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On Sports

Courageous girl inspired championship sports banquet

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Rochester Business Journal
May 1, 2015

The year was 1950. Harry Truman was “giving ’em hell” in the White House. Our soldiers were discovering that “war is hell” in Korea. Charles Schulz was pitching his new comic strip, “Peanuts,” to major metropolitan newspapers. A Philadelphia baseball team known as the “Whiz Kids” was proving that youth isn’t always wasted on the young.

And, here in Rochester, two seminal events were occurring—events whose ramifications are still being felt nearly seven decades later. An up-and-coming company named Xerox was producing its first copying machine. And a dozen local sportswriters and sportscasters—inspired by a courageous little girl with polio—were launching a sports dinner that will be held for a 66th time Monday night at the Joseph A. Floreano Rochester Riverside Convention Center.

That little girl—Christine Wagner Welch—is now a grandmother, and she and her husband, John Welch, will attend this year’s Rochester Press-Radio Club Children’s Charities Day of Champions gala to witness the presentation of an award given in her honor. She’ll also be there for the bestowal of an award named after her late father, Charlie Wagner. And that’s apropos, too, because it was Wagner and his kindhearted friends in the sportswriting and sportscasting fraternities who formed the club and hatched the idea of staging a sports dinner to raise money for the national polio foundation, which helped pay for Christine’s whopping medical expenses, which included a bill for almost 18 months of hospitalization.

More than 600 people packed the old Seneca Hotel for that first dinner in January 1950 as the fledgling club honored an all-time Red Wings team chosen by Rochester baseball fans. The following year the club joined forces with the Hickok Manufacturing Co. to present the first Hickok Belt Award to Yankees shortstop Phil Rizzuto. 

More than $1 million in local charitable donations later, the goals of this all-volunteer organization of nearly 200 members hasn’t changed: raise money for worthy causes, acknowledge the achievements of community-minded people and bring in national sports figures, such as this year’s headliner, star NFL running back DeMarco Murray, who is following in the footsteps of recent Sports Personality of the Year Award winners Cal Ripken Jr., Peyton Manning, Joe Montana, Joe Torre and Muhammad Ali.    

The dinner developed a national reputation from the start, thanks to Ray and Alan Hickok, whose gem-studded, alligator-skinned belt in honor of their late father became the most coveted individual award in American professional sports in the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s. “We never envisioned it taking off nationally the way it did,” the late Ray Hickok recalled in a 1990 interview. But it did, giving the Day of Champions dinner a stature its organizers could not have envisioned. One scribe called the banquet “the Academy Awards of sports.”  

The list of Hickok Belt winners backed that boast. Among the icons who took home the prize: Mickey Mantle, Jim Brown, Arnold Palmer, Willie Mays, Joe Namath, Ben Hogan and Sandy Koufax.

“I think part of its appeal was this award told America that you were the best not just in your sport, but in all of sports,” recalled Chuck Stevens, the late 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.”

Because the Hickok was so prestigious and coveted, the country’s most famous athletes and influential media members flocked to Rochester every January and February in hopes of winning the crown jewel of sports. 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 exquisitely crafted championship belt with a huge, solid gold buckle, an encrusted 4-carat diamond and 26 gem chips. The man picked to wrap the $15,000 work of art around his waist was regarded as the top professional athlete in the land.

Former middle- and welterweight boxing champion Carmen Basilio thought the honor was so special he was moved to tears when he learned he was the winner in 1958. “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 late toastmaster Jerry Flynn, who performed his comedic genius at 50 of the dinners.

Dodgers pitching legend Sandy Koufax, the only two-time winner of the award, was unable to make it to the dinner in 1966 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 mega-celebrity like Hope would participate further underscored the award’s national prestige.

For 22 years, the belt was presented in Rochester. But when the Tandy Corp. 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 Stabler. “I don’t know if we realized it when it was happening, just how big a deal it really was,” Flynn said. “It’s kind of nice to know our dinner has that link in sports history.”

That connection continues Monday when Murray adds his name to the legendary list of dinner headliners. No attendee will be more proud than Christine Wagner-Welch, whose courageous battle against polio inspired Rochester’s premier sports banquet.

Rochester Business Journal sports columnist Scott Pitoniak has been a member of the Rochester Press-Radio Club Children’s Charities, Inc. since 1989.

5/1/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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