“The World’s Fastest Man: The Extraordinary Life of Cyclist Major Taylor, America’s First Black Sports Hero” by Michael Kranish. New York: Scribner, 2019. 367 pages, $30 (hardcover).
Put yourself at a trivia contest where you are asked to name America’s first black sports hero. I suspect that many would come up with Jack Johnson, while others might pick Jesse Owens, Joe Louis or even Jackie Robinson. If you instead named Major Taylor you really would be an expert, but most contestants would respond with: Who? One reason for Taylor’s disappearance from the knowledge base of most sports trivia aficionados is that his sport, racing on bicycles, has mostly vanished from major competitions, aside from the Tour de France and similar marathon events. Yet in the 1890s and early 1900s, cycling on a wheel consistently attracted thousands of viewers across America, when this sport shared the stage only with baseball and boxing as the biggest sports attractions.
Michael Kranish’s new book, “The World’s Fastest Man,” focuses on this obscure but once highly recognized sports champion. Kranish is an investigative political reporter for The Washington Post who has co-authored “Trump Revealed,” “John F. Kerry,” and “The Real Romney” and also written “Flight From Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War.” In “The World’s Fastest Man,” he has performed extensive research to put together a very readable account of a fascinating athlete and individual, Marshall “Major” Taylor. In his prologue, the author states: “It is a story of one man’s perseverance against relentless waves of prejudice, and of the enduring friendship of two men, one black and the other white, who joined together to push history forward.”
Taylor’s father, Gilbert, grew up in Kentucky, but it is not clear whether he was a slave or a free man. Kranish says that: “One of every five Kentuckians – 226,000 men, women, and children – was a slave at the beginning of the Civil War.” In any case, Gilbert enlisted in Company A of the 122nd U.S. Colored Troops during the war and served in Virginia in the battles near Petersburg and Richmond. After the war ended, he was transferred to Texas until he was discharged. In the 1870s, the family moved to Indianapolis and Marshall Walter Taylor was born there in 1878. As a young boy, Marshall first borrowed a bicycle from a white playmate and then was given one to keep. He began to practice tricks and stunts wearing some military garb, which may have been his father’s Army jacket, and he was given the nickname “Major.”
Taylor first raced at age 11, but when he went to join the local YMCA he was refused admission because of his color. However, a few years later, Taylor was working in a bicycle store when he met L.D. “Birdie” Munger, a retired white bicycle champion who had recently moved to Indianapolis and set up a bicycle factory. Taylor also met another great white cyclist, Arthur Zimmerman, and these two men both inspired and helped young Taylor train to follow their paths to success. Munger said of Taylor: “I am going to make him the fastest bicycle rider in the world.” He lived up to his word, starting with Taylor’s debut on the main stage in a draining six-day race in Madison Square Garden in December 1896. However, the author correctly points out that the same year was when the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that “separate but equal” was legal, thus “institutionalizing Jim Crow laws for decades to come.”
From the beginning, Taylor would face prejudice from race organizers who “drew the color line” and frequently blocked him from competitions, from rivals who teamed up to block Taylor’s speedy finishes by keeping him in a “pocket” or even caused him serious injuries that could have removed him from racing permanently or even killed him, as well as from racist policies in hotels or restaurants or on transportation facilities across the country. At one point, Taylor even tried bleaching his skin with a harsh chemical to become white. It is somewhat ironic that Taylor found acceptance and acclaim in France, Australia and other countries far more frequently than he did in his homeland.
In 1898, Taylor began to win more races and accumulate significant prize money and, though he was still restricted from competing in many venues, he set a world record for the mile, racing around the oval track three times at 34.81 mph and finishing in one minute and 43 seconds. He began to accumulate enough points to challenge his hated rival, Eddie “Cannon” Bald, for the national championship. Roadblocks continued to plague him, but in the following year, the world championship races were held in Montreal and when Taylor won he was shocked to hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” play in his honor instead of the usual condescending “Dixie.” Now, three months before his 21st birthday, Taylor was the world’s fastest man.
In 1900, Taylor turned down an offer of $10,000 to race in France, partially because he refused to race Sundays. By the end of the year, Taylor had won the national championship by a 2-1 margin over his closest competitor. In 1901, Taylor accepted $8,000 to race in France with the understanding that he would not have to race on a Sunday. In two months of racing, Taylor won 42 first-place finishes and most of his races in France, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. Taylor returned home in fine style aboard the SS Deutschland, “the queen of the seas,” along with millionaires William K. Vanderbilt, J.P. Morgan, and Pierre Lorillard.
Over the next few years, Taylor raced mostly in Europe and Australia and racing began to take a toll on his body, he gained substantial weight and financial problems hit his family. During these same years, the bicycle boom had declined, automobiles became popular and relatively cheap, and experimentation with airplanes began. Although he raced a few times in the U.S. in 1908 and had some success in preparation for his next trip to France, he was no longer as competitive in his races abroad, although he did win his final contest there. He began to invest in new businesses, but those also failed. He held a patent for an automatic rubberless tire, but he lost that as well to people he had trusted. He worked as a machinist in Worcester, Mass., for some time and when Congress raised the upper age limit for Selective Service as American involvement in World War I increased in 1918, Taylor registered at age 39, but was not called up before the war ended. Things continued to decline for Taylor, and when the Depression hit everyone, he left his family and drifted to Chicago, where he died in 1932. It was a very sad end for the first black sports hero.
Kranish includes in the volume eight pages of photographs that illustrate scenes from Taylor’s life and career, two appendices that document Taylor’s cycling records and his training regimen, detailed notes of sources, a bibliography and an index. Although there are some editorial/typographical issues in the text (for example, some French terms are spelled correctly in one chapter and incorrectly in another and the index refers to pages covering the first Paris trip, but omits references to a later trip covered in chapter 19), these are relatively minor, however, and overall I rate “The World’s Fastest Man” as carefully documented, very interesting and well written. It will capture the general reader and also appeal to those who love books on sports history, the Gilded Age and the civil rights struggle.
– Reviewed by Richard Weigel, Western Kentucky University History Department.