Although some of the hows, whys and whats may never be answered, we now know the whereabouts of the original and only Ed Thorp Memorial Trophy.
The traveling trophy that was supposed to be the National Football League’s equivalent of hockey’s Stanley Cup is in one piece once again and on display in the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame.
Its value: priceless.
In fact, if there was an auction open only to NFL teams, the original Thorp might be the most coveted piece of pro football memorabilia in existence, considering some of the teams that won it and the dry spells they subsequently endured.
NFL owners voted on July 1, 1934, to present a trophy to its league champion and name it after Thorp, a good friend of several owners who had died eight days earlier. The plan, according to the minutes of the league meeting, was “to obtain a suitable permanent trophy, to be known as the ‘Ed Thorp Memorial Trophy;’ said trophy to be transferred from year to year to the team winning the championship.”
The next NFL Championship Game, matching the winners of the Eastern and Western divisions, would be the second. The first was played on Dec. 17, 1933.
The last NFL title game was played following the 1969 season, the last before the NFL-AFL merger was finalized and the newly named NFC Championship Game replaced it. The first Super Bowl was played three seasons earlier when the merger was agreed upon.
Ten of the NFL’s current 32 teams have their name engraved on the original Thorp. Two of them were charter members of the league and all 10 have been in existence for 65 years or more.
The Chicago Bears won the Thorp five times (1940, ’41, ’43, ’46, ’63), second-most of any team. They’ve won one Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Detroit won the Thorp four times (1935, ’52, ’53, ’57), but has never won a Super Bowl. The same goes for the Cleveland Browns. They were four-time winners of the Thorp (1950, ’54, ’55, ’64), but have yet to even play in a Super Bowl.
The Cardinals, now based in Arizona, won the Thorp in 1947 when they were located in Chicago. They haven’t been NFL champions since. Philadelphia won the Thorp in 1948, ’49 and ’60. They won their first Lombardi Trophy in February.
The Cleveland Rams won the Thorp in 1945 and the Los Angeles Rams in 1951, but only the St. Louis Rams following the 1999 season have won a Super Bowl. The Baltimore Colts won the Thorp in 1958 and ’59, and have since won one Super Bowl in Baltimore and a second in Indianapolis.
Beside the Packers and the Colts, the only other multiple winners of the Thorp to also win multiple Super Bowls are the New York Giants (Thorp winners in 1934, ’38, ’56) and Washington (Thorp winners in 1937, ’42).
In all, the Thorp should have been presented 36 times, but evidence strongly suggests that wasn’t the case.
In January 2017, I wrote a column that was posted at packers.com about the history of the Thorp Trophy and how it never seemed to be appropriately valued and was frequently misidentified as the Jim Thorpe Trophy.
I explained how it was haphazardly presented over the years - the Lions admitted after winning the 1957 NFL championship that they still had the trophy in their possession from when they won it in 1952 - and how Minnesota should have been the last team to win it in 1969 but almost certainly never received it.
In turn, I debunked the theory that the Vikings were victims of an “Ed Thorp Curse” over their 0-for-52 Super Bowl quest as some have speculated.
I also wrote that then NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle had presented the Thorp to Vince Lombardi for winning his first NFL title in 1961. Rozelle did so at a banquet at the Elks Club in downtown Green Bay four months after the game.
All that holds true more than a year later.
At the time, the Thorp traveling trophy was on display on the second floor of the new Packers Hall of Fame.
What I couldn’t explain then was why the trophy hadn’t been engraved since 1951, how the Packers wound up with it when the Rams were the last champions to be listed on it and why the trophy wasn’t shaped the same as the one pictured in the Green Bay Press-Gazette on May 1, 1962, the day after Rozelle gave it to Lombardi.
Part of the problem was that the Press-Gazette couldn’t find the original photo in its files and the engraving was illegible in the newspaper copy.
Thanks in large part to Jack Giambrone, a Packers fan in Dayton, Ohio, and collector of Lombardi-era memorabilia, much of the mystery can now be untangled.
Shortly after my column appeared, Giambrone sent Packers curator Brent Hensel a copy of the original Press-Gazette photo and Hensel, in turn, showed it to me.
Giambrone’s photo showed enough of the engraving to suggest the Thorp in the Hall of Fame might be at least part of the trophy given to Lombardi by Rozelle.
Next, I called Katie Foust, archival assistant at the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame, Inc., which owned the trophy, to see if she had ever seen anything that looked like a loose piece to a trophy.
Sure enough, Foust had the base of a trophy on her workbench and was planning to polish the plating, not knowing what it was, but figuring it was of some value.
During Hall of Fame, Inc.’s move from its previous office, she had discovered the base at the bottom of a cardboard box tucked away in a closet.
“It was like an epiphany,” Foust said of my call. “I knew something was missing, but I didn’t know it went to a much more significant piece of history.”
By then, the Thorp traveling trophy was in three parts. The main part, which listed the champions through 1951, was on display in the Hall of Fame. The base, which listed the champions for the next 16 years, was located in another building blocks away. There also was a separate figurine of a ball-carrier broken off by the leg.
Hensel took the separate pieces to Rummele’s Jewelers of Green Bay, had the parts reattached and prominently placed the trophy in our “100 Seasons” exhibit in the Hall of Fame.
That’s where it is showcased today.
To be sure, there are still some unanswered questions.
Why are the 1960 Eagles the only NFL champion from 1934 through 1967 not engraved on the trophy, especially when there was a space saved for them that’s still blank?
I’ve since found a UPI Telephoto of former NFL commissioner Bert Bell presenting the trophy to Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom at an NFL meeting in January 1959, less than a month after the Colts won the first of back-to-back titles.
Did the Eagles gain possession of it thereafter and just not bother to engrave it or did the trophy simply pass from Rosenbloom to Rozelle to Lombardi?
The 1968 Colts and ’69 Vikings aren’t inscribed on it either, although there might be a logical explanation for that. There was no more room to list them.
Were the 1963 Bears or 1964 Browns given the trophy or did the Packers keep it for good after winning it again in 1962?
Were the Packers ever formally presented the trophy again after the spring 1962 presentation at the Elks Club?
So far, I’ve found no mention of the ’63 Bears or ’64 Browns ever receiving the trophy or Lombardi being presented with it for a second time.
What’s more, the most recent sticker placed at the bottom of the base was put there by Green Bay Trophy Co., which suggests it was the last to engrave it.
John Keegan, who took over Green Bay Trophy from his father in 1973 and owned the business until 2014, recently examined the Thorp trophy and offered some interesting insight, but couldn’t answer with certainty any of the previous questions. His late father, Don, bought the business in 1963.
John said the trophy was probably custom cast when it was made in 1934 and would have been expensive then and still worth a good chunk of money today because of the silver.
He said it appeared the team names, from 1934 through 1959, were cut into the metal with a pantograph machine, or any number of them. In turn, he said the names from 1961 to 1967, including the Packers five times, were almost certainly engraved by hand, a rare and lost art.
While John said neither his father nor the previous owner did hand engraving, either one could have easily sent the plates to a colleague in Chicago to do the job.
In fact, Keegan surmised that the same person or business engraved the last seven champions and his former company was likely the one.
“They look like they could have been done at the same time,” he said, “but there’s no way of knowing that.”
While this latest search into the Thorp’s history solved the bigger mystery, it gave birth to another.
The NFL’s original plan in 1934 was to give each champion a smaller replica along with the traveling trophy. A second trophy was awarded through 1939 and all six original replicas can be accounted for today.
That was determined by Sarah Quick, the Packers’ assistant director of communications, through a survey she took prior to my first column on the Thorp. Recently, she took a second survey of the other three teams that won replicas - the Giants with two, Detroit and Washington - and learned Thorp is correctly spelled on those four trophies.
The Packers have two replicas: One for their 1936 championship, which is in storage at the Hall of Fame, Inc., warehouse, and another for their 1939 championship, which is on display on the second floor of the Hall of Fame.
On both, Thorp was misspelled “Thorpe.”
The NFL minutes from the February 1937 meeting where the traveling Thorp was presented to the Packers for winning the 1936 title suggests they were given money to buy their own replica and that might explain the mistake. There’s a good chance the replicas were engraved locally and Ed Thorp was anything but a household name in Green Bay. But that’s trifling stuff.
The biggest mystery has been solved.
The now 84-year old Ed Thorp Memorial Trophy was dismantled and misplaced, maybe more than once, but never lost and for more than 50 years has been where it belongs - in the possession of the franchise that won it the most times.
The Packers captured eight of their record 13 NFL championships during the life of the Ed Thorp Memorial: Three times under Curly Lambeau (1936, ’39, ’44) and five times under Lombardi (1961, ’62, ’65, ’66, ’67).