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In 1921, Converse hired 20-year-old Chuck Taylor as a salesman, sparking a nearly 50-year career that defined the Converse All Star basketball shoe. Although his name is on the label of the legendary All Stars, which have been worn by hundreds of millions, little is known about the man behind the name. For this biography, Abe Aamidor went on a three-year quest to learn the true story of Chuck Taylor. The search took him across the country, tracking down leads, separating fact from fiction, and discovering that the truthwarts and allwas much more interesting than the myth. Chuck Taylor was a basketball player who also served as a wartime coach with the US Army Air Forces and organized thousands of high school and college basketball clinics. He was a true "ambassador of basketball" in Europe and South America as well as all over the United States. And he was, to be sure, a consummate marketing genius who was inducted into the Sporting Goods Hall of Fame and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Chuck Taylor, All Star is the true story of a man, a company, a sport, and a nation.
|Publisher:||Indiana University Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
Abe Aamidor has reported for The Indianapolis Star, Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette, and the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. He is author of Real Feature Writing and Real Sports Reporting and resides in Carmel, Indiana.
Read an Excerpt
Chuck Taylor, All Star
The True Story of the Man Behind the Most Famous Athletic Shoe in History
By Abraham Aamidor
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2006 Abraham Aamidor
All rights reserved.
Hall of Fame
Five aged men stood on the podium in the hotel ballroom in Springfield, Massachusetts that early spring evening in 1969. Each was dressed in a business suit, tie, and heavily lacquered leather shoes — a far cry from their usual togs on a hardwood court, where each had fought his way to recognition as a great basketball icon. This was the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame induction, and about 400 guests, sportswriters, and local dignitaries had come to witness one of the greatest "classes" yet in the history of the Hall of Fame.
Arnold "Red" Auerbach, an early coach of the now forgotten Washington Capitols but better known for his nine NBA championships with the Boston Celtics in the 1950s and 1960s, was an inductee. Henry G. "Dutch" Dehnert, a star of the legendary, pre–modern era Original Celtics from New York City in the 1920s, also was inducted.
College coaches Henry P. "Hank" Iba, from Oklahoma A&M, and controversial Kentucky coach Adolph F. Rupp also were inducted. Rupp has a basketball arena named for him in Lexington; they honor their basketball icons in Kentucky like they revere saints in some religions.
Standing on the podium to the far right of these well-known basketball men was Chuck Taylor, whom one might call the father of the high-top canvas basketball shoe, though he really wasn't. Whereas Auerbach, Dehnert, Iba, and Rupp were touted for games won or points scored on the basketball court, Chuck's credits were more amorphous. He was inducted as a "Contributor" to the game of basketball.
Yet his contributions were many. By 1969 the Converse Rubber Shoe Co., as it originally was known, had sold nearly 400 million pairs of shoes with the emblematic "Chuck Taylor" signature on the small, rubber ankle patch found on each. The name "Chuck Taylor" on a basketball shoe was like "Duncan" on a yo-yo, or maybe "sterling" on silver. And Chuck had personally hosted or directed approximately 4,000 basketball clinics in high school and college gyms over the previous forty-seven years, bringing the fundamentals of the game, rules, and basic strategies to inexperienced coaches and aspiring players all across the country. For years, his annual college All-American picks were the most watched in the country.
"Red" Auerbach was the only legend from the class of 1969 still alive in 2004. The cantankerous ex-coach, who still held an executive post with the Boston Celtics, maintained an office near his Washington, D.C.–area home, where he'd dress every morning and go to work for two or three hours and chew the fat with a steady stream of sportswriters, authors, and ordinary fans who managed to find him. He remembered the induction in Springfield and the surprise nomination of Chuck Taylor, who was not known as a great player, or as a coach at all.
"I'm looking at a picture of [the ceremony] right now," Auerbach said, speaking in a voice that had become raspy and abrasive over the years, perhaps from yelling at players or referees, or even sportswriters. "It was at a club in town. The Hall of Fame wasn't big enough. Iba and Rupp were friends of mine. Chuck I just knew. And Dutch Dehnert was there — he was older than I, of a different era. But Chuck fit in. It was one player, three coaches, and a contributor."
Each inductee stood under a large plaque hanging from a wall that featured a portrait in relief, plus the honoree's name. Chuck stood with almost serene aplomb in the photo — revealing nothing of the glad-handing, gregarious persona one might expect of the man. Chuck, who had started out life in the early pre-dawn of basketball in America with only one ambition in life — to be a great player in this new, exciting, barnstorming sport — had achieved success through the back door, as a "Contributor." His early years had been ones of relentless pursuit of a fast-paced game and a short write-up in a local newspaper. Finally, he was getting his due.
They say basketball was invented in 1891 by James Naismith, a Canadian-born lacrosse player who taught physical education at a YMCA training school in Springfield, the same city that is home to the Basketball Hall of Fame. But the game really grew up in Indiana in the first years of the twentieth century, in a place of tall corn rows and lanky teenagers throwing a ball at a hoop nailed to the side of an old barn. That's where Chuck Taylor grew up.
Chuck Taylor could not have known he'd be a Hall of Famer one day when he joined the strong Columbus High School Bull Dogs basketball team in 1915, but neither could an amazing cadre of other Indiana youths from the same era, all of whom ended up in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and all of whom had one other thing in common — they all personally knew, and in some way were touched by, Chuck Taylor himself. In one of those rare confluences of history, a group of individuals, all with Indiana connections, all with roots in the first years of the twentieth century, and all with close ties to each other long before any were famous, played the game of basketball, shaped it and spread its gospel from coast to coast before their days were done. It was like the French Impressionist school of the late nineteenth century — how could Renoir and Monet and Degas and all the rest not only be great painters, but close contemporaries in time and place as well? So, too, with these native Hoosiers.
Consider these Hall of Famers: Chuck Taylor, the basketball shoe icon from tiny Azalia and Columbus, Indiana; John Wooden, the Purdue University star and legendary UCLA coach who was one of the few men in the history of the game to be inducted both as a player and a coach; Charles "Stretch" Murphy, who also was an All-American selection with Wooden at Purdue University in the early 1930s and was the man who nominated Chuck to the Hall of Fame in 1969; Clifford Wells, who coached a state championship team at Bloomington High School in 1919 while still an undergraduate at Indiana University; Everett Dean, who led IU's basketball team during its first run to glory in the 1920s; Everett Case, an intense coach who was twice banned by the Indiana High School Athletic Association for recruiting violations before landing the head coaching job at North Carolina State after World War II; Tony Hinkle, the Butler University and Great Lakes Naval Training Station legend; Robert "Fuzzy" Vandivier from the Franklin (Ind.) College "Wonder Five" teams; and Purdue coach and National Basketball League commissioner Ward Lambert, who was born in South Dakota but raised in Indiana. Not one of these men can individually claim credit for wedding America to the game of basketball for good, but collectively they could. And Chuck Taylor was part of that collective, every bit as important as any of the other hoop architects, recalled John Wooden, the only one of this group who survived all the way to the twenty-first century.
"The first time I saw [Chuck], I think it was back in high school," Wooden recalled in 2004. "He was giving an exhibition on ball handling and whatnot while advertising the shoe. I got to know him personally many years later. I would say it was primarily his ball handling and passing of the basketball. It was eye-opening and revolutionary to see a guy do that."
Wooden must be considered the first among equals in this class of early Indiana basketball pioneers, but Chuck Taylor belongs. Chuck achieved his glory not on the hardwood court, though he was a good industrial league player in the 1920s, and not in the coaching ranks, though he was the surprisingly successful head coach of an important Army Air Force service team during World War II. Nor was he a strategist, even though he published newspaper articles on the game and penned a "Fundamentals of Basketball" handbook that was widely distributed from the 1930s through the 1950s. Chuck Taylor did not invent or innovate anything truly important related to the game of basketball. What he invented was himself. He was both Barnum and Bailey to basketball; he was Houdini, and his greatest trick was in escaping his own modest athletic background and becoming the one and only "Chuck Taylor." In so doing he brought along millions of Americans with him in his love of the game.
Like many basketball stories, the Chuck Taylor saga begins in the heartland, in a part of southern Indiana so rural folks still call it "Kentuckiana," and in small Indiana towns called Azalia and Columbus. Only two weeks prior to his death in 1969, Chuck was to write about his humble origins. "There was a time when you didn't say you were born in Brown County, Indiana if you could help it, but now it's a very beautiful state park and it's the place the artists go to paint the leaves and the hills. That's where I was born. ... I was born in the country — I think the nearest town was Nashville."
Charles Hollis "Chuck" Taylor was born on June 24, 1901. That's what it says on Taylor's passport, which survives at Converse, Inc. headquarters in North Andover, Massachusetts. Authorities in Nashville, the Brown County seat, don't have a record of Chuck's birth, but records exist for his older brother, Howard E. Taylor, and for his kid sister, Elsie Taylor Breeding. Chuck's schoolteacher dad, James A. Taylor, was from Brown County for sure (born 1870), and his mother, the former Aurilla Cochran, was from Kansas.
Brown County might as well be in Appalachia. The tallest peaks in Indiana are in Brown County, and much of the greatest poverty in the state in the early part of the twentieth century was in the southern part of the county. Misty mornings over the substantial, tree-lined hills are highly reminiscent of the Great Smoky Mountains, and only the tourist trade and artists' colony in and near Nashville, plus the Brown County State Park, brought a modicum of prosperity to the area by the middle and latter part of the twentieth century. T. C. Steele, the most famous of the Hoosier landscape artists, painted near Nashville in Brown County, and legendary bluegrass artist Bill Monroe operated his music festival just up the road a few miles on Indiana 135 in Beanblossom for many years.
Older brother Howard was born in Brown County (no town listed) in 1893, and Elsie was born in 1907 in tiny Azalia in neighboring Bartholomew County, so Chuck's formative years were spent in Bartholomew County, in Azalia and Columbus.
Azalia was plotted in 1831. The town had sixty-four plots, each 264 feet square, and the population has never exceeded 200. The surrounding countryside probably looked much as it does today — densely forested woodland, save for a few clearings with cornfields and even a tobacco field right on the southern edge of the tiny town. Communications were poor in the mid-nineteenth century — a flat-bottom boat would take travelers down to Louisville, and travel elsewhere was by coach. Today, a historical marker confirms that Azalia was a real stop along the Underground Railroad during the Civil War era, and several newspaper articles over the years retold the story of escaped slaves who were helped on their way to Richmond, Indiana, near the Ohio border in the east central part of the state and home to Earlham College, the main higher educational institution of the Society of Friends in America. From Richmond they often continued north to Canada. Chuck Taylor would later make his own journey to Richmond, though for a far different purpose.
A Quaker meeting house from the late 1800s survives, as does the Little and Newsom General Store, which once housed the Bank of Azalia in a single vault on the main floor; they are at opposite ends of a small park in the center of town. The general store was long ago converted to apartments, but the country church still is active.
The brick Azalia Friends Meeting House suffered a devastating fire in 1998. Church member Larry Perkinson, a local schoolteacher, was painting the main chapel one Saturday afternoon late in 2003 when a stranger pulled into the gravel parking lot in front looking for bits and pieces of Chuck Taylor's life. The front door to the church was propped open, so the stranger went in. Chuck Taylor was remembered in Azalia, Perkinson said.
"The schoolhouse he would have attended was right where the parsonage is now," said Perkinson, "but the school building no longer is there."
A new, two-story brick school building was established at the north end of town in 1924, and records show that Chuck's dad was one of the first teachers there. The squarish, industrial-looking building closed circa 1962 and has been for sale for decades, with the shrubs and weeds now reaching almost to the roof, obscuring much of the façade. Other vestiges of the past, including a commuter rail bed that would have taken local residents north to Columbus and Indianapolis, can still be discerned. The rail bed disappears into a small cornfield just south of the township park. Another, more well defined rail bed runs through a thicket of trees and parallel to a nearby two-lane highway to the east of town, but the rails and ties were pulled up years ago. The mostly gravel driveways in Azalia now accommodate pickup trucks and people who commute to Columbus or Seymour for work, and about eighty families from throughout the region keep the Quaker church alive.
But Azalia — primitive, obscure, simple — was a place where a boy could be alone in the afternoons and bounce a leather-covered basketball on hard-packed dirt or practice a two-handed shot at an improvised goal for hours, and hone his skills and deepen his love for a new, growing game that would take him so very far in life.
Chuck likely graduated from the elementary school in Azalia where his dad taught, but the town never had a high school. So when Chuck was ready for the ninth grade — coming from a professional family he would not have been expected to farm or look for work in a factory after elementary school — his dad sent him up to Columbus to stay with George W. Taylor, Chuck's uncle and a baggage master for the Pennsylvania Rail Road. It was in the more urbane Columbus that Chuck first got a taste of organized ball and real competition.
Columbus, Indiana was a prosperous town of about 9,000 in the second decade of the twentieth century. It benefited from being the Bartholomew County seat as well as a manufacturing town and regional agricultural center. Two rail lines and an electric interurban commuter line crisscrossed the city. Besides manufactured goods and other items from a local tannery, the rail lines shipped cantaloupes, cucumbers, and tomatoes all the way to Indianapolis and beyond.
This was a time in the still young American republic's life that many cities, great and small, fancied themselves the new Rome, and Columbus was no exception. A Romanesque-style red brick City Hall and tower were erected circa 1893, and still stand. Columbus also featured electric trolley cars in the early twentieth century, impressive for a town its size, as well as a pure water filtration plant. The swank Hotel St. Denis, complete with front portico and balcony, housed the city's leading restaurant, and many other substantial businesses downtown bespoke prosperity. Even to this day, with a population of no more than 39,000, ambitious Columbus features buildings by Eliel and Eero Saarinen, I. M. Pei, Robert Venturi, and other famous architects.
The high school shared in this prosperity. In 1917, a full-page ad from a local clothing store placed in The Log, the high school yearbook, featured a woodcut of a smartly dressed young man looking out over a patio, very Gatsby-like, while the text declared: "Two Very Important Facts for Young Men About This Store: One is, that we believe in young men; the other is, that they believe in us. It's a great combination. It has brought us the trade of the best dressed young men of Columbus. Right now they are strong for these new Hart Schaffner & Marx Varsity Fifty-Five Suits."
Chuck only shows up in a couple of pictures in the yearbook, including as a member of the school's Athletic Association. Like all the other boys, he's shown on the front steps to the school, between two fluted pillars that appear to hold up the portico, and all are dressed in dark suits and ties. The girls generally are shown wearing dark skirts with white blouses, topped by sailor collars and small scarves tied around their necks and knotted in front. It's all a period piece, but they are prosperous, prosperous, prosperous. Even the student events throughout the school year listed in the yearbook bespoke what used to be called "breeding," or at least a striving for culture. The Dramatic Club staged "Green Stockings" by A. E. W. Mason, a comedy in three acts, and other plays; and the young "junior women" of the school held their annual reception in a hall "which was daintily adorned with pennants, ferns and flowers ... while pillows and rugs added further to the charm and attractiveness of the scene," according to a report in The Log.
The high school itself almost was a finishing school for the middle-class youth in town, those who did not have to go work in the local factories or tannery or fields. James A. Taylor may have wanted this good breeding for his son, something he never could have obtained in Brown County or in southern Bartholomew County, which weren't even electrified yet. And Chuck may have been influenced by his young peers — in later years he became a sharp dresser and stayed at fine hotels on his many road trips, and he moved up from second-class rail cars to Fords to Chevrolets to Lincoln Continentals in his personal stable of automobiles. Yet he was really identified with only one activity throughout all the pages of The Log, in every surviving Log for every year he attended Columbus High School. That was basketball.
Excerpted from Chuck Taylor, All Star by Abraham Aamidor. Copyright © 2006 Abraham Aamidor. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction to the Second Edition
Foreword by Dean Smith
1. Hall of Fame
4. The Invisible Pass
5. Special Service
7. World Tourney
Appendix: The History of the Converse Rubber Shoe Company
Notes on Research
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Honestly written book answers most of the questions about the most famous name in sports no one knows anything about. Chuck Taylor may have been the first brand name for a mass-marketed product, and this book tells how he did it, including making payments to the National Association of Basketball Coaches and inventing a persona for himself as a great basketball player from the pre-Modern Era of the game. Revelations about Chuck's coaching days with the Converse All-Stars traveling basketball squad in the 1920s and especially with the forgotten but brillian Wright Field Air-Tecs during World War II will be much appreciated by serious sports history buffs. Also loved the Foreword by Dean Smith. The historic photos, many apparently never before published, also help. Ultimately, Chuck Taylor was a Hall of Fame showman, even if he doesn't really belong in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.