Marshall “Major” Taylor

“Life is too short for any man to hold bitterness in his heart.”

Last winter, I regaled you with a few articles on the early history of cycling.   You seemed to enjoy it and much to my surprise these remain one of the most-often viewed articles I have ever posted.  Since my cycling activity has dwindled a bit, I now have some time to add to this series.  I thought I would share with you the story of Major Taylor.

53 years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball and 28 years before the first African-American won an Olympic gold medal, Taylor was racing bicycles professionally.  The year was 1896 and Taylor was 18 years old.  He was competing against the best cyclists in the world at Madison Square Garden’s famed six-day race.  And he was good.

The son of a Civil War veteran, Taylor found his way to NYC from rural Indiana after being banned from cycling in amateur races due to his ethnicity.  Initially, folks didn’t have an issue with Taylor (who would perform stunts outside the bicycle shop where he worked dressed in a soldier’s uniform – hence the nickname), but when he started winning races emotions ran high.  After he broke the Indianapolis track’s one mile record at the age of 15, Taylor was barred from competing there.

Fortunately, Taylor had caught the eye of Louis D. “Birdie” Munger, the owner of the Worcester Cycle Manufacturing Company.  Taylor worked in Munger’s Indianapolis store and Munger convinced him to move to Worcester, Massachusetts, after the banning incident.  Worcester was the cycling capital of America, home to six bicycle factories and 30 bicycle stores.  Munger gave Taylor a job in Worcester Cycle’s factory and sponsored his racing activities.

Taylor in his national team uniform and his Iver Johnson track bike

By 1898, Taylor was arguably the greatest cyclist in the world.  He held seven world records at distances from 1/4 mile to two miles and he won 29 of the 49 races he entered that year.  Nobody else was even close to this level.  In 1899, he won the World Championship.  He did the mile from a standing start in 1:41, a record that stood for 28 years (try it sometime).  His championships were almost never realized since there were strong petition campaigns designed to bar him from national races.  Fortunately, they did not succeed (largely through the public support of teammate Earl Kiser) and Taylor was world sprint champion in 1899 and 1900 – only the second black athlete to earn the title in ANY sport, after Canada’s George Dixon accomplished the feat in boxing.

Taylor in Europe

Still, Taylor was banned from almost all races in the South and for a good while the League of American Wheelmen wouldn’t admit blacks as members.  In 1902, Taylor competed successfully in Europe, where more progressive sensibilities made it possible for him to race in a less hostile environment.  The French were reportedly exceptionally fond of him.  He won 40 of the 57 races he entered and beat the champions of England, Germany and France.    He then spent ’02-’04 racing in Australia and New Zealand as well as Europe.  Toward the end of his career, he was reportedly earning up to $30,000 a week.  By way of comparison, Honus Wagner earned $5,000 in 1905 as one of baseball’s most famous players.  Taylor was one of the richest athletes (and richest black men, for that matter) in the world.

Despite all of the hardship he was forced to endure, Taylor remained a remarkably positive person.  He was very religious and refused to race on Sundays for a long time, complicating his racing in Europe.  He began each race with a silent prayer.  He was known for being intelligent and courteous.

Memorial at the Worcester Public Library

Sadly, things did not end well for Taylor.  He lost his money on a series of bad investments, the stock market crash and medications for persistent illnesses.  He died penniless at the age of 53 in 1932 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Cook County, Illinois.  In 1948 a group of former pro bike racers, with money donated by Frank W. Schwinn (yes, THAT Schwinn), organized the exhumation and relocation of Taylor’s remains to Mount Glenwood Cemetery, near Chicago. A monument to his memory stands in Worcester, and Indianapolis named the city’s bicycle track after him.

“It is my thought that clean living and a strict observance of the golden rule of true sportsmanship are foundation stones without which a championship structure cannot be built.”

Further Reading