Major Taylor: The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men Who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame

Major Taylor: The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men Who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame


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In the wake of the Tour de France’s fallen heroes, the story of one of history’s most legendary cyclists provides a much-needed antidote. In 1907 the world’s most popular athlete was not Cy Young or Ty Cobb. Rather, he was a black bicycle racer named “Major” Taylor.

In his day, Taylor became a spiritual and athletic idol. He was the fastest man in America and a champion who prevailed over unspeakable cruelty. The men who aided him were among the most colorful to emerge from the era. When hotel and restaurant operators denied Taylor food and lodgings, forcing him to sleep in horse stables and to race hungry, there was a benevolent racer-turned-trainer named Birdie Munger, who took Taylor under his wing and into his home. Then along came Arthur Zimmerman, an internationally famous bike racer, who gently mentored Taylor when some riders drew the color line and refused to race against him. Taylor’s manager, pugnacious Irishman and famed Broadway producer William Brady, stood up for him when track owners tried barring him from competition. From the Old World came a rakishly handsome, mustachioed sports promoter named Victor Breyer, who lured Taylor overseas for a dramatic, Seabiscuit versus War Admiral–like match race that would be widely remembered a quarter century later.

With a foreword by World Champion and three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond, this spellbinding saga of fortitude, grace, forgiveness, and a man’s unyielding will to win against the greatest of odds is sure to become a classic that will be enjoyed by everyone.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781628736618
Publisher: Skyhorse
Publication date: 05/06/2014
Pages: 448
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Conrad Kerber is a senior partner in a suburban Minneapolis investment firm for which he is in charge of writing, customer communications, and broker supervision. He lives in Chanhassen, Minnesota.

Terry Kerber is a senior partner in an investment firm for which he is in charge of client wealth management. He lives in Deephaven, Minnesota.

Read an Excerpt

Major Taylor

The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men who Helped him Achieve Worldwide Fame

By Conrad Kerber, Terry Kerber

Skyhorse Publishing

Copyright © 2014 Conrad Kerber and Terry Kerber
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62873-661-8



Marshall Taylor felt a powerful force tugging at him — a force not unlike that of a sheet of steel to a giant magnet. In the spring of 1891, he was thirteen, tired of rural life, and even more tired of being at the whims of slow, sometimes unruly horses. He was a restless and ambitious boy, and if later photos were any indication, he was tautly muscled yet thin as a rail. He had frizzy hair and smooth, charcoal-colored skin that would later be described as polished ebony. The most successful jockeys at the time were African Americans — winning twelve of the first twenty-two Kentucky Derbies — and with his short, wiry frame, Taylor too had the makings of an ideal jockey. His father, Gilbert, a noble, white-haired Civil War veteran, taught his son all he knew about tending horses on their rustic Indianapolis farm. But even at a young age, Marshall had other aspirations. He was country born and bred, but rural life stifled him. He desperately wanted to expand his horizons. On a warm day that spring, he would get his chance.

Despite his family's penury, his childhood seems to have been a decent one. Born November 26, 1878, Marshall was the most ambitious member of the staid but proud Taylor family. His mother, Saphronia, raised eight genial, jaunty children while his father, Gilbert, worked long, hard days as coachman for a wealthy Indianapolis railroad family named Southards. Marshall helped out with the horses, trimming their hooves, hunching over an anvil to forge their shoes, mucking their stalls, feeding them oats, carrots, and water, exercising them, then washing, grooming, and brushing their manes and tails. Intensely competitive, young Marshall probably competed with his siblings over who could tend to the horses quickest, hoping to fall into his father's good graces. It was a rugged existence for man and beast. "All we had was just what we needed," he would later say, "and only such comforts as farm life affords."

But Gilbert and Saphronia still found time to smother their children with affection, instill a strong work ethic, and weave the word of God into their lives — words that would guide Marshall's judgments and channel his energies throughout his life. In the Taylor home, a well-worn Bible was surely always open, a piano played, James Bland songs sung, Civil War stories spun.

One of three boys and five girls, Marshall may have been the only one with itchy feet. His brother William was said to be athletic, but he seems to have been more content with farm life. Seeing Marshall's restlessness, his parents must have known he wouldn't stay in the countryside for long.

Marshall's first taste of the broader world came sometime around the age of eight. During his duties as a coachman, his father began taking him to the Southards' quarters on the outskirts of Indianapolis. There, young Marshall was introduced to Daniel, the Southards' eight-year-old son. The young boys, oblivious to their color differences, soon became best friends. Eventually he was employed as Daniel's playmate and companion, was provided with clothing, and was given access to a playroom filled to the rafters with every toy imaginable. But Marshall preferred whiling his time away in the great outdoors, playing on the grassy fields of the Southard estate or in their family workshop where he could tinker with machinery. Each day, a private tutor stopped by the Southards' Victorian home to instill a rudimentary education into the two boys. Back on the family farm, Taylor's siblings, educated by a man named Milton Lewis, continued to toil away. This difference surely caused family friction.

Taylor played with young Daniel, licking him in impromptu roller-skating, running, and tennis matches. He also handled the farriery needs of his father's horses and waited for something exciting to come along. It came when Daniel and several of Daniel's friends wearing euphoric smiles returned to his sprawling estate atop strange, two-wheeled contraptions. Reportedly all of Daniel's friends, except penniless Marshall, had expensive new machines some were calling "wheels." Seeing the forlorn expression on Marshall's face when they rolled in each day, Daniel talked his parents into buying one for him.

For centuries, man had been concocting outlandish devices in the futile attempt to replace the horse as the primary means of personal locomotion. Most of these early "bone-shakers," "hobby horses," and "velocipedes" were ponderous, impractical, and a serious threat to one's manhood. But in the 1860s, a handful of men with nothing better to do dreamed up the first semiworkable models and shoved them on the market. The peculiar men who bought those first versions often blew half a year's wages on these absurd steel skeletons known as high-wheelers. Many of them would repent their decision. Initially, the public and the press didn't know what to think of them. Thus the machines — and the odd individuals who first rode them — were rebuked and disparaged, especially by horsemen.

Their loathing was not without merit. So exciting at first glance, those "high-wheelers" with their giant front wheels, tiny rear wheels, and solid rubber tires, were in reality a public nuisance, and scared the wits out of veteran draymen, teamsters, dogs, and midsummer strollers. Irate local lawmakers — many with extensive ties to the livery industry — responded with laws ranging from the absurd to the draconian. In the early 1880s, an Ohio legislator was among the first to weigh in, proposing punitive legislation after his prized horses had twice been "frightened" by a high-wheelsman. Jersey City ordered that if the driver of a buggy or wagon raised his hand at the approach of a cyclist, this signal constituted a warning that the horse was getting skittish. The gesture repeated was a direct command for the invading cyclist to pull over, dismount immediately, then quietly tiptoe around the sacred beast. Not to be outdone, the Illinois legislature floated a bill compelling cyclists to dismount anytime they came within one hundred yards of teams of horses.

Many cities mandated that bikes be saddled with bells, gongs, whistles, sirens, and kerosene or carbide lanterns. And if all those gadgets didn't slow a rider down, the six-mile-per-hour speed limit imposed in some towns did. Some legislators simply couldn't take all the complaints from horsemen. In several urban centers, including Boston, Massachusetts, and Hartford, Connecticut, they went so far as to ban wheelmen from riding their bicycles on public streets or in parks, effectively outlawing all bicycles from those cities. To add further insult, pedestrians — also no friends of the wheelmen — joined with the teamsters and horsemen to pass laws dictating where bicycles could be used and at what speed.

According to one early report, there was a brief but "obligingly friendly" détente between the horsemen and this new breed of "wheelmen." But as more and more cyclists took to the streets, horsemen responded the best ways they could think of: by spreading glass, scrap metal, and tacks to keep the intruders off "their" roads. When they were in a really diabolical mood, horsemen took the law into their own hands, gleefully pointing their horses at the nearest cyclists and purposely running them down. The wheelmen retaliated, carrying small pistols from which they squirted diluted ammonia on overly aggressive horsemen or barking dogs. These first instances of road rage triggered a war between the wheelmen and horsemen that would span decades. "For some reason the equine mind has a distinct aversion to motion whose secret it does not understand," hollered a sympathetic Brooklyn Eagle reporter.

Bewildered politicians agonized over just how to classify bicycles and bicyclists. "He is not a pedestrian and cannot be catalogued as a horse," said one lawmaker, "and consequently he is ordinarily at war with commissioners, superintendents, and policemen." In nearly every instance, the omnipotent League of American Wheelmen (LAW), soon to be "the most powerful athletic group in the world," rumbled into town, fighting the mighty horsemen tooth and nail, paving the way for people like young Marshall Taylor to ride freely.

Finally, riding those first high-wheelers was a precarious endeavor. Without multiple gears, climbing even the most innocuous hills required Herculean efforts. With crude brakes or no brakes at all, descending those hills became a bloodcurdling adventure. And with the front wheel much larger than the rear, these tipsy, top-heavy machines required exceptional handling skills, an unusual desire for risk, and a high threshold for pain. Countless times, battered men stumbled into hospitals dirty and bloody, hands over their broken noses, after taking a "header." But for some people, living in an era before practical helmets, a mere broken nose was the least of their concerns. In fact, until the safety bicycle came along, riding high-wheelers turned into such a bloodbath some newspapers created special obituary sections titled "Death by Wheel." "Get a bicycle," Mark Twain recommended after his eighth lesson on a high-wheeler, "you will not regret it, if you live."

Whatever type of bicycle Daniel Southard gave his friend Taylor, he could not have had any inkling where it would eventually lead him.

In the short term, it would become the instrument of his freedom from the drudgery of rural life, a life for which he would later proclaim he detested. In the long run, it would mean a great deal more.

After his private daily tutoring, dressed in Sears & Roebuck denim overalls, Taylor surveyed the Southards' vast estate from the leather saddle of his sparkling new wheels. There, his legs spinning out of time, face radiating an endorphic glow, Taylor, like many children at the time, probably first dreamed of being a professional bike racer. Whenever he found time, he'd square off with Daniel and his friends in ad hoc races, fulfilling his need for risk, danger, and speed — things he lacked at home. On the bicycle, Taylor found a welcome diversion from his family's staid lifestyle. When he wasn't whipping his friends in mock races, he practiced trick riding for hours on end, imagining a large crowd watching him pedal with his hands, his bare feet pointing to the sky. Dashing across the undulating countryside, his thoughts were being forged by the bicycle. Until the day he died, he would remember those early days speeding under the broad Indianapolis skies.

Where horsemen saw a colossal irritant, Taylor saw potential. He strapped makeshift panniers on his bike, then talked a local newspaper into giving him a job as a delivery boy at five dollars a week. Loaded down with bundles of papers, he scampered around the outskirts of town, zipping by angry horsemen, putting on base riding miles that would put him in good stead later. In the evening, off in the distance, he could see the glow of brush arc lamps flickering in the bustling industrial city of Indianapolis.

The same powerful force that had tugged at young Marshall had driven him to the Southard estate. There, he developed a love affair with the bicycle, mingled with whites as if there was no difference between them, and experienced the privileged lifestyle of the wealthy. Both his father — who had chosen him over his other children — and the Southards — who entrusted him with their son — must have seen something special in young Taylor. Perhaps it was because he was a quick learner and intensely inquisitive. Or maybe it was his curious combination of coyness and assertiveness. Most notably, even at an early age, he had a way about him, something intangible.

But on a gloomy afternoon, sometime in the waning days of the 1880s, this happy scene came to an abrupt halt. The Southards sold their sprawling estate, packed their bags, and headed west to Chicago. Suddenly, teenaged Taylor had lost his best friend. What's more, he was forced to move back to his parents' modest farm where a never-ending stream of tedious barn duties awaited. "I dropped from the happy life of a 'millionaire kid,'" he wrote in his 1928 autobiography, "to that of a common errand boy, all within a few weeks."

Marshall Taylor was saved by a problem with his bike. He had become mechanically inclined from all the tinkering in the Southards' workshop, but in the spring of 1891, his bicycle needed a repair he couldn't fix on his own. With his broken-down bike dangling out the back of his wagon, he and his horse strayed into Indianapolis and the beginning of a new life. It was quite a sight for the impressionable thirteen-year-old to see. On either side of North Pennsylvania Street, extending as far as the eye could see, was "bicycle row," a stretch of bicycle manufacturers, wholesalers, and retail bike shops. Amid a beehive of activity, his horse by chance paused in front of the Hay & Willits Bike Shop. Inside, owner Tom Hay, twisting a strip of jerky in his mouth, peered out the window at the reedy black boy dismounting his well-traveled horse. Taylor rolled his bike inside and gawked wide-eyed at a new model beckoning him from the front window.

After his repairs were completed, Taylor spontaneously mounted his bike and began performing stunts right in the middle of the bike shop. Mr. Hay stood dumbfounded as this unknown black boy rolled around his shop, flawlessly performing one daredevil trick after another. Curious, Hay asked where he learned to ride like that. Quick to answer, Taylor told him he was self-taught, a pioneer of sorts. Having never seen anything like it before, Hay cleared his shop floor and asked Taylor to carry on. Countless hours spent riding with Daniel Southard paid off; Hay was blown away.

Word of Taylor's unique talent quickly spread to nearby businesses. As inquisitive people began gathering inside, Hay had a brainstorm. He shooed Taylor and his antics out to the street, a marketing strategy that drew such a large assembly, the police had to gallop onto the scene to move the stalled traffic. Anyone attracting that kind of publicity in a highly competitive industry deserved a reward. Hay offered the boy a job paying six dollars a week, a buck more than his paper route. Taylor hesitated, muttering something about first needing his mother's approval. Ever the businessman, Hay upped the ante, adding the Holy Grail — that shiny new bike in the window. Taylor was sold hook, line, and sinker. "My eyes nearly popped out of my head," he remembered later. He immediately raced home and appealed to his mother. Saphronia, knowing she couldn't possibly contain such an ambitious boy in the confines of their small farm, hastily okayed the new job offer.

Taylor got busy sweeping and dusting Hay's shop in the morning, then donning a colorful military uniform with bright buttons and a military cap to put on a streetside exhibition in the afternoon. Curious crowds continued to congregate. On a scorching summer day, one legend has it, someone saw him in his military outfit outside Hay & Willits and first uttered the word "Major." This nickname would eventually echo around the world and stick with him until death.

Taylor was, by all accounts, a productive worker. But he had one notable weakness. Shop owner Hay, chief sponsor of a popular ten-mile road race, left the future winner's gold medal glistening in his store window. "I spent more time fondling that medal than I did wielding the duster," Taylor admitted. One afternoon when his boss wasn't looking, he pulled the medal down from the windowsill and pinned it on his lapel. He drew up in front of a mirror, stared at himself, and then strutted around proud as a peacock.

When the day for Hay's ten-mile race arrived — an event that attracted the better local amateurs — Taylor camped out at the starting line to see the riders off. Hay spotted Taylor and, for the benefit of a few good laughs, insisted that he enter the race. Only thirteen, Taylor refused, kicking, screaming, and crying. "I know you can't go the full distance," Hay whispered in his ear, "but just ride up the road a little way, it will please the crowd ..."

Taylor's competitive ears perked up, as they would for the next few decades whenever he heard the words you can't. This, and the fifteen-minute handicap (in other words, a head start) he received because of his age, convinced him to start his first official bicycle race. Thousands of fans lined the side of the road as the riders pushed off, dust drifting up and darkening their faces. Taylor sped through a corridor of noise, listening as the "friendly" crowd egged him on. When the more experienced riders began closing on him toward the end of the race, Hay rode up alongside the boy, dangling the gold medal in front of his eyes. Physically he was drained to the bottom, but the sight of the medal spurred him on. "It gave me a fresh start," he remembered, "and I felt as though I had only just begun the race."

Within sight of the finish line, Walter Marmon lunged for the finish line. Still in front of the pack, Taylor gritted his teeth, crossing the line just seconds ahead of a speeding Marmon. Taylor collapsed in a heap on the side of the road, only to be revived by the sight of the crowd and the medal about to be pinned on his chest.


Excerpted from Major Taylor by Conrad Kerber, Terry Kerber. Copyright © 2014 Conrad Kerber and Terry Kerber. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword Greg LeMond ix

Prologue xi

Part I

Chapter 1 The War between Wheelmen and Horsemen 3

Chapter 2 Zimmie and the Birdman 13

Chapter 3 All that Remained of a Black Desperado 27

Chapter 4 Prisoners in a Golden Cage 41

Chapter 5 Utopia 57

Chapter 6 The Fighting Showman from the West 71

Part II

Chapter 7 Six Days of Madness 83

Chapter 8 Black and white, Darkness and Light 99

Chapter 9 Guiding Light 119

Chapter 10 The Boys Would Gladly Make Him White 135

Chapter 11 The Weight of the World 151

Chapter 12 Under the Cycle Moon 171

Chapter 13 And Then There Were None 181

Chapter 14 Edmond Jacquelin 195

Chapter 15 "The Messiah" 207

Chapter 16 The First World War 227

Chapter 17 The Second World War 235

Chapter 18 The Last Black Face in America 245

Chapter 19 Royal Honeymoon 261

Part III

Chapter 20 Going Down Under 279

Chapter 21 Lazarus 299

Chapter 22 My Darling Wife, I Want to Come Home 309

Chapter 23 Humility 319

Epilogue 329

Acknowledgments 339

Notes 345

Index 413

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