A vigorous biography of an African-American pioneer of professional cycling—a man all but forgotten today.
Washington Post investigative political reporter Kranish (Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War, 2010, etc.) switches gears here to go into the realm of sports history, albeit a history that is laden with political and racial burdens. His story centers on young racer Marshall “Major” Taylor (1878-1932), whose father had served in the Union Army during the Civil War but whose bicycle-racing debut, at Madison Square Garden, was marked by the house band scrambling to find the sheet music for “Dixie,” “known as the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy.” The “black meteor,” as one paper called Taylor, earned every one of his medals and prizes through the ordinary hard work of athletics coupled with the racism of late-19th-century America, a time when Plessy v. Ferguson was reinforcing separation, “all but normalizing racism and undoing much of what had been achieved since slavery ended with the Civil War.” Particularly intriguing in the narrative is not just Taylor, but also an entrepreneur and fellow racer who took him under his wing, a pioneer named Louis de Franklin Munger, who built and raced high-wheel bicycles, moved on to “safety bicycles” with equally sized wheels, and ended up building cars in New York City, selling to the likes of John Jacob Astor. Also of interest is the datum that Taylor predated the boxer Jack Johnson by a dozen years—and that Johnson himself, inspired by Taylor, “dreamed of being a bicycling world champion” until an accident put him in the hospital and, as he put it, made him decide to “look for a less dangerous profession.” The dangers would mount for Taylor in the age of Jim Crow, and his misfortunes in later life make for sobering reading.
A welcome contribution to sports history, drawing attention to two extraordinary athletes for whom recognition is long overdue.