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A row involving tradition's start

Oars were prize in first U.S. intercollegiate sport event in 1852 between Yale and Harvard, but family's asking price of $30 million is met with amazement

November 30, 2006|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

A quarter of a century ago, they were almost thrown out.

Caked with dust, dirt and spider webs, they were holding open the sagging basement windows of a ramshackle rooming house in Medford, Mass.

At first, they looked like ordinary pieces of weathered wood. They weren't. The black walnut had been carved into an unmistakable shape.

Oars. But that wasn't all.

"When I looked at them," Paul Marino said, "I saw all this writing. Harvard, Yale, names of people."

Inscriptions in silver. The Marino family, who bought that rooming house in 1981 to convert into condos, unexpectedly had something valuable in their hands. Exactly how valuable is the question now.

The rowing oars had been the top prize in a race between Harvard and Yale in 1852. And not just any race, but the first U.S. intercollegiate athletic event, which Harvard won.

This had been the beginning of great collegiate rivalries, which over the years have had a profound effect on the fabric of American pop culture. College football rivalries, in particular, trigger emotions so raw that some fans paint their bodies in school colors. In Los Angeles, no rivalry is bigger than USC-UCLA. Saturday's game, in fact, is a Rose Bowl sellout and certain to attract millions of TV viewers.

With this rich tradition in mind, the Marinos started researching that 1852 race to set a price on the oars. They found one more noteworthy thing: Many of the participants went on to become officers in the Civil War.

A rich history. Two rich schools. A perfect match.

Not quite.

Asking price: $30 million.

That is $27 million more than what was paid for the baseball Mark McGwire hit to set the season home run record, still the top single-item purchase.

Harvard has balked.

"The event was very significant," said long-time Harvard crew coach Harry Parker. "These oars are less so. We've gotten along without them for a very long time.

"Would we love to have them? Yes. But I'm a little disappointed. I would think that most people, if they stumbled on these things and found them, would either give them to Harvard or at the very least be satisfied with some kind of reasonable price."

What is reasonable is unclear.

Marino, who runs a bed-and-breakfast in Maine, listed the oars for sale in Maine Auction Digest a few months ago. And yes, it was listed at $30 million, a price reached, he said, "with care and input from knowledgeable people," while declining to elaborate.

"These are from the first race, the first time Harvard and Yale competed, before any teams in college sports competed, before baseball, football and basketball," Marino said. "It was before Lincoln was president, before the Civil War. These oars have a lot of significance."

He said his family only wants to get "fair value" from what they admit was a serendipitous find.

"My father always says they sold Marilyn Monroe's dress for $1 million," Marino said, trying to draw a parallel. "A value was put on that dress. So we're trying to put a value on these oars."

Parker tried but failed to reach a deal with Marino.

"Mr. Marino seems to be 100% convinced these oars are worth a fortune," Parker said. "The Harvard people who are interested aren't going to spend that kind of money."

The rowing community seems to agree.

"That price is beyond over the top for the rowing community," said Thomas Weil, founder of rowinghistory.net and a trustee of the River and Rowing Museum in Henley, England.

Rowing, after all, remains a true amateur sport -- there is no money to be made. Unless perhaps you have these oars.

It took years of research to determine their precise significance. But it became clear that the 1852 race outdistanced the first intercollegiate football game (1869) and basketball game (1895).

"It was two rag-tag teams," Weil said. "The students challenged each other; it wasn't started by the universities. There was a huge level of interest in the race at the time. The newspapers of that day were full of the stuff. The results were on the front pages."

The race was held at New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee thanks to the owner of the Boston, Concord and Montreal Railroad, whose son was a rower then attending Harvard. A deal was struck that if Harvard and Yale rowers would agree to compete, the railroad would pay their way. It would be in New Hampshire, the beauty of which would lure visitors, and thus more railroad passengers.

The sponsor-paid event -- an NCAA violation today -- was spread out over eight days and drew about 1,000 spectators.

The rest is history, though at a price.

Clayton Pennington, editor of Maine Antique Digest, said the price left him "astounded" when he received Marino's ad.

"In my recollection, the Honus Wagner [1909 baseball] card that sold for over a million and the McGwire baseball are the two single items that have sold for the most money," he said. "Certainly these oars are a neat item, but you are going to have to find the ideal person for them."

Jon Pescatore, a former Olympic rower and now Yale's coach, sees some good here. "In some way, maybe I'm glad somebody thinks something from our sport is worth that much. It is ironic that usually in this sport you can't make money."

Marino isn't yet budging.

"We know this was an important race," Marino said. "And we have the trophy. It's hard to put a price tag on something that's so one of a kind."

Not so hard, apparently.

Marino admits trying EBay first. "We did not receive serious offers," he said.

So the oars that somehow ended up in that Massachusetts rooming house sit, but not propping up any windows.

"They're safe," Marino said.

diane.pucin@latimes.com

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

THE HARVARD-YALE RIVALRY

* The schools have contested the Harvard-Yale Regatta since 1852. Harvard holds an 88-53 advantage, including 20 of the last 22.

* The schools have met 122 times in football. Yale holds a 64-50-8 edge in "the Game," which was first played in 1875.

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