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Dinner Has Historic Link to Hickok Belt
by Scott Pitoniak
Perhaps the best metaphor is "the Academy Awards of Sports," because for nearly a quarter of a century that's how the nation perceived the Rochester Pres-Radio Club's annual Day of Champions children's charity dinner.
In the 1950s and 60s, an era just before outrageous money started polluting the sporting landscape, the country's most famous athletes would convene here in hopes of being named the best of the best. Many of them experienced anticipatory butterflies similar to those felt by a Tom Hanks or a Robert DeNiro on Oscar night. The athletes' anxiousness was understandable because for one wintry evening each year Rochester took on a Hollywood feel.
The Oscar, in this case, was an alligator-skinned belt with a huge, solid gold buckle, an encrusted 4-carat diamond and 26 gems chips. It was known as the S. Rae Hickok Belt, and the man picked to wrap it around his waist was regarded as the top professional athlete in the United States. The list of winners reads like a Who's Who of American sports history. Among the icons: Mickey Mantle, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Arnold Palmer, Willie Mays, Joe Namath, Ben Hogan, Rocky Marciano and Otto Gram.
The award was made right here in Rochester by the old Hickok Manufacturing Company, which produced upscale wallets, belts, and other accessories for men. The Hickok Award took nearly 250-man hours to produce, and was valued at between $10,000 - $15,000. In today's market it would take at least 10 times that amount to make an exact replica.
"My brother Alan and I started it in honor our father," the late Ray Hickok recalled in a 1990 interview. "We never envisioned it taking off nationally the way it did."
But it did, giving the Press-Radio Club charity dinner a stature its organizers could not have envisioned.
"I think part of its appeal was this award that told America that you sure were the best not just in your sport, but in all of sports," recalled Chuck Stevens, the former longtime Channel 10 anchor and Press-Radio Club president. "It was a unique award, a thing of beauty, but I think the belt had a value to the athlete that went beyond dollars. Athletes are prideful people, and to say you are the best of the best is pretty darn special."
Former middleweight boxing champion Carmen Basilio would concur. He thought it was so special he was moved to tears when he learned he had won the belt in 1957.
"Here's this rough-and-tumble guy who had survived so many brutal, cutting punches in the ring, crying like a baby on my shoulder," said toastmaster Jerry Flynn, who has performed his comedic genius at all but one of the 49 previous Day of Champion dinners. "It just showed you what this award meant to athletes."
While the winners of the Hickok were usually ecstatic, losers weren't always so gracious. In 1969, Joe Namath was the Hickok choice of the 300 sportswriters and broadcasters nationwide. At the banquet, Mickey Lolich, the rotund Detroit Tigers pitcher, told the standing-room only crowd at the old Midtown Hotel that teammate Denny McLain was more deserving.
"It was strange because Lolich had never been friends with McLain," Ray Hickok said. "But on this night, he got up and said McLain was the best player of that season or any season. When he was done, he hugged McLain and the two men were crying. Personally, I think Lolich, who had won two or three World Series games that fall, was upset he hadn't won it himself."
That same night produced a humorous scene as well. Namath couldn't attend because he was on a USO tour in Okinawa. His teammate, New York Jets receiver George Sauer, was there to accept on his behalf, and during a transpacific phone hookup, Namath deadpanned to the dinner audience: "Don't give it to Sauer, he'll drop it."
Former Dodgers pitching great Sandy Koufax, the only two-time winner of the award, was unable to make it to the dinner one year because of a blizzard. Organizers were disappointed, but they tried to make the best of the situation.
"They made a snowman and placed the belt on it," recalled George Beahon, the longtime sports columnist for the Democrat and Chronicle and Times Union. "The photographers shot a picture of it, and I think we ran a caption that read something like, 'Frosty the Snowman accepts on behalf of Sandy.'"
Golfer Ben Hogan, the 1953 winner, also couldn't attend because of iron-clad obligations with a West Coast country club where he was a teaching pro. Dinner organizers arranged it so that comedian Bob Hope could present him the award at Hogan's first golf tournament in 1954. That a name as big as Hope would participate further underscored the award's national prestige.
The year before they joined forces with the Press-Radio Club to produce an athlete-of-the-year award, the Hickok brothers presented a smaller version of the belt to middleweight boxing champion of the world. The brothers decreed that in order to keep the belt the fighter would have to win the title and make at least one successful defense.
"After Jake LaMotta defeated Marcel Cerdan in 1949, we presented him with the belt in the ring, and he took it back to the hotel," Hickok recalled. "He refused to give it back. We sent a courier over to get it from him, and he came back empty-handed. Then, we sent (former heavyweight champion) Joe Louis over to Jake. When Joe came back without the belt, we knew we were in trouble."
The Hickoks decided to scrap the boxing belt idea and devise an award to honor the top professional athlete. Little did they know the belt would become the most coveted honor in American sports. Yankees' Hall of Fame shortstop Phil Rizzuto was the first winner. For the next 21 years, the belt was presented in Rochester. But when the Tandy Corporation of Fort Worth, Texas, purchased Hickok Manufacturing in 1971, it also gained the rights to the belt, and the presentation was made in larger cities, such as Chicago and New York. In 1977, the last belt was awarded to former Oakland Raiders quarterback Kenny Stables.
The manufacturing expense was cited as a factor in the award's demise. In the 1950s, the belt could be made for $10,000, but the dramatic increase in the cost of gold and precious gems made the continued production of the belt cost-prohibitive.
Though discontinued long ago, the Hickok Belt has not been forgotten. Sports almanacs continue to list Hickok winners in their athlete-of-the-year appendixes. The award continues to stand the test of time.
"I don't know if we realize when it was happening just how big a deal it really was," said Flynn, who will perform his comedy routine once more at tonight's 50th annual charity bash. "It's kind of nice to know our dinner has that link in sports history."
Scott Pitoniak is an author and a sports columnist for the Democrat and Chronicle.
The 71st Day of Champions Award Winners:
Coca Cola Sports Personality of the Year
Ron Kampff, head coach, Webster Challenger Baseball and Co-Founder, Challenger Miracle Field
Major Donald Holleder Award
Scott Fake, Brockport High School head swimming coach
Charlie Wagner Award
Cliff Devries, Rochester Institute of Technology, head diving coach
Christine Wagner Welch Award
Bobby Bates, McQuaid Jesuit, varsity football coach
Coach of the Year
Jamie Hammond, General Manager, Rochester Regional Health Total Sports Experience
Eddie and Kevin Meath Member Award
Scott Fitch, Fairport High School, head boys varsity basketball coach
Elliot Cushing Award
William Weir, Al Sigl Community of Agencies volunteer
ESL Community Volunteer Award
James Johnson, Democrat and Chronicle, High School sports writer
Gary Smith & George Beahon Sports Media Excellence Award
Julia Andreach, Our Lady of Mercy High School, tennis
High School Female Press-Radio Athlete of the Year
Sam Lawler, Pittsford-Mendon High School, cross country/distance runner
High School Press-Radio Athlete of the Year
Linda Michele, St. John Fisher College, head women’s lacrosse coach
Jean Giambrone Award
Rachel Benedict, Nazareth College, basketball
Jerry Flynn College Award
Jared Conners, University of Virginia, men’s lacrosse (Pittsford-Sutherland High School) and Chloe DeLyser, soccer, Marion Central School
Local Amateur Athlete Award
Danny Mendick, Chicago White Sox, baseball (Pittsford-Mendon High School and Monroe Community College)
Local Professional Athlete Award
Don Murray, the College at Brockport, head wrestling coach
Morrie Silver Award
Conlan Keenan, SUNY Geneseo, ice hockey
Rich Funke Jr. College Award
Ron Kampff, 2020 Major Donald Holleder Award
Sam Lawler, 2020 High School Athlete of the Year