What Metals Are Your Favorite Sports Trophies Made From?

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With the NHL and the NBA playoffs in full swing, it won’t be long until one team from each sport lifts the championship trophy over their heads, for all the world to see. Most of the trophies for the major sports in North America are made of precious metals, such as silver and gold, and specially crafted by artisans each year. Here’s a backgrounder on the most prized hardware in American sports.

Any discussion of North American championship trophies must begin with the most famous of them all. The Stanley Cup is awarded each year to the winner of the NHL championship, or Stanley Cup Playoffs (which will culminate on or before June 19). The trophy itself is older than the NHL and is, in fact, not actually the property of the league. The original trophy was created by the legendary Lord Stanley of Preston, the man appointed by Queen Victoria as governor-general of Canada in 1888. In 1893, Lord Stanley proposed that the major amateur hockey leagues in Canada meet in a championship series, and he backed this up by offering a trophy as a prize for the winner. Originally called the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup, the trophy was a decorative punch bowl, measuring 18.5 by 29.0 centimeters, made of silver by famed London silversmith G. R. Collis and Co. With the advent of professional sports leagues, the trophy became the Presentation Cup in 1926. The current Stanley Cup, re-designed in 1958, is crowned with a copy of the original bowl and made of a silver and nickel alloy. It prominently features a five-band barrel chalice where the names of the winning team are engraved. Altogether, it weighs 15.5 kilograms.

Though not as prestigious in America, the FIFA World Cup Trophy is the most prized possession in all of sports in the eyes of the world. (The 20th FIFA World Cup will be contested later this year in Brazil.) The World Cup Trophy also has a remarkable history. First presented in 1930 to champion Uruguay, the Coupe du Monde was designed by French sculptor Abel Lafleur as a “depiction of the goddess of victory holding an octagonal vessel above her,” according to FIFA. It was cast in gold, with a base of semi-precious stones. Renamed the Jules Rimet Cup in 1946, to honor the founder of the quadrennial World Cup program, FIFA awarded the original statuette to Brazil in 1970 after that nation’s third championship; but in 1983, the Rimet Cup was stolen and never recovered. By 1974, a new trophy designed by Italian artist Silvio Gazzaniga in 18-carat gold became the new official Coupe du Monde. The original Gazzaniga statuette is 36.8 cm tall, 6.175 kg in weight. The base contains layers of semi-precious malachite, with the bottom of the trophy bearing the year and name of each FIFA World Cup winner since 1974, according to FIFA. Only copies of the famous trophy are awarded to the world champions these days. For the record, the United States has never won the World Cup.

When it comes to sports trophies, none can lay claim to being more historic than the America’s Cup, presented every few years to the world’s best yachting team. The name of the trophy comes from the name of the schooner that won the August 1851 sea-going race around the Isle of Wight, in England, against Queen Victoria’s Royal Yacht Squadron. The 101-foot “America” finished so far ahead of the pack that when the Queen asked who was in second place, she was told, “Your Majesty, there is no second.” As a prize for their victory, the British presented the owners of “America” with a trophy called the 100 Guinea Cup. On their triumphal return to the U.S., the winning team donated the trophy to the New York Yacht Club to establish “a perpetual challenge cup for friendly competition between nations.” The club then renamed the trophy the America’s Cup and offered it as a prize to any team from abroad that could win a similar yacht race in home waters. Thus began the longest winning streak in sports history. The U.S. would successfully defend the Cup 25 times over 117 years before eventually losing to a team from Australia in 1987. An American team won the 34th competition last year to keep the trophy in the U.S. The America’s Cup, “the oldest trophy in international sport,” is a sterling silver ewer hand crafted in 1848 by Garrard & Co., London.

The best-known trophy in American sports today is likely to be the Heisman Trophy. It is named after John Heisman, a multi-sport athlete and coach and one-time athletic director of the Downtown Athletic Club (DAC), of New York City. The DAC began presenting the award in 1935 to “the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.” Some of the most famous college players in American football history (such as Roger Staubach, O. J. Simpson, Tony Dorsett, Doug Flutie, Tim Tebow, and Johnny Manziel) have won the award. The DAC commissioned sculptor Frank Eliscu to design the award as a statue in the form of a running football player. Eliscu modeled the statue after an outstanding player he knew from New York University. Once completed in clay, Eliscu then turned to the metalworking firm of Dieges & Clust, in New York, which used the lost wax process to cast the statue in bronze. It measures 14 inches in length, 13.5 inches in height, and 6.5 inches in width, and weighs in at 45 pounds. New statues are created every year, most recently by Roman Bronze Works, in New York. In 2001, the DAC was damaged in the September 11 terrorist attack in New York City, which caused the club eventually to disband. The award is now administered by the Heisman Trust.

Keeping with football, the most-watched trophy presentation in North America is probably that for the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Presented to the winning team in the NFL championship game, the Super Bowl, the Lombardi Trophy has been handed out every year since 1970. The television audience for the big game routinely exceeds 100 million viewers in North America. It is named after the winning coach of the first two Super Bowls. Obviously, the award was originally not named after Lombardi but simply called the World Professional Football Championship Award in 1966. It was renamed after the death of the legendary coach four years later. According to published accounts, Tiffany & Co. Vice President Oscar Riedner responded to a request from NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle for the design for a championship trophy with a drawing on a napkin while the two were having lunch. It depicted simply a football on a kicking tee. The trophy was cast in sterling silver, measuring 22 inches in height and weighing 7 pounds. New trophies engraved with the names of the winners are produced every year.

Perhaps the most ornate award in American sports, the Borg-Warner Trophy represents the winners of the annual Indianapolis 500. The big Memorial Day race for open-wheel sports cars has been contested since 1911 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Art-Deco-style trophy depicts in bas-relief the face of every winner on its sides. While winning drivers only get miniature versions of the trophy, called Baby Borgs, it’s probably just as well, because the original trophy now weighs 153 pounds and stands 64.75 inches tall. The Borg-Warner Automotive Co. (now BorgWarner) commissioned the sterling silver trophy in 1935 to be designed by Robert J. Hill and cast by Spaulding-Gorham Inc., of Chicago, for $10,000. Today, the Borg-Warner Trophy is insured for more than $1.3 million.

As mentioned above, the NBA playoffs are underway; and by June 20 at the latest one team will be able to hoist the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy. This trophy is named in honor of former NBA commissioner Larry O’Brien, who served from 1975 to 1984 and led the effort to merge the ABA into the NBA. It is the successor to the original NBA championship award, the Walter A. Brown Trophy since 1984. The new trophy, standing two feet tall, depicts a basketball teetering above a hoop. It’s made of 14.5 pounds of sterling silver and vermeil with a 24-karat gold overlay. Valued at $13,500, the trophy is produced by the Tiffany & Co. silver shop every year for the winning team to keep.

Baseball has been called America’s “national pastime” since the Nineteenth Century, and the World Series has been contended since 1903. The sport has only presented a championship trophy since 1967, though. The Commissioner’s Trophy has been modified over the years, with the current design in place since 2000. It depicts a ring of flagpoles representing each of the 30 teams in the Major Leagues (after those found in MLB ballparks) rising to a single flagstaff pennant. The first trophy was designed by Lawrence Voegele, of Owatonna, Minn. Tiffany & Co. has made all 46 of the trophies presented each year for the winning team to keep. Made of sterling silver, gold, and vermeil, the Commissioner’s Trophy stands 30 inches tall and weighs about 30 pounds. It is valued at an estimated $15,000.

While folks today may not realize this, horse racing was once the most popular sport in North America. The most celebrated stakes race of them all, the Kentucky Derby, still commands media attention every May due to its long, rich history. Known as the “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports,” the race has been contested every year since 1875. The Kentucky Derby Trophy was designed in 1924, for the 50th running of the race, by artist George L. Graff, of Toledo, Ohio. Since 1975, the trophy has been manufactured by New England Sterling, of North Attleboro, Mass. It stands 22 inches in height and weighs 56 ounces, not counting its jade base. The trophy (valued at about $900,000) is handcrafted with the exception of the 18-karat horse and rider, which are both cast from a mold, according to the race’s organizers. Only two major changes have been made to the solid-gold trophy over the years. A decorative horseshoe was turned to point upward in 1999, as racetrack lore held that a downward pointing horseshoe signified bad luck. And as of this year, the statuette of the horse has been encrusted with more than 300 rubies to emulate the blanket of flowers the winning horse receives every year for conquering the “Run for the Roses.”

While not technically trophies, the most celebrated use of metals in sports is undoubtedly that of the medals awarded to the first-, second-, and third-place finishers in the events of the Olympic Games, the world’s foremost sports competition. At the first games of the modern Olympics, held in Athens in 1896, first-place finishers received silver medals, second-place finishers received bronze medals, and all finishers received a commemorative medal. The traditional gold-silver-bronze order was first instituted at the 1904 St. Louis Games. Since then, the medals have come in multiple designs, sizes, and weights, determined by the International Olympic Committee in concert with the host nation. Still, some uniformity eventually prevailed. The IOC has developed the following guidelines: A minimum of 60 millimeters in diameter; minimum of 3 mm thickness; first-place medal composed of silver (at least .925 grade) covered with 6 grams of pure gold; second-place medal has the same composition as the first place medal without the gilding; third-place medal is mostly copper with some tin and zinc (bronze). The Olympic committee of the host nation typically sees to the minting of the medals (e.g., the Royal Mint for the 2012 Games in London).

Other notable sports trophies include:

  • Tennis – The Championships Wimbledon: Gentlemen’s Singles Trophy, first presented by the All England Club in 1887, is made of silver gilt, stands 18 inches high, and has a diameter of 7.5 inches. The Ladies’ Singles Trophy, a silver salver, was first presented in 1886. It is made of partly gilded sterling silver (18.75 inches in diameter).
  • Tennis – U.S. Open (Tennis): The Men’s Championship Trophy is made by Tiffany & Co. from sterling silver; the front of the cup features some of the most famous names in tennis history.
  • Golf – The Open Championship: The famed silver Claret Jug (or the Golf Champion Trophy) was originally produced in 1873 by Mackay Cunningham & Co., of Edinburgh. The champion receives a replica. Famous Americans such as Bobby Jones, Walter Hagan, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods have won Claret Jugs over the years.
  • Golf – U.S. Open Championship Trophy: This distinctive sterling silver loving-cup-style trophy was first presented in 1895 and was passed from winner to successive winner until 1946, when it was destroyed in a fire. Nevertheless, the USGA commissioned an exact duplicate, which now rests in a museum. Winners receive replicas.
  • Soccer – The Copa America Trophy: Sort of the World Cup of the Americas, this international association football competition has been held every four years since 1916. And since 1993, it has been open to North American invitees. The next championship, in 2016, will be held in the U.S. Designed by a jewelry shop in Buenos Aires, the trophy is a silver ornament that rests on a base of plaques.

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