had seen the belt numerous times, but dismissed it as an ancient relic from a corny era of sports. Roger broke Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record in 1961 and won back-to-back American League Most Valuable Player awards with the New York Yankees in 1960 and ’61, so how big of a deal could the Hickok Belt be?

Actually, it was a pretty big deal and has a wonderful history.

The belt itself, created and sponsored by the Hickok Manufacturing Company of Rochester, N.Y. (one of the nation’s leading belt makers at the time), was an alligator-skin belt with a five-pound, solid gold buckle encrusted with diamonds, rubies and sapphires.

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The belt was estimated to be worth $10,000 to $15,000 ($80,000-$120,000 in today’s dollars) in the 1950s and ’60s, when the award was in its heyday.

How big of a sum was this? Maris won the award for his accomplishments in 1961, when his salary was an estimated $32,000. And that was a massive raise over 1960, when he won his first MVP award. Roger’s salary that season was $18,000.

He did better than Phil Rizzuto, the Yankees shortstop who won the original Hickok Belt in 1950. Author Scott Pitoniak, a longtime Rochester sportswriter who wrote a book titled “Jewel of the Sports World: The Story of the Hickok Belt Award,” says the belt was worth more than Rizzuto made the year he won it.

“I would describe it this way,” Pitoniak said in an interview with USA Today in 2011. “Imagine if there was an actor-of-the-year award that took into account film, stage and television. That’s what the Hickok was like for sports because it said you were not only the best in your particular sport, but the best in all of sports. Kind of like an Oscar, a Tony and an Emmy all rolled into one.”

Reached Tuesday afternoon, Pitoniak reiterated that theme.

“You could say it was the most coveted individual award in sports. It didn’t just say you were the best baseball player or football player or basketball player,” Pitoniak said. “It signified you were the best of the best. The best athlete in all of professional sports.”

Today’s sports world, where TV money rules, revolves around ESPN. Pitoniak said the Hickok Belt Award banquet would best be compared to the ESPY Awards, the network giant’s glitzy awards production. The Hickok banquet was held in mid-January, usually on the Monday following the big Baseball Writers Association of America shingdig in New York City. Many of the top baseball athletes and sportswriters (newspapers still ruled the roost in the 1950s and early ’60s) would hop on a train and ride overnight from the Big Apple to Rochester.

Red Smith, Dick Young, Arthur Dailey — influential New York newspaper columnists all — would often make the trip from NYC to Rochester for the Hickok Award banquet. It was quite an event. The athletes did not know who was going to win until it was announced and there were sometimes hard feelings. It meant something.

Pitoniak wrote about Maris in his book. He passed along this excerpt:

“Still, when all was said and done, no athlete in ’61 could match the heroics of Roger Eugene Maris. The Yankees slugger clubbed 61 home runs, breaking by one the most hallowed record in sports – a thought-to-be unassailable mark that had been established by another Bronx Bomber, Babe Ruth, 34 years earlier. The pressure on the taciturn Maris down the stretch was so bad that clumps of his hair began falling out. When he finally surpassed the Bambino by depositing a pitch by Tracy Stallard into the rightfield seats at Yankee Stadium in the season finale against the Boston Red Sox on October 1, Maris appeared more relieved than ecstatic. His feat made his Hickok victory a no-brainer as he received 85 first-place votes and 304 points, handily out-distancing runner-up Paul Hornung (13-141) and his Yankees teammate, Whitey Ford (14-108).

“The shy young man from Fargo, N.D. did not like being the center of attention, so making public appearances at events such as the Hickok dinner at the Powers Hotel on Jan. 22, 1962 were not easy for him. Rudy Maris, Roger’s brother and agent, alluded to this while watching the Yankees star answer questions at a pre-dinner press conference. “I don’t know how he does it,’’ Rudy said. “He’s never been much of a talker. When we’re at these things together, I’m usually off to the side, making small talk. For me, that’s not hard. But even the small talk is hard for Roger.’’ Roger agreed, telling reporters, “I’m not sure which is tougher – baseball or this banquet business,’’ he said. “They both have their problems. I know it’ll be nice to get back to my home in Kansas City before spring training.’’

“Ray Hickock usually made the belt presentation during the dinner. But, a series of health problems, including treatment for ulcers, prevented him from attending the 1962 gala. He asked his son, Ray Jr., to pinch hit for him and the 11-year-old did a marvelous job, while making the presentation in front of a packed banquet hall of 600 people. Maris happily posed with the young Hickok, then told the audience, “I’m a little more nervous than Ray Jr. Last year when I attended this dinner I never thought I’d be winning the belt a year later. This is the ambition of every professional athlete. I had a long look at that prize last year when Arnold Palmer won it. To me, it’s the top award an athlete can win. It’s tops. Every player considers it the top award.’’  That point was seconded by his head-table comrades, who included Ford, New York Giants linebacker Sam Huff, basketball legend George Mikan, pro bowling champion Dick Weber and ABC radio sportscaster Howard Cosell, who called Maris “the most deserving young man to win the Hickok I have ever known.’’ New York Times sports columnist Arthur Dailey also had made the overnight train trip from Manhattan.”

Pitoniak also passed along information on the current value of a Hickok Belt (he wrote the book in 2010, so the numbers might be slightly outdated):

What it would cost to make the belt today

                Ray and Alan Hickok spared no expense in designing and producing the award belt that would honor their late father and become the most coveted individual sports award in America for more than two decades. The original S. Rae Hickok belt presented to former New York Yankees shortstop Phil Rizzuto following the 1950 season took nearly six months to make and included the finest gems and gold the Hickoks could procure. It cost $10,000 to make – a hefty sum, when you consider the average American made $3,210 back then.

                So, what would it cost in today’s dollars to produce an exact replica? According to Ara Simonian, president of The Source Fine Jewelers in Rochester, N.Y., a Hickok Belt manufactured in 2010 would set you back between $200,000 to $218,500, depending on the color and clarity of the gems.

                Here’s a rough breakdown, based on market values for the highest-rated gems and gold on Feb. 2, 2010:

                Labor: 250 hours at $75 = $19,000

                Gold: 84 troy ounces of 18K gold at $1,100/ounce = $90,000

                4 1/3-carat ruby: $12,000

                4 1/3-carat sapphire: $12,000

                4 1/3-carat diamond: $80,000

                26 diamond chips equaling 5.5 carats: $4,000

                Leather belt: $1,500

                Total cost: $218,500

Here is the vote breakdown for the 1961 Hickok Belt Award:

 

                                      First-place               Total

                                                                                                                    votes                      points

 

ROGER MARIS, baseball                                                                            (85)                            304

PAUL HORNUNG, football                                                                        (13)                             141

WHITEY FORD, baseball                                                                            (14)                            108

WARREN SPAHN, baseball                                                                        (12)                              99

JERRY BARBER, golf                                                                                     (1)                              31

BOB COUSY, basketball                                                                                 (3)                             22

Y.A. TITTLE, football                                                                                      (2)                             15

GENE FULLMER, boxing                                                                               (1)                             15

FLOYD PATTERSON, boxing                                                                        (1)                             12

MICKEY MANTLE, baseball                                                                           (2)                            10

A.J. FOYT, auto racing                                                                                                                       10

ELGIN BAYLOR, basketball                                                                            (1)                            10

WILT CHAMBERLAIN, basketball                                                                                                 10