The man from Lang’s Sporting Goods — his name was Red Hazel because his hair was red — with the station wagon load of Chuck Taylor’s came to the gym every October right after cotton season but before the school carnival. Right in that time, that is, when boys like me from families like ours living in the rural south might still have $7.95 to pay for tennis shoes.
More than the day Coach Wayne Bowling handed out the purple and gold uniforms on the last day of cuts and more than the moment when one by one our names were called to stand before student assembly, the day the Converse All-Star Chuck Taylor’s filled our cracker-box gym with the smell of new rubber was the day boys with not much else to feel special about knew we were the chosen. We, the chuck wearers and we alone would walk onto the hardwood the first Friday night in November and hope that cheerleaders like Annette Lott would call our name in the “he’s our man” cheer.
Before there was Michael or Magic or Shaq or Penny or Little Penny there was Chuck. Before there were NBA All-Star weekends like the one beginning today in Cleveland, and long, long before there was Dennis Rodman, Converse’s latest ambassador, there was a shoe called the All-Star and Chuck Taylor’s ink black autograph across the blue star was all we needed to believe that he was the one. For all the millions of times his name flashed toward the ceiling of dingy gyms, for all the times “Chuck Taylor” has been read on a crossed ankle in a New York subway or under a tattooed calf in Huntington Beach, for the most part, the man’s biography ends with his name.
Chuck Taylor was from a different time. And not only has his name outlived his career, but the man’s presence has eluded scrutiny. His name is as familiar as the greatest of the game. In 79 years, Converse has sold more than 550 million pairs of shoes named for him. The All-Star has lingered where others — the P.F. Flyer, for example — have faded. In its early days the All-Star cost more than other sports shoes, giving it a now-quaint panache. And when, in 1966, it was made available in seven colors, a fashion fad started that continues 30 years later. That’s the shoe. But who was Chuck?
The inquiry started where my relationship with Chuck started. I said hello to Coach Wayne Bowling in Danville, Alabama, for the first time in about 20 years. “Coach,” I said. “Who was Chuck Taylor?” “Johnny,” said the man whose voice still makes me feel small, “I have no idea.” When I was playing I think they cost $3.50. I always did wonder why they’d put a guy’s name on the shoe. “The Danville Hawks recently, and regrettably, Coach said, “switched to Nikes.
Nobody has to wonder why Michael’s name is all over swoosh shoe. But what of Chuck? Well, he’s in the National Basketball Hall of Fame, so... “If you went to 100 basketball players and asked them whether they’ ve heard of Chuck Taylor or James Naismith, more of them are going to say they’ve heard of Chuck Taylor,” said Wayne Patterson, librarian for the NBA Hall of Fame. But, Wayne, tell us: was Chuck good in the paint, was he a go-to guy like Michael or Hakeem? Patterson doesn’t know, because that plaque in Springfield, Mass., dedicated to Chuck in 1968 simply says “contributor.”
Chuck Taylor died in 1969 or else we’d have asked him. Close was Bill Stearman, who, for 44 years, has coached the Columbus North Bulldogs in Columbus, Ind., alma mater of Charles H. “Chuck” Taylor, who made the Indiana High School All-Star team sometime around 1918. Chuck’s Hall of Fame replica plaque hangs in the Columbus North High trophy case. Stearman knew Chuck when Stearman was a kid. But he doesn’t know if Chuck could go to his left or if he boxed out or if he played ‘D’ like a shadow. And Stearman said that Chuck was still working at that time to perfect a basketball shoe and kids like Stearman were his unofficial guinea pigs. Stearman, that is, got his chucks from Chuck. Imagine that.
In 1923, six years after the first All-Stars model, Converse put Chuck’s name on them and All-Stars have been that way since. The question about Chuck went to a salesman named Jeff at a Santa Ana Men’s Foot Locker where, said the salesman: “It’s one of those things like Kleenex or Q-tip. You don’t say ‘cotton swab’ or ‘tissue.’ And you don’t say shoe, you just say ‘chucks’.” So, who was he? “Oh,” Jeff said assuredly, “he was the first guy to have his name put on a shoe.” OK.
“It’s always been a big puzzle to me,” said Bill Himmelman at Sports Nostalgia Research in New Jersey. “I have no doubt that the man was somewhat of a player. He’s in the Hall of Fame, but some people up there don’t know why either. We’re always hearing that he spent 11 or 12 years playing ball professionally, but we’ve spent 25 years researching pro ball and we’ve never seen his name in a box score yet.” This summer Himmelman will publish “Deserved Consideration,” a book about pre-NBA players who should be in the Hall of Fame. It is a book about Chuck’s era, when (this we know) Chuck played for barnstorming teams such as the Buffalo Germans and the Akron Firestones.
Chuck won’t be in Himmelman’s book. But he’s on Himmelman’s feet. “I’m a Converse man,” the researcher said. “It’s the only shoe that treats my feet right.” Coaches know Chuck, but they don’t know why. Researchers know him, but have no stats to prove him. Shoe salesmen use his name generically. But is there somebody, somewhere, who can tell us if Chuck Taylor was a PTP-er, a Diaper Dandy, a Windex Man on the glass, could he sky?
Somewhere between Louisville-Cincinnati and Duke-Wake Forest, Dick Vitale, basketball broadcasting’s Chrome Dome of Hoops, baby, was taking a T.O. at (where else?) a Courtyard Hotel. Vitale enjoys basketball with more passion and volume than Naismith had peach baskets. He, then, would know. Dick on Chuck: “Obviously he was a major, major name and a guy who could get that much attention must have been super. But I really couldn’t tell you anything about him as a player.” It seems, then, that as a player, Chuck Taylor was a dang good shoe salesman.
Says a bio from Converse, the company that has made billions off a name that isn’t in the basketball record books: “In 1921, looking for a job that would combine his love of basketball with his powers of persuasion, Chuck Taylor wandered into the Converse Chicago office and asked for a job. ... Taylor’s input led to a slight re-styling of the original All-Star, including increased traction and ankle support and a sturdier sole. The first player endorser, Taylor is now considered an innovator in sports marketing.” There’s more about Chuck’s enthusiasm for the game, etc. Then, this: “Better players may have come and gone, but none have done more for a single shoe.”
That part we’ve always known. Maybe that’s enough.
— by John Hughes
Orange County Register, 1997