Chuck Taylor, All Star: The True Story of the Man behind the Most Famous Athletic Shoe in History

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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 truth-warts and all-was 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.

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1. Hall of Fame

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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.

 

2. Non-Skids

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Charlie Taylor, at 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, was becoming a man. His great shock of thick, dark hair was combed provocatively straight back over his head, and his long jaw demanded attention. He was just nineteen when he stepped forward with firm posture and resolute gait onto the floor of the Akron Firestone Clubhouse, “a dinky bandbox” of a gymnasium,1 as one basketball player of the era called it, but an important landmark throughout the Midwest nonetheless. Less than two years out of high school, Taylor had done the unthinkable in pursuing a professional basketball career when such a thing hardly existed in America. By way of analogy, think of heading to Broadway before there was a Broadway. Chuck’s career with the Commercials was short-lived, as the team folded the season following his graduation. He next likely played for two small-time Indianapolis teams, the Habichs and Omar Bakery, but Akron was his first true foray away from home. The most famous picture of Chuck in existence reveals how proud he was to be in this city, and to play for this team—it’s 1921, and he’s standing on the roof of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company while wearing his heavy cotton duck shorts and a wool-fiber jersey with the antique Firestone “F” lettering on the chest.

 

3. Salesman

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Akron may have been a watershed in Chuck Taylor’s playing days. Firestone and Goodyear basketball continued to prosper, but Chuck was not part of it. After leaving the Non-Skids, he moved to Detroit and joined teams supported by first the Dodge Brothers, the famous automobile manufacturers, then by the T. B. Rayl Company, a large sporting goods retailer in the city. What Chuck had learned in Akron, besides some pointers from Sheeks and skills gained in competitive play, was the art of self-promotion. The Akron Beacon Journal covered Firestone and Goodyear basketball well, and the local factory boys were treated like real stars. Chuck took a few newspaper clippings and that rooftop photo of him in a Firestone uniform and made himself out to be a celebrity when he arrived in Detroit. The game plan? Reinvent himself.

First, he wangled a small story in one of the Detroit papers in late 1921 after he joined the Dodge Brothers factory team. Taylor “is generally regarded here as the smartest handler of the ball seen in a local uniform in some years,” the short item proclaimed, accompanied by that rooftop photo of Chuck in the Firestones’ jersey.1 The move to the Rayls was even more provident. The Rayls often traveled to other midwestern cities, including in Indiana and Wisconsin, and claimed a “Midwest championship” in 1919. They also made a couple of appearances in Fort Wayne, where Chuck might first have heard of them.2 Chuck may have worked on the assembly line for Dodge during the day, and he most likely sold athletic goods for Rayl. As both company teams were sponsored, Chuck would have worked and/or played ball on salary—a security blanket that was to become increasingly important to him later in life.

 

4. The Invisible Pass

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The Great Depression spelled doom for some, opportunity for others. For Chuck Taylor, it was the time of his life. Marquis Converse had lost his company in 1928 after it went into receivership. The company’s failure was linked to an ill-fated effort to market an automobile tire, the “Converse Cord,” which had high production costs, a high failure rate, and many returns from local dealers.

Mitchell B. Kaufman, president and owner of the Hodgman Rubber Co. in Framingham, Massachusetts, bought the firm in 1929, but he sold it to the Stone family—Joseph, Harry K., and Dewey D. Stone—in 1933. The Stone family ran the business for the next thirty-nine years, but in spirit, and in the public’s mind, it was to be Chuck Taylor’s company from then on.

Chuck’s secret was in sales and promotion. Years of touring with the Converse All-Stars basketball squad, making “special appearances” on local hoops teams and glad-handing customers in small-town sporting goods stores, plus his growing number of basketball clinics, were making Chuck a celebrity, albeit a faux celebrity. Converse revamped everything beginning in 1932 to revolve around their new star. The annual Converse Basketball Yearbook, begun in 1922 and enlarged and expanded in 1929, soon began promoting Chuck’s clinics, complete with endorsements from top coaches of the day. Beginning in 1932, Chuck’s name was added to the ankle patch of the All Star shoe for the first time. His well-regarded College All-American picks began that year as well, next to a smiling mug shot that was to become a signature piece over the years. As if to an increasing drumbeat, Chuck was exclusively touted as a veteran of the great pre–modern era basketball teams, as well as an authority who personally knew the top coaches and best players across the country.

 

5. Special Service

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Word of Alabama’s clash with the Texas A&M Aggies in the upcoming Cotton Bowl dominated the front sports page of the Nevada State Journal on Dec. 2, 1941. But it was an item running down the left side that garnered more attention from a core group of basketball enthusiasts in Reno that day. The brief story hailed a clinic at the University of Nevada gymnasium the night before conducted by Chuck Taylor, America’s “ambassador of basketball” and veteran of the best early professional cage teams. A photo showed Chuck in tight-fitting shorts and leather knee pads, plus his own brand of black Converse Chuck Taylor All Star shoes. Forty years old at the time, the 6-foot-1 ex-forward had a deeply receding hairline and was starting to carry a paunch, but he could still rouse interest in the 400 fans who showed up at the Nevada gymnasium, and he could still do free throws from behind his back and dozens of trick passes no youthful defenders could ever seem to stop.1

 

6. Air-Tecs

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Chuck Taylor was sitting on a narrow bench in the cavernous, tile-lined fieldhouse at Wright Field, Ohio in early December 1944, watching his “boys” go through an early evening workout and jawing with a local newspaper reporter. John Mahnken, who not long before was the 6-foot-8 starting center on the Georgetown University Hoyas, “dripped sweat” as Taylor continued sitting on the bench in his birch-colored sweat pants and shirt and egged on Mahnken and the other young basketball stars.

“Lt. Charles (Chuck) Taylor cast a quick glance at Mahnken,” the reporter wrote, “and the rest of the basketball players who were rounding out the first scheduled practice of the Air-Tecs, the quintet which will represent the Air Technical Service Command this year against professional, collegiate, and service teams. ‘They’re getting tired,’ he grinned. A minute later he called his team together. ‘That’s enough for today. You can shoot baskets for a while if you want, but we’ll meet here tomorrow same time. Okay? See you tomorrow night.’

 

7. World Tourney

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Pete Ankney was dumbstruck when he saw the Chicago Stadium, that holy shrine to political conventions, college commencement exercises, and basketball games for generations of Chicagoans, for the first time. Located just two miles from downtown on West Madison Street, the stadium was a short taxi ride from the dark, imposing Morrison Hotel in the central business district, where Ankney and the new Acme Aviators from Dayton, Ohio stayed that March in 1945. Ankney, just thirteen at the time, had obtained the job as the Aviators’ ballboy through connections—his older sister was married to the team’s player-coach, Bobby Colburn—and he had caught a ride to Chicago with his brother-in-law in his maroon-colored Pontiac. Bruce Hale, Johnny Schick, and several other Tecs, as well as Rex Gardecki of the real Aviators, followed along as part of a motor caravan that traveled west on U.S. 40, then took a right turn at U.S. 41 in Terre Haute and went all the way up to Chicago. It would have been a seven-hour trip in those days, on those roads.

 

8. “Me”

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John Wooden sat in a cramped den in his suburban Los Angeles condominium where he has lived thirty years, in a room crowded by an old sofa and recliner, at a desk buried beneath mounds of correspondence, and just under a wall plastered with photos of all his UCLA championship basketball teams. It’s not that Coach Wooden dwells on the accolades and all the old titles. It’s just that this is how his late, beloved wife Nell, a fellow Hoosier from southern Indiana he met at Martinsville High School, decorated the room, and that is how the room will remain until the end. Unseen in this living history museum, though, behind several autographed leather basketballs on one shelf and yet more trophies and other mementos on another, are the indelible tracks of all the other early Hoosier basketball legends that Wooden says enriched his life, and America’s, because of their love for the game of basketball, such as Everett Case, Ward “Piggy” Lambert, Tony Hinkle, Charles “Stretch” Murphy, and many others. One of those men was Chuck Taylor, a man Wooden first saw when Chuck put on a little clinic for the Artesians—that was Martinsville High School’s nickname, after a flowing well in the town—and the two men became fast friends years later, after Wooden moved to Los Angeles in 1948 and Chuck followed suit in 1950. The two lived mere blocks away from each other for seven years. “I had a lot of fun with Chuck,” Wooden reminisced. “I think maybe we enjoyed being hicks from Indiana, small towns in Indiana. We were Hoosiers. We had a lot in common and I think we were more comfortable than we would be with a lot of others, whether it was other basketball coaches or people in other areas.”

 

9. Glory

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Chuck Taylor, then in his sixty-eighth year, received many telegrams, congratulatory letters, and goodwill calls when he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1969. The letters and cards and telegrams were piled high on a circular table in the breakfast nook inside his Port Charlotte, Florida home. He could puff on the sweet-smelling tobacco in his briar pipe—he smoked that pipe all the time in his later years—or he might dip a small spoon into his favorite lemon ice cream and savor the fruits of his labors that had made his name famous all over the land.

One letter stood out. Chuck must have leaned forward on his elbows when he saw the postmark—it was from Terre Haute, Indiana—and a satisfied smile likely swept over his face as he unfolded the letter and read its contents. All the other correspondence from coaches and fans and businessmen were predictable, even “canned” accolades, but this piece of mail that he held firmly between his fingers was different. This was a tunnel back to his early career, a reminder to Chuck that he was so much more than a salesman or even an icon or just another retiree set out to pasture on a Florida golf course.

 

Appendix: The History of the Converse Rubber Shoe Company

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The Converse All Star shoe did not come about because of Chuck Taylor. He did not conceive it, create it, or produce it. Rather, it was the vicissitudes of a seasonal market for foul-weather rubber boots that inspired factory owner Marquis Converse to begin making canvas shoes in 1915, and by 1917 he added an all-purpose gymnasium shoe called the All Star. His company, originally called the Converse Rubber Shoe Co. (later renamed Converse Rubber Co., then Converse, Inc.) and based in Malden, Massachusetts, often sent its employees home for the winter once Christmas break began. Orders for galoshes were filled by then, and new orders would not pick up until the spring. As an internal Converse company history noted, “[m]anufacturing canvas tennis shoes helped to smooth employment seasonally by keeping workers busy when there was little demand for waterproof products.”1

It’s clear that the All Star was not the first “basket ball” shoe. Basketball historian Robert W. Peterson writes that A. G. Spalding & Brothers made a rubber-soled, canvas, high-top basketball shoe circa 1900, and his book reproduces an ad for it from 1904.2 It looks like a cross between a men’s wrestling shoe and a lace-up ladies’ boot.

 

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