From 1950 to 1976, the Hickok Belt was the most coveted award in American sports.
Awarded annually to the top professional athlete in all of sports, the S. Rae Hickok Professional Athlete of the Year was the country’s most revered individual prize. Unlike the Heisman or Hart Trophies, which go to the best player in a specific sport, the Hickok Belt went to the America’s best athlete – in any sport. Bigger than any MVP honor, World Series ring or Green Jacket, the Hickok was the ultimate sporting prize. It defined the careers of Hogan, Mantle, Ali and Palmer.
Considered the jewel of the sports world, the Hickok took over 250 man-hours to produce. More than a belt, it was a work of art. Featuring an immaculate 4.33-carat South African diamond mounted on an 18-carat gold buckle featuring an ancient Greek athlete, the original belt was valued at $ 12,500 [$131,000 in today’s dollars]. Weighing five pounds, the solid gold belt buckle was encrusted with not only the diamond, but 26 gem chips, including rubies and sapphires. The belt was made from alligator skin.
In 1909 , Steven Rae Hickok, great nephew of legendary American Old West figure Wild Bill Hickok, bought a small jewelry plating business in Rochester, New York, for $ 350. Hickok ran ads in magazines and newspapers across the country promoting his full line of leather goods. It quickly grew into a multimillion dollar business, and later became the largest and most respected maker of men’s belts and accessories in the world.
A rugged individualist with a passion for hunting, fishing and the great outdoors, Hickok died unexpectedly the day before his 65th birthday, in December 1945. His sons, Ray and Alan, took over the company and five years later came up with the idea of honoring their father’s memory in the form of a belt, to be awarded to the middleweight boxing champion of the world.
In June 1949, the new belt was presented to Jake LaMotta, who became so enamored of the trophy that he refused to part with it at the end of his one-year reign. The Hickoks went back to the drawing board and opted to honor their father by creating the ultimate sporting prize, to be presented to the top professional athlete in the nation. The Hickok brothers decided that the belt would be awarded in Rochester and chose the annual Rochester Press-Radio Club charity banquet as the event at which to present it.
To make getting to Rochester more convenient, New York City boxing promotor Murray Goodman suggested holding the dinner the day after the Baseball Writers’ Association of America dinner in Manhattan each winter. As many of the top players, writers and sportscasters would be in the Big Apple already, Murry thought it wise to put them on an overnight train to upstate New York following the dinner.
For one night each year, Rochester became the epicenter of the sports world, as the top names in athletics flocked to the awards gala. The head table included icons like Jesse Owens and Joe Louis, and the presentation became known as the Academy Awards of Sports. The first presentation was held in January 1951, at the Seneca Hotel in downtown Rochester. Seven hundred people turned out, dressed to the nines. The inaugural Hickok Belt recipient was New York Yankees shortstop Phil Rizzuto, who was coming off the best year of his 13-season Hall of Fame career.
For a quarter century, the Hickok Belt was viewed as the most revered prize in American sports – the granddaddy of them all. Recipients included Rocky Marciano, Otto Graham and Willie Mays. Ben Hogan won in 1953 and couldn’t make the banquet, so the Hickoks made arrangements with comedian Bob Hope to present the belt to Hogan in California. After beating Sugar Ray Robinson for the Middleweight title, Carmen Basilio was honored at the 1958 Hickok ceremony. The prizefighter was so overcome with emotion he couldn’t finish his speech.
Voted on by a panel of sportswriters from across the nation, the Hickok Belt was presented 27 times during its heyday. The great Sandy Koufax is the only two-time winner, having received the belt in his Cy Young Award seasons of 1963 and 1965. Three golfers earned the Hickok. In addition to Hogan and Arnie, Lee Trevino was awarded the belt after capturing the U.S. Open, Canadian Open and Open Championship over a four-week span in 1971. Five football players have won the Hickok, including Jim Brown and Joe Namath. Baseball produced more belt winners than any other sport, with 15. While The Scooter claimed the first, Pete Rose won the second-to-last. The Robinsons — both Frank and Brooks – won sport’s most respected award, as did Carl Yastrzemski, Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton.
From 1950 to 1970, the Hickok Belt was awarded in Rochester at the annual Rochester Press-Club Radio Club dinner. The Texas-based Tandy Corporation bought Hickok Manufacturing in 1971, and rising costs forced the banquet to be moved to larger cities, like Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C. In 1977, Tandy announced that the Hickok Belt award was being discontinued. Within a few years, the Hickok company was also shut down.
The last recipient of the S. Rae Hickok Professional Athlete of the Year award – the Hickok Belt – was quarterback Ken Stabler, who in 1976 guided the Oakland Raiders to a Super Bowl title. In July 2016, the Hickok Belt won by Roger Maris following his MVP season of 1960 was stolen from the Roger Maris Museum inside a North Dakota shopping mall. The thieves, who were never caught, also got away with Mr. Maris’ AL MVP plaque.