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Appendix: The History of the Converse Rubber Shoe Company

Abraham Aamidor Indiana University Press ePub

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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4. The Invisible Pass

Abraham Aamidor Indiana University Press ePub

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.

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3. Salesman

Abraham Aamidor Indiana University Press ePub

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.

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2. Non-Skids

Abraham Aamidor Indiana University Press ePub

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.

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9. Glory

Abraham Aamidor Indiana University Press ePub

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.

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