Track Stats - Morgan Taylor

His Lordship’s master, the No.1 400 metres hurdler of the 1920s

By Don M. Groome, published in “Track Stats” December 2011.

Naturally, the British think that Lord Burghley was the outstanding 400 metres hurdler of the 1920s, and he did win the 1928 Olympic title, but a stronger claim to being the first great exponent of this event can be made by Frederick Morgan Taylor, of the USA, who was his Lordship’s predecessor as Olympic gold-medallist and took the bronze in both 1928 and 1932. Invariably known as F. Morgan Taylor, he set a World record of 52.0sec at the US Olympic trials of 1928 which lasted four years until the Irishman, Bob Tisdall, won the Olympic gold in Los Angeles – though the rules in force at the time meant that Tisdall did not get credit for the record because he knocked down a hurdle, and the silver-medallist for the USA, Glenn Hardin, was written into the books instead by equalling Taylor’s time.

Hardin went on to be the finest 400 metres hurdler of the 1930s, as related in a previous article in “Track Stats”, but by the end of 1948 there were still only a dozen men who had run faster than Taylor’s best of 20 years before. Taylor had an unusually long career but competed at 400 metres hurdles or 440 yards hurdles on no more than 30 occasions over a period of nine years, which was not unusual for an American because until 1959 the event was held only in Olympic years at the National Collegiate Championships.

In addition to his three Olympic medals Taylor won four US (AAU) titles. He was also a front-rank performer at 400 metres flat, the high hurdles and the long jump. He was born in Sioux City in the Midwestern state of Iowa – commonly referred to as the “American Heartland” – on 17 April 1903. Sioux City had a population of approaching 80,000 (still much the same a century later) and was situated at an altitude of 1135ft (346m) at the navigable head of the Missouri river. The climate can be, to say the least, extreme, with record temperatures recorded of minus 26degF in January and 108degF in June and July ! Taylor graduated from the city’s high school in 1917, having already won national interscholastic honours as a hurdler and long jumper, and later went to Grinnell College in the Iowa town named after the church minister, Josiah Grinnell, who was a fervent advocate of abolishing slavery.

The blond-haired Taylor, 6ft 1in (I.86m) tall, was coached initially by Charles B. Hoyt, himself an outstanding sprinter at Grinnell in the World War I years, and became part of a surprisingly strong local hurdling tradition in the 1920s alongside three students at the University of Iowa, Charley Brookins, Charles (“Chan”) Coulter and Frank Cuhel, where the coach for 27 years from 1921 was George Bresnahan, later to be co-author of a celebrated coaching manual. Coulter and Cuhel joined Taylor for the 400 metres hurdles at the 1924 Olympics, and Brookins set World records for 220 yards hurdles in 1923 and 1924, while Coulter was credited with an AAU record for 440 yards hurdles in the latter year. Brookins would have had the Olympic silver medal in 1924 but for running out of his lane and Cuhel took the silver in 1928. A fifth University of Iowa product, George Saling, would win the gold for the 110 metres hurdles at the 1932 Olympics, having set an official World record of 14.4 in his semi-final.

It is worth pointing out at this stage that the 220 hurdles would continue to be held at the NCAA championships until 1959 and at the AAU championships for another three years after that, and it would not be until 1965 that the 400 metres/440 yards hurdles was made an annual event by the NCAA. The 220 hurdles, over 2ft 6in barriers, was not necessarily a preparation for the 400/440 hurdles over 3ft barriers, as would be graphically explained by the pre-eminent coaches, Payton Jordan and Emerson Spencer, in 1968. “There was no hurdling necessary – just a long sprinting stride, taking off and hitting ground in pure running style”, they wrote of the 220 hurdles.

At just 18 Taylor had run the senior 120 yards hurdles in 16.0 in 1921, but it was Brookins (born 17 September 1899 in Oscaloosa, Iowa) who first came to major prominence, winning the NCAA title in 1922 and 1923 for the 220 low hurdles on a straight track, which was the standard event then in collegiate competition, and setting the five fastest times in the USA, including a World-record 23.2, in the latter year. Brookins, who was 6ft (I.83m) tall, had no reputation as a high hurdler but was possessed of great speed, as he had run 50 metres indoors in 5.4 in 1922 and would cover 100 yards outdoors in 9.8 in 1925, and he was also the third-stage contributor to the University of Iowa’s 4 x 440 team which had the World’s leading performance of 3:16.9 in 1923. This ranked 2nd only to a University of Pennsylvania time of 3:16.4 in 1921 and was intrinsically better than the 4 x 400 record of 3:16.6 set by the USA at the 1912 Olympics.

Seeing an opportunity to turn their attentions to the 400 hurdles early in the Olympic year of 1924, Taylor and Brookins made a spectacular debut at the metric distance in Iowa City on 31 May but were both beaten by Coulter: times of 53.2, 53.8e and 53.9e respectively. As the official existing World record was 54.0, this was an astonishing breakthrough but even then was overshadowed by another race at Ann Arbor, Michigan, the same day where Ivan Riley, the previous year’s AAU champion and a leading high hurdler, beat Larry Snyder, the future coach of Jesse Owens, 52.1 to 52.4. For whatever reason, Riley’s mark was not ratified, though statisticians have no doubts about it. Earlier in that month Brookins had reduced the 220 hurdles record to 23.0, which would not be officially beaten until Owens had his day of days at Ann Arbor nine years later, and had a 23.8 World best round a turn. Taylor had run a more modest 24.3 on the straight, plus 15.4 for the high hurdles, and Coulter a 48.9 for a flat 440 yards.

The 1924 US Olympic trials were held at Cambridge, Massachusetts, on 13-14 June, and Taylor became the only man in the history of this make-or-break meet to set World records on successive days – 53.0 in his semi-final and 52.6 in the final, ahead of Brookins (52.8e), Coulter and Riley, with all four qualifying for the Games. Yet another University of Iowa athlete, Eric Wilson, also gained selection with 4th place in the 400 metres flat. On a miserable day of driving rain and a chill wind Taylor gave what the “New York Times” described as “perhaps the most remarkable exhibition of hurdling ever seen in this country. Taylor cleared the fences in faultless style and sped over the heavy track at startling speed”. Even so, Brookins was only a yard or so behind at the tape.

A World record disallowed as a hurdle goes down

By the time of the Olympics at the beginning of July Coulter was out of form, eliminated in the semi-finals, but Taylor and Brookins were in a class of their own, exactly repeating their trials times (actually 52 3/5 and 52 4/5), and the “New York Times” reported of Taylor that his “running in the final was a wonderful piece of work … the race was his nearly all the way”. But then came the disqualification of Brookins, and in addition Taylor did not get recognition of a record because he knocked a hurdle down. Both of these ancient rulings would seem bizarre for the following reasons: (i) if a 400 metres hurdler runs out of his lane, surely he would gain no advantage because he would have to veer back in again to clear the next hurdle ?; (ii) to knock down the type of hurdle in use in the 1920s – in the form of a very solidly-built inverted “T” – would require some considerable impact and would do more to impede an athlete than to aid him. As it happens, after his infringement Brookins was deemed to have cleared a hurdle “improperly” and so was disqualified properly, you might say.

Brookins, later to become an assistant track coach at his university, reverted to 220 hurdling in 1925 after his Olympic misadventure and won his second AAU title at the distance in 23.4, while Taylor diversified with great success – AAU champion again at 440 yards hurdles, with a World-leading 53.8; a wind-assisted 14.7 for 120 yards hurdles; 23.3 with the wind and 23.6 without at 220 hurdles and NCAA winner; anchor leg on his highly successful university 4 x 440 team … and, most remarkable of all, a long jump of 25ft 2in (7.67) in what appears to have been one of his very few outings in the event ! Only the Olympic champion, William DeHart Hubbard, sailed out further that year, setting a World record of 25-10? at the NCAA Championships in Chicago on 13 June, with Taylor a very respectable 2nd at 24-2? (7.37). The same day Taylor was 4th in the 120 yards hurdles, with an estimated 14.9 (the unexpected World leader for the year was Heinrich Trossbach, of Germany, at 14.5m).

There’s an interesting link between Taylor and Trossbach because Taylor’s son, also named Morgan Taylor but familiarly known as “Buzz”, was a fine long jumper with a best of 25-6½ (7.78) in 1950, missing Olympic selection in 1952 by one place, and became a leading golf administrator and served as president of the US Golf Association in 1998-99. Trossbach’s son, Wolfgang, was also a high hurdler with a best of 14.7 and ran in the heats in those Helsinki Games. In years to come there would be another father-and-son link of note at 400 hurdles because Glenn Hardin’s son, Billy, would also run in the Olympics.

Taylor had been a leading light at college in drama and music classes and was outstanding as a pass-catcher on the football field, and after graduating from Grinnell – where, incidentally, his performances at 400 metres flat and hurdles and in the long jump still remain the best by a student 85 years later ! – he became a rarity in that he continued competing. Now employed on the sales staff of the “Chicago Tribune” newspaper and representing Illinois AC, he won the AAU race again in 1926 in 55.0y, ahead of Johnny Gibson, and this was exactly the same time achieved by Lord Burghley in taking the AAA title two days before, enabling the pair of them to share top place in the annual World rankings. Unfortunately, no one in the AAU had yet thought up the idea of taking teams to Europe every year after the American domestic season was over, and so there was no chance for the champions of US and GB to match themselves against each other. Taylor also figured in an Illinois AC 4 x 440 team which shared a World lead with Stanford University at 3:17.7.

The results of the 1927 season would have strengthened the belief that the next year’s Olympic final at 400 hurdles would be strictly a contest between the Americans and Lord Burghley, though it now seemed that it would not be Taylor who would lead the US assault but Johnny Gibson. Lord Burghley made the transatlantic crossing for the Penn Relays at the end of April and Gibson beat him in a time of 55.4m. The AAU Championships in Lincoln, Nebraska, on 2 July then provided Gibson with only his third race of the year at the distance, but he won in a World record 52.6 for yards, with Taylor very close behind in an estimated 52.7, and on the same day at Stamford Bridge Lord Burghley became AAA champion again in 54.2. Though there was a significant difference in the times, both Gibson’s 52.6 and Burghley’s 54.2 were actually ratified as World records because Coulter’s 53.2 from 1924 had never been recognised and so the official best still stood at 54.2 from 1920.

Day-time job, night-time studies, and training in the park

Johnny Gibson’s life story would make a great screenplay. He was born in Greenwich Village, New York, on 3 July 1905 and lived to the age of 101, dying on 29 December 2006. He and his wife had been married for 67 years and had two sons, five daughters, 19 grandchildren, 46 great-grandchildren and five great-great-grandchildren ! Gibson had studied at Fordham University at night, earning a living as a Wall Street messenger during the day and training whenever he could by hurdling park benches. He continued competing to the age of 32, and from 1945 to 1972 was coach at Seton Hall University, where the 1952 Olympic 200 metres champion, Andy Stanfield, was his most famous athlete. Gibson was also a tireless supporter of the sport as an official.

The coach at Fordham was a forthright individual named Harry Coates, and one story that Gibson recounted of his World record in an interview with the “New York Times” in 2002 seemed to typify the carefree attitude to training and competition of the 1920s. “I was in the outside lane”, Gibson remembered. “On the backstretch I looked back and couldn’t see anyone. I thought, ‘I got this one today’, but I was surprised I broke the record. My coach never told me I was that fast. He just told me to run”.

There’s an intriguing technical point here because Gibson’s was the last 440 yards hurdles World record to be achieved with the barriers set at 40-yard intervals, as was the US custom, and not at 35 metres (38 yards 9 inches), as was the case for the metric equivalent. It has been pointed out that the record for the 440 yards hurdles tended to lag behind that for 400 metres hurdles because of the variation in stride pattern required, but despite the change Gibson’s record was to survive until 1942, when Roy Cochran ran 52.2 – which, of course, was still far inferior to Glenn Hardin’s monumental metric 50.6 from 1934. Also during 1927 two other Americans, Ken Grumbles (great name !) and Dick Pomeroy, equalled Burghley’s best of 54.2y. Grumbles, incidentally, had been AAU champion at 220 hurdles in 1926 and was a member of Hollywood AC and one of several notable athletes (Olympic pole-vault champion Lee Barnes among them) who played roles in a Buster Keaton silent movie that year entitled “College”.

With only one race behind him – 53.1m in Detroit on 30 June – Taylor went to the US trials and promptly broke the World record again. The 400 hurdles was held in Philadelphia on 4 July, separately from the bulk of events in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Taylor won his heat and semi-final on the previous day in 53.8 and 53.6. The final 24 hours later celebrated Independence Day with the greatest race in history at the distance as Taylor, from the unfavoured inside lane, ran 52.0 and just held off Frank Cuhel (52.1e), in the outside lane, followed by Gibson (52.5e), of the Bloomfield Catholic AC, 3rd and James Maxwell (52.6e), of the Los Angeles AC, 4th. According to the local newspaper report, all seven competitors beat the official World record of 53.8 set by Sten Pettersson, of Sweden, three years before – Pettersson is the only man to have held World records at both 110 and 400 hurdles. The other three were Ken Grumbles (now Los Angeles AC), Gordon Allott (Denver AC) and Palmer Wright (New York AC). Has there been any other race in history in which everyone has beaten the existing World record?

Lord Burghley won his third successive AAA title three days later in 54.0y and as the next best in the World was Luigi Facelli, of Italy, with 53.8m in May, this left the Americans as clear favourites. Taylor seemingly reinforced his position as No.1 when he beat the Olympic record in winning the first semi-final in 53.4 from Cuhel, who was also NCAA 220 hurdles champion that year, and Burghley, but history records that many of the American athletes left their best form behind on home shores and during the transatlantic voyage. Only one of their trackmen won an individual title – Ray Barbuti at 400 metres – and Burghley took the 400 hurdles in 53.4 from Cuhel and Taylor, both 53.6, with Pettersson 4th in 53.8, Tom Livingstone-Learmonth (GB) 5th and Facelli 6th. The other two Americans, Gibson and Maxwell, had gone out in the semi-finals.

Burghley’s victory was one of three surprise upsets for the US team within a matter of hours in Amsterdam as Pat O’Callaghan won the hammer for Ireland and Percy Williams the 100 metres for Canada. The “New York Times” concluded that the day’s events “resulted more disastrously for American athletes than ever before in Olympic history” and offered one explanation that “the team, puffed up with conceit, hasn’t trained seriously since its arrival”. Of Taylor it was said that his “usually flawless form over the timbers and stamina were lacking”. These may have been harsh judgments because Taylor wasn’t long in proving his ability.

A World record for Taylor in the relay, proving his speed on the flat

The third in the series of post-Olympic British Empire-v-USA matches took place at Stamford Bridge on 11 August and Taylor was brought into his country’s team for the 4 x 440 yards, replacing Fred Alderman in the quartet which had won Olympic gold in a World-record 3:14.2. The revised line-up of George Baird (also from the University of Iowa, he lived to the age of 97, dying in 2004), Taylor, Barbuti and Emerson Spencer won in 3:13.4 which set new records for both yards and metres. Taylor ran a brilliant 47.4 stage and then on tour in Germany later in the month further showed his capability on the flat with a 48.2 for 400 metres, four-tenths behind Spencer, who would be a future coach and author of renown. Spencer had only run the relay at the Olympics, and as the medal-winning times in the individual event there had been 47.8, 47.9 and 48.2 both he and Taylor would have figured prominently.

In what may well have been his only meet of 1929, Taylor was 2nd to Gordon Allott in the AAU 440 hurdles on Allott’s home ground at high-altitude Denver, 54.3 to 54.5. Much the dominant athlete at the distance during the year was the Italian, Facelli, who had the five fastest times and nine of the top 11, including a famous defeat of Burghley at the AAA Championships, 53.4 to 54.6, though it should be noted that Burghley had won the 120 hurdles only 35 minutes previously. Facelli had yet to join the select ranks of sub-53 men, of whom all but one were Americans, as follows: 52.0 Taylor 1928, 52.1 Riley 1924, 52.1e Cuhel 1928, 52.3* Gibson 1927, 52.4 Snyder 1924, 52.4 Pettersson 1928, 52.6e Maxwell 1928, 52.8e Brookins 1924.

In neither 1930 nor 1931 did Taylor contest the AAU 440 hurdles, and in the first of those years the winner was Dick Pomeroy, moving into the top 10 of all-time with 53.1. Pomeroy was a member of Los Angeles AC and a capable high hurdler with a best of 15.0y. Taylor re-emerged in August with a remarkable 48.2 for 440 yards in Chicago, which was to rank 3rd in the World for the year behind only George Golding, of Australia, and the NCAA champion, Reggie Bowen, of Pittsburgh University, who had also won the AAU title the year before. This rare appearance by Taylor was presumably in preparation for the USA-v-British Empire match in Chicago 10 days later on 27 August a few days after the inaugural British Empire Games had been completed in Hamilton, Ontario.

The AAU selectors, relying on the results from their championships the previous month, did not do the obvious thing and select Taylor for the 4 x 440 but instead put him in the rather bizarre two miles steeplechase relay which was a feature of those early encounters. As it happens, the US lost both events and in the latter the varying talents of the all-England line-up of Wilfred Tatham, Roger Leigh-Wood, Vernon Morgan and Lord Burghley proved too good for the American hurdlers, who were Clyde Blanchard, Virgil Gist, Pomeroy and Taylor. Vernon Morgan had run the steeplechase at the Empire Games a few days before.

The 1931 World rankings at 400 metres hurdles were not such as to deter Taylor from contemplating a comeback in Olympic year at the age of 29. Eugene Beatty, from Eastern Michigan University, was the fastest of the year at 53.5y ahead of Pomeroy and Facelli, both 53.8y. The AAU title had been won in an ordinary 54.2y by Victor Burke, of NYAC, and Facelli’s time, set at the England-v-Italy match at Stamford Bridge in beating Lord Burghley for the fourth time in their seven confrontations so far, was probably the most significant result of the season.

In the lead-up to the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics Beatty impressively won the first ever NCAA 400 hurdles in 52.9, but the real revelation was another of George Bresnahan’s protegé’s from the University of Iowa, George Saling. He had already run 14.2 for the 110 hurdles to win the NCAA title in Chicago on 11 June and he then had a magnificent metric double in Iowa City a fortnight later of 14.3 and 52.1. The former broke the official World record of 14.4 but like his NCAA result would not get AAU (and therefore IAAF) recognition and the latter was only one-tenth outside the World record. Surely still to this day one of the greatest displays of all-round hurdling ability on a single day?

Beatty’s misfortune opens the way to Taylor’s third Olympics

Fortunately for the specialists, Saling decided to concentrate on the high hurdles at the US trials and accordingly went on win Olympic gold. Glenn Hardin, Joe Healey (New York AC) and Taylor were the qualifiers from the Olympic trials in that order, and then – as is very well known – the Irishman, Tisdall, won the final from Hardin and Taylor, with Lord Burghley a very close 4th and Luigi Facelli 5th. Yet the Olympic final could have been very different but for the fact that in the trials Beatty, the NCAA champion, fell at the last hurdle whilst in the lead and failed to finish. Beatty had other obstacles in life to contend with: he became in 1940 the first Afro-American school principal in the state of Michigan and instituted a policy of involvement with parents and the community which was followed nationwide. He lived to the age of 91, dying in 1998.

F. Morgan Taylor’s long and honourable career having been brought to a close, his legacy was that he showed the way to other American 400 metres hurdlers that Olympic success could be attained beyond the college years. Hardin was still at Louisiana State University when he got the gold in Berlin in 1936, but Roy Cochran achieved his first national title in 1939 and served in World War II before returning as a member of Los Angeles AC to win at the 1948 Olympics. Charles Moore was Olympic champion in 1952 a year after graduating from Cornell, having won the NCAA 440 flat in 1949 and the 220 hurdles in 1951. The first sub-50 man, Glenn Davis, won in 1956 while studying at Ohio State University and again in 1960 as a member of the miniscule Ohio Track Club which had only one other competitor at the trials.

To conclude on an academic note, Taylor was no great shakes as regards his technique for getting over the obstacles, but then few were in the days before hurdles were counter-balanced and would yield more readily when they were hit. Yet these pioneers of the 1920s and early 1930s held their own with their successors. Take a look at the following statistics regarding the best performances for 400 hurdles and 400 flat by the World record-holders and Olympic champions from 1924 to 1960 for which such data is available:

Charles Coulter (USA), 53.2 + 48.6*. Differential of 4.6sec
F. Morgan Taylor (USA), 52.0 + 47.9*. Differential of 4.1sec
Lord Burghley (GB), 52.0 + 49.7e. Differential of 2.3sec
Bob Tisdall (Ireland), 51.7 + 49.0. Differential of 2.7sec
Glenn Hardin (USA), 50.6 + 46.5*. Differential of 4.1sec
Roy Cochran (USA), 51.1 + 46.7. Differential of 4.4sec
Charles Moore (USA), 50.7 + 46.7*. Differential of 4.0sec
Yuriy Lituyev (USSR), 50.4 + 48.2. Differential of 2.2sec
Glenn Davis (USA), 49.2 + 45.7. Differential of 3.5sec

This rather suggests that Burghley, Tisdall and Lituyev were much the best hurdlers, but then Burghley ran a 46.7 relay stage at the 1932 Olympics and Tisdall’s 400 was achieved in the decathlon at those Games, which must indicate that he was capable of significantly faster, as could also have been the case with Lituyev, who had a 46.5 relay clocking to his credit. Overall, considering the much more benign hurdles available to the postwar generation, the clearance techniques do not seem to have improved that much. From Taylor to Davis, the best 400 metres hurdlers were for the most part men who could run fast and who simply got over the barriers the best way they could. The pioneering Frederick Morgan Taylor died on 16 February 1975.

Footnote: From the first Olympic 400 metres hurdles final in 1920 through to 1932 the event was entirely the preserve of the USA and Europe. The USA had 11 finalists, GB four, Sweden three, France and Italy two each, Finland and Ireland one each. This monopoly was ended in 1936 when the finalists included John Loaring (Canada), Miguel White (Philippines), who were 2nd and 3rd, and Silvio de Magalhães Padilha (Brazil), who was 5th.

Frederick Morgan Taylor’s races at 400 metres/440 yards hurdles

53.8e(2)Iowa City31.5.24  
54.1(2)hCambridge, Mass.   13.6.24   US Final Olympic Trials
53.0(1)sfCambridge, Mass.13.6.24   US Final Olympic Trials
52.6(1)Cambridge, Mass.14.6.24   US Final Olympic Trials
55.8(1)hColombes6.7.24   Olympic Games
54.9(2)sfColombes6.7.24   Olympic Games
52.6(1)Colombes7.7.24   Olympic Games
54.5y(1)West Orange, NJ6.9.24   AAU Championships
53.8y(1)San Francisco4.7.25   AAU Championships.
55.0y(1)Philadelphia5.7.26   AAU Championships
52.7ye   (2)Lincoln, Nebraska2.7.27   AAU Championships
53.8(1)hPhiladelphia3.7.28   US Final Olympic Trials/AAU Championships
53.6(1)sf   Philadelphia3.7.28   US Final Olympic Trials/AAU Championships
52.0(1)Philadelphia4.7.28   US Final Olympic Trials/AAU Championships
55.2(1)hAmsterdam28.7.28   Olympic Games
53.4(1)sfAmsterdam29.7.28   Olympic Games
53.6(3)Amsterdam30.7.28   Olympic Games
54.5e(2)Denver, Col4.7.29   AAU Championships
54.8(1)hStanford, Cal.15.7.32   US Final Olympic Trials/AAU Championships
54.2(1)sfStanford, Cal.15.7.32   US Final Olympic Trials/AAU Championships
54.3e(3)Stanford, Cal.16.7.32   US Final Olympic Trials/AAU Championships
55.65(1)hLos Angeles31.7.32   Olympic Games
52.9(2)sfLos Angeles31.7.32   Olympic Games
51.96(3)Los Angeles1.8.32   Olympic Games