Before Jack Johnson or Jackie Robinson, there was Major Taylor
New biography examines the accomplishment and struggle of America’s first black sports star
On the afternoon of June 17, 1898, thousands of spectators filled an arena to watch a contest between two men, billed as “Black Vs. White.” The black man was Marshall “Major” Taylor. In the previous 18 months, he had become the nation’s most famous and successful African-American athlete. He was a champion cyclist, specializing in sprints around oval tracks, in velodromes specially built for what was then the nation’s most popular sport. He almost always competed against white racers, and promoters played up the racial angle. This was a decade before Jack Johnson became world heavyweight champion, and a half-century before Jackie Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball. It would be Taylor who paved the way.
On this day, at the recently constructed state-of-the-art Charles River Park, a 20-acre facility in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 10,000 people filled the covered grandstands to see if Taylor could beat a famed white rider named Eddie McDuffee. The purse was $1,500, an extraordinary sum that vastly exceeded the annual earnings of most people at the time. Taylor was in the midst of his effort to win the national championship, which was determined by points collected during the season. Given a fair race, Taylor believed he could easily be declared the nation’s top rider. But many white riders sought to keep him off the tracks, invoking Jim Crow rules and, if that didn’t work, death threats. Taylor was not merely seeking to be a sports champion. With every victory, he believed, he could disprove the racist theories that were invoked to try to defeat many blacks before they got a chance to compete at every station of life in the United States.
The Cambridge venue seemed as favorable a venue as Taylor could find. He was a resident of nearby Worcester, and officials across the state had worked to assure that he could compete there unhindered. But even here, the tone turned ugly. A band struck up a popular tune — “The Warmest Baby in the Bunch” — which included lyrics such as, “You’ll all be dazzled when see dis member; you’ll think that you’ve been drinking n—– punch.” Then the band serenaded Taylor’s competitors with the song “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” a ragtime ditty by a black minstrel composer, Ernest Hogan, who profited from the million-selling score but came to regret it. The cover image of the sheet music showed seven stereotyped blacks and the subtitle “A Darkey Misunderstanding.” Taylor had no choice but to stand with his bike during the performance.
Taylor and McDuffee shook hands at the starting line as they prepared for the 30-mile race to begin, longer than Taylor’s preferred one-mile sprint matches.
Two teams of pacers emerged on the track, composed of five men each on newfangled five-saddle bikes called “quintiles,” providing power for a faster-than-ever dangerous pace. Taylor knew he was at a great disadvantage by competing at a such a distance, and McDuffee easily won the 30-mile contest. Taylor’s defeat emboldened opponents to try to bar him.
Indeed, as Taylor prepared to race in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, he learned that promoters had caved in to white racers and banned him. Taylor used it as motivation. He sought out interviews with friendly reporters, who were drawn to him as a symbol of the racism facing blacks. Taylor attacked the Pennsylvania promoters, saying they lacked “the backbone to allow me to ride in the race in which they had once invited me.” Taylor’s promoter approached a Philadelphia racetrack manager who had previously barred black competitors. Taylor would be a major draw, especially if a rematch could be arranged against one of the most racist white riders, Eddie Bald. The racetrack manager saw the financial opportunity, and soon a deal was struck.
Bald had long been Taylor’s chief nemesis. Known by his nickname, “Cannon Bald,” for his extraordinary power in the sprint, Bald had been there when Taylor made his professional debut, in December 1896 in Madison Square Garden. Taylor had shocked Bald by beating him in a half-mile sprint, a preliminary event before a six-day race. Bald had been humiliated, telling a journalist at the time, “Now, wouldn’t that kill you! They’ll all be saying that I’m the only crackerjack in the game what’d let a n—– beat him.” The two had races many times since then, splitting victories, and Bald often tried to ban Taylor. Now they prepared to meet again, appearing before more than 7,000 people at Tioga Park on July 17.
“Cannon Bald!” the crowd chanted, as the white racer headed to the starting line. Then came the “hated rival,” Taylor, as the Philadelphia Press put it. Some of the other riders crowded with Bald, and Taylor could only wonder if a plan against him was being hatched. After a series of preliminary heats, Bald and Taylor and a number of other riders lined up for the final. They set off at a fast pace, circling at increasingly high speeds. Suddenly, several wheels touched, and one rider went flying in front of the grandstands. Taylor found himself bunched in a middle pack, pinned in by his competitors. He was stuck in the dreaded “pocket,” surrounded by opponents who sought to keep him from jumping into the lead.
Taylor had spent much of his career battling to get out of pockets. He perfected a technique in which he lay across his handlebars and suddenly accelerated, which became known as his famous “jump.” Years later, he revealed that one strategy he had used was in “strict violation of the rules,” but was his most effective answer when opponents tried to seal him in a pocket. His opponents’ tactics were “nothing less than an attempt to kill,” and he felt he had to respond. “My answer was this: I was always on the defensive, they were the first to violate the rules by forcing me in a pocket.” To extricate himself, Taylor wrote, he sometimes touched the wheel of one of the riders who sought to trap him, giving a “side slap with my front wheel by a quick jerk of my handle bar.” That would momentarily “frighten” his opponent “and invariably cause him to swerve out a trifle,” enabling Taylor to “instantaneously” escape. He never caused another rider to crash, he wrote, even though he used the tactic “hundreds of times.” The trick didn’t always work, and sometimes it was Taylor who crashed. Other times he avoided being in the pocket by trying to lead a race from start to finish. But that was exhausting and often failed because it denied him the benefit of riding in a slipstream, and he rarely tried it when facing top competitors, as on this day.
Taylor seemed trapped, struggling to get out of a pocket set by several riders. He looked ahead and saw Bald escape from the middle pack and, in the homestretch, race toward the lead. Bald “was coming in as a champion never come before,” the Philadelphia Times reported.
The chants went up even louder. “Cannon Bald! Cannon Bald!”
Then Taylor made his own jump. Thousands in the crowd stood. Taylor suddenly passed Bald “like a flash” and crossed the finish line, victorious by several bicycle lengths.
A new chant went up: “Taylor! Taylor!”
Taylor was now the National Mile champion, but he needed many more such victories to gain points needed to be named overall top rider for the year. He soon faced Bald in New Jersey. The first three laps were “as hotly contested as any I ever rode in,” Taylor wrote later. At the last lap, the pacemaker left the course, and the riders were on their own. Taylor made his famous jump at the last moment, winning by inches.
Taylor’s promoter did all he could to continue the rivalry, offering $1,000 for another rematch, but Bald refused, fearing a loss would hurt his shot at the 1898 championship. Taylor responded angrily, and began to publicly berate Bald. “I want to race these men,” Taylor said. “Were they not afraid of me they would come forward.” Speaking to a reporter from the Worcester Telegram, Taylor said that Bald had drawn “the color line . . . and refused to ride” against him. The real reason for Bald’s refusal, Taylor said mockingly, was that “he was afraid of getting licked.”
Taylor’s promoter decided it was time to create a new rivalry. He chose Jimmy Michael, the Welshman known as the “midget.” In order to lure Michael to race in the United States, William Brady agreed to guarantee the extraordinary sum of at least $22,500 for the 1898 season, which would make him one of the world’s highest-paid athletes. Michael hardly looked worth it, weighing slightly less than a hundred pounds. But he was one of the world’s fastest racers, the “champion of all champions,” and had the potential to be an even bigger drawing card than Taylor or Bald. To make up for his diminutive size, Michael trained ceaselessly, prompting one journalist to write that “the daily work of this little rider would kill many men twice his size.”
Michael woke at 7, ate breakfast, and went on a 10-mile walk. Then he rode 15 miles behind a pacesetter. After lunch, he walked another five or 10 miles, then rode another 10 behind a pacesetter “at a record-breaking clip,” as the writer for the Boston Globe recounted it. Then, after supper, Michael walked another five miles, and then “he skips rope from 2000 to 3000 times. Fifteen minutes with dumbbells ends the day’s work.” This was at odds with Taylor’s admonition that too much riding weakens the rider for the race. Now the two racers’ methods would be tested.
The contest between Taylor and Michael was set for the sweltering, windless afternoon of August 27 at a racetrack in Manhattan Beach, near Coney Island. The winner would be determined by whoever won two of three one-mile contests. Thousands of spectators thronged along the guardrails and in the grandstands, and the race was readied. Two teams of five men each mounted their five-saddle quintiles, struggling to steady the ungainly bicycles, while Michael and Taylor prepared to follow the pacemakers. The quintiles set an astonishing pace, five men feverishly turning the pedals and picking up speed, as the racers tried to keep up behind them. Taylor was just about to pull ahead when his team’s quintile broke down, leaving Taylor on his own. Michael, paced by his quintile, raced ahead for the victory. Now Taylor had to win both remaining races to be declared the victor. The quintile was fixed, and the second heat was under way.
Twice, a chain snapped on one of the pacing machines, forcing a false start and prompting much anxiety. Finally, the quintiles worked to perfection. In his trademark style, Taylor kept his chest flat over his bike, arms extended to the handlebars, upper body nearly motionless, head down, eyes straight ahead. Taylor lovingly described the science of the sport, and the poetry of the motion. “With a light, quick motion of the ankle,” Taylor wrote, he could “not only produce a maximum of efficiency, but by constant practice it would produce an easy, graceful celerity of motion that is pleasing to the eye. It would also conserve the rider’s energy for the final lap where it is most needed.”
A mile took three laps around the oval. Taylor and Michael were even after the first lap, when the pacesetters handed off to another team. Taylor and Michael had to stay apace with the new teams or risk losing ground. “The slightest miscue means certain defeat,” Taylor wrote later about the handoff. He and Michael “were both struggling for dear life to hold on to our big machines as the pace was waxing hotter and hotter with every turn of the pedals.” Taylor felt his strength ebb in the last lap, and he could see the rear wheel of the quintile “getting away from me, inch by inch.” Michael was slightly ahead. Taylor’s elbow was almost touching Michael’s.
“C’mon, c’mon!” Taylor’s coaches pleaded.
Taylor was a yard behind his quintile, much too far, and threatened to fall out of the slipstream entirely. Then, shockingly, Michael began to scream to his pacemakers: “Steady, steady!” He couldn’t keep the pace. Taylor could not believe what he saw; it was, he later wrote, “the psychological turning point of the race.” He had convinced himself that Michael would beat him. Now, he believed he could win.
“Go, go!” Taylor called to his pacemakers, who picked up their speed in response. It was, Taylor recalled, “a glorious sensation to see victory now within my grasp, when only a few seconds before inevitable defeat stared me in the face.” Taylor sprinted past his pacemakers and finished in victory, and the grandstand crowd erupted. Next came the third and decisive heat. Michael looked drained. He sat up in his saddle and, midway through the race, conceded the contest.
Taylor not only won the $1,000 prize, but his fastest heat, in the third contest, set a world mark, racing at 34.81 miles per hour, finishing the mile in one minute and forty-three seconds, beating the record by two seconds. Mindful of the role played by his pacesetters, all of whom were white, he split his earnings with them. They initially refused payment, saying his thanks were enough, but he insisted it was a team victory. Taylor wrote that if a single rider on the pacesetter wanted to prevent a black man from winning, he could have easily done so by slowing just momentarily. Skin color was “neither a burden, handicap or drawback in this instance,” Taylor wrote of his teammates, thanking them for having “respected me as a man.”
Taylor was applauded with “tumultuous shouts” from the crowd, while poor Jimmy Michael, his reputation shattered, “was hissed by the spectators as he passed the stand, dispirited and dejected by Taylor’s overwhelming victory,” according to the Richmond Times.
Taylor could now, briefly, claim to be the world’s fastest man, but only in this narrow category of a one-mile race with quintile pacesetters.
Taylor soon returned to his effort to be national champion, and that meant facing Bald, who finally agreed to a rematch. Competing again in Philadelphia, Taylor easily won the first heat, a one-third-mile sprint. As he headed to the dressing room, he ran into an angry gaggle of competitors who wanted to prevent him from participating in the next race, a two-mile contest. One of them “threatened me with bodily harm if I dared start in that event,” Taylor wrote later. He hadn’t planned on competing in the next contest, but he “decided on the spot” that he would do so. He ignored a warning that his competitors planned to gang up on him and knock him to the ground.
The worst nearly happened as the race unfolded and Bald sought to “pocket” his rival, providing an opportunity for his coconspirators to elbow Taylor and send him flying. But Taylor worked his jump to perfection, escaping the pocket to victory. A racer who saw Taylor repeatedly perform the move marveled at his technique. “He manages to jump through . . . so quickly that it is impossible to close in on him,” the racer, Howard Freeman, wrote. “The fact that most of the racing men hate him is anything but encouraging. Eddie Bald threatened to thrash him several times this season, but owing to interference he did not get a chance to disfigure the Major’s black countenance.”
Taylor savored the victory, especially because “I had thwarted the ‘frame-up’ planned by my fellow riders.” This time, as he reached the dressing room, his competitors seemed in awe, replacing their threats with accolades for his remarkable speed. It was, Taylor wrote later, the first time his main competitors had congratulated him. He wrote hopefully — too hopefully, it turned out — that a match of “true sportsmanship” could overcome racism.
Excerpted from The World’s Fastest Man by Michael Kranish. Copyright © 2019 by Michael Kranish. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.