Baubles, Beads and Baseball

Written by: Sue MacKay

The players say it on almost a daily basis: It’s all about the rings.

But at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, it’s also about watches, pins and bracelets – and almost any personal item that tells the story of the history of the National Pastime.

One does not normally think of jewelry when baseball comes to mind but there is a long tradition of giving jewelry to players as presentation items for important events. The tradition of giving jewelry to players in recognition of important events began in the mid-19th century. As the sport grew more popular, thousands played and thousands more attended the games to root for their favorite teams.

The press made a major impact on the game. Fans could read about team statistics and player rivalries and they demanded coverage of the new baseball craze. As the craze swept the nation, advances in printing technologies allowed images to be added to enhance stories and readers could now visualize action on the field and place names with the faces of the players that they admired.

In the 1880’s media coverage was at an all-time high, and even non-fans were swept up by the game. In an effort to promote themselves, newspapers sponsored championships and presented medals to star players. An early example of this practice was a medal presented to Dan Brouthers of the Detroit Wolverines in 1886 by the Detroit Free Press for earning “Best Batsman” honors.

The popularity of baseball spread both geographically and culturally. Immigrants played the new game in their new country. Women also enjoyed the game, both as fans and, occasionally, as players also. Mrs. McKee Rankin, aka actress Kitty Blanchard, personally presented a medal to Detroit’s Hardy Richards.

Baseball was also played outside of the United States as evidenced by a pin presented to members of the 1877 Tecumseh Base Ball Club of London, Ontario. Baseball began to be played in Canada in the 1850s.

Players quickly morphed from athletes to celebrities in the eyes of their admiring fans. These fans identified with particular players and teams, based on talent or home field. As ties grew more intense, fans organized clubs and showered players with personal items.

Examples of fans bestowing jewelry items include:

  • -- In 1868, a medal was presented to Captain Harry Wright by his team’s “First Nine”.
  • -- In 1881, Worcester, Massachusetts fans presented catcher Charlie Bennett with a watch for his efforts on the field.
  • -- In 1897, Boston fans supported their team by forming the Royal Rooters and wearing bean pot pins.
  • -- In 1899, a pocket watch was presented to Joe McGinnity by Springfield, Ill., fans during his first year in the majors.

As professional leagues were created, championship medals were formally created and presented to star players:

  • -- A championship medal was awarded to Jim O’Rourke of the Providence Greys in 1879. O’Rourke was as accomplished batter and versatile fielder and he obtained the first hit in National League history on April 22, 1876.
  • -- In 1883, Buck Ewing won a medal for his exceptional performance in an 1883 preseason exhibition game.

In 1903, the first modern World Series was played between an American League team, the Boston Americans and a National League team, the Pittsburgh Pirates. At the conclusion of the series, a pocket watch fob was presented to Boston players for the championship win. This began the long standing tradition of awarding all players that won championships with jewelry.

Fobs and watches were popular from 1903 to 1921 and rings were awarded from 1922 to the present. The first World Series ring was awarded to the New York Giants following their victory over the New York Yankees in 1922. Early manufacturers of rings include Dieges & Clust and Hess & Culbertson. Later rings were produced by Balfour, Jostens and Tiffany & Co.

At present, players receive their rings in pregame ceremonies early the next season. The ring commissioned by the 2003 Florida Marlins is among the most expensive ring ever made, using 14-carat white gold, 228 white diamonds, one rare teal diamond and 13 rubies. Team personnel also receive rings including front office executives, coaches and locker room staff.

Other notable jewelry items in the Hall’s permanent collection include the bracelet that Lou Gehrig presented to his wife Eleanor as an anniversary gift. The bracelet includes jeweled links highlighting the slugger’s career with the New York Yankees. The bracelet was donated by the estate of Eleanor T. Gehrig and was produced by Dieges & Clust. This bracelet appeared in the movie “Pride of the Yankees” in 1942.

Sue MacKay is the director of collections at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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The Hall’s permanent collection contains over 30 medals, 160 rings, 55 watches, 1,000 pins and 50 charms along with cuff links, tie clips and assorted items. The collection also includes popular culture jewelry such as cereal giveaways and ballpark/team promotional items. If you have a jewelry donation proposal, please contact the Hall of Fame at [email protected].

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