John Boyce Taylor – known as “Steel Arm Johnny” for his pitching – was the second of four tremendously talented baseball-playing brothers. One of them, Ben, was eventually inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Eldest brother Charles, known in baseball as “C.I.,” was a brilliant manager; along with Rube Foster, he became one of the leaders in founding the first Negro National League in 1920. James, dubbed “Candy Jim” by peers and press, went on to become one of the most successful managers in Negro League history.
Of the four Taylor baseball players, John’s story is the least well known – yet he was a terrific player in his own right. John first got his “Steel Arm” nickname in an 1898 newspaper article about his collegiate pitching ability. He went on to pitch for an array of professional teams between 1903 and 1920, and the competition he faced reached the highest level in the game. Opponents included the Cincinnati Reds (in a 1912 exhibition game) and most of the finest Black players of the Deadball Era.
John Taylor was also clearly a fine teacher and contributed in his family role as well. He coached at the collegiate level; later he joined Ben Taylor’s coaching staff through the 1924 season. His assistance during his youngest brother’s early foray into managing thus quietly contributed to Ben’s Hall of Fame resume.
Isham and Madeline Taylor worked a farm in the hamlet of Varennes, just outside Anderson, South Carolina.1 Anderson County lies south of Greenville – the largest city in the area and the home of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson – nestled on the piedmont in the northwestern part of the state. Isham was born in South Carolina in 1844, with an occupation listed as farm laborer on U.S. Census documents beginning in 1870. It is quite likely that he was born enslaved, as was wife Adaline.2 When not eking out a living for what ultimately became a family of 12, Isham also served as a pastor in a local church.3 With sincere, shared faith, the Taylors raised each of their children to be sober, serious, and earnest, to control their emotions, and to excel at whatever they attempted, be it school or sport or work. On August 12, 1879, the Taylors – who were already parents to sons Frank, Charles, and Samuel, and daughters Mary, Sarah, and Frances – welcomed a seventh child, son John Boyce.4 The family eventually grew to include 10 children with the birth of Jim in 1884 and Ben in 1888.
Not a great deal is recorded about John’s early life, but by 1898 he was pitching for Biddle University in nearby Charlotte, North Carolina. Biddle University had been established in the wake of the American Civil War to promote opportunities for higher education to the families of former slaves. (The institution’s name was changed to Johnson C. Smith University in 1923.)5 Though perhaps apocryphal, the story is that a reporter from the Charlotte Observer dubbed him Steel Arm Johnny after one particular Biddle win over Shaw University in 1898.6 A righthander, Taylor would reach only 5-feet-5 and 168 pounds as a fully grown adult, but he still managed to carve out a successful career in pitching.
The Charlotte Quicksteps, along with a team called the Fowler Base Ball Club, were two of many early Black teams in North Carolina. Both were referenced in the Wilmington Messenger in 1890.7 Within two decades, the Quicksteps’ baseball reputation grew. Local colleges, generally for Black students, would match up against professional and semipro squads as a way of gauging the school team’s skill level. Biddle University played a number of games against teams like the Quicksteps, and Taylor honed his pitching craft in those games. The lessons were effective.
Taylor shared many of the attributes of his parents and brothers. Intelligent, educated, and with a typically Taylor-esque demeanor of calm reserve, he was an ideal choice to educate ballplayers by example and experience. In 1899, he was named head coach of alma mater Biddle’s baseball team; he also continued to pitch as a hired arm for the town team back in Anderson.8 He would later return to Biddle as head coach again in 1905. Before that, however, he signed on to pitch for brother Charles’ new team, the Birmingham Giants, in 1904. The Giants played at a park known to the locals as Slag Field, because it was basically grass grown over an industrial waste dump. C.I. and John were joined by brother Jim as well as several college players recruited from the region, and by 1907 the Giants were defeating almost all comers. In some quarters they were “considered the Colored Champions of the South.”9
Over the following seasons, all four baseball Taylors played on the team at various times, and John was also coaching the Mississippi Industrial College team in Holly Springs. There, Coach Taylor developed Willie Cobb, a pitcher talented enough to later take the field for Birmingham. The 1908 Giants team lost its bid for back-to-back titles as Negro Champions of the South when they fell to San Antonio in the championship series, 4 games to 3. John Taylor struck out 11 in the series, but San Antonio’s Cyclone Joe Williams whiffed 27 Giants in the close series win.10 Taylor’s high point came in a head-to-head matchup with Williams in the second game, at the end of the eighth inning, with a 1-0 lead. Taylor loaded the bases with nobody out, but then, in Satchel Paige-esque fashion, proceeded to strike out the San Antonio side to preserve the win.
In 1909, Taylor started with Birmingham, pacing the team in wins before moving north late in the year to join the St. Paul Colored Gophers.11 Throwing mostly to starting catcher Will McMurray, that 1909 season was a breakout year for John Taylor. As noted in a July story, “Johnnie Taylor, ‘steel-arm Johnnie,’ who joined [the St. Paul Colored Gophers] June 7, has not lost a game as yet, having won all 14 he pitched.”12 When the Leland Giants traveled to Minnesota to play St. Paul in late July, Taylor started for the home team and won a 10-9, 11-inning decision over the visitors.13 That game was finally decided when Bobby Marshall, later the first Black player in what became the National Football League, homered over the center field fence with a runner on second.14
In addition to Marshall, that Minnesota team included Taylor’s brother, “Candy Jim”; Bill Binga (a former member of the great Adrian, Michigan Page Fence Giants); and catcher Chappie Johnson. Together they won the unofficial Western Independent Clubs championship for the year, and John’s performance led to an audition with the Chicago Giants in 1910.
Part of the 1910 season had been spent in Indiana, when brother C.I. took over the West Baden Sprudels that year. John rejoined the family business. From the opener on April 10 through May 14, the Sprudels met the rival French Lick Plutos for 19 games and posted a 12-5-2 record. The level of competition was relentless – often Taylor found himself facing terrific opponents like Frank Wickware or Bill Gatewood, and a lineup that included luminaries like catcher Bruce Petway and outfielder Pete Hill. Giants owner Frank Leland had also acquired Joe Williams from San Antonio to improve his team for the summer stretch, and together Williams and Taylor provided a daunting one-two pitching challenge to their opponents. According to Negro League historian James Riley, Taylor’s 1910 stint in Chicago found him not only starring on the mound but also filling in for a game behind the plate.15 In one particularly notable clash of aces, Taylor and the Giants defeated West Baden, with submariner Dizzy Dismukes on the mound for the Sprudels, 2-0 in an early September matchup.16
For the year, the Sprudels posted an unofficial 49-23-2 record, with Taylor serving as the staff ace.17 But “Steel Arm” was a nomad. He spent the summer of 1911 with the St. Louis Giants, where he reunited with brothers “Candy Jim” and Ben. That year, manager Dick Wallace’s team finished fourth among the Western Independent clubs. One local paper noted that “In ‘Steel Arm’ Taylor, Ben Taylor, and [Arthur] Gillard, the St. Louis Giants have the best twirlers in the West.”18
Taylor returned to West Baden in 1912, and had the opportunity to pitch with Dizzy Dismukes instead of against him.19 He also had the opportunity to face the Cincinnati Reds in an exhibition – the National League team won20 – and to defeat French Lick for the Spring Valley League title.21 That was followed by a travel schedule that involved brief stops in Chicago, with the American Giants; a 1914 stint with brother C.I. and his Indianapolis ABCs; and one with the Louisville White Sox (where Taylor got his first opportunity as player-manager), along with a brief 1916 return to the ABCs.
According to Taylor’s 1918 draft registration card, he had relocated to Peoria, Illinois, and taken work as a “rubber” (masseur) at the Peoria Turkish Bath.22 Also, according to that record, his closest living relative was brother Charles, in Indianapolis. A reasonable inference is that Taylor was unmarried. Again, according to Riley, Taylor pitched for a bit for the 1919 Bacharach Giants, and in 1920 joined the Peoria Black Devils as player-manager.23 That June, Taylor again rejoined the ABCs in the first year of the Negro National League.24 Notably, the 1920 U.S. Census shows that 40-year old Taylor’s primary occupation was still “rubber” at the bath house, and that he shared his home with 23-year old Susie Ryder. There is no record of their marriage, and both are self-described as single, so her role in his life remains unknown.25
In 1923, following the death of C.I. Taylor, and his widow’s subsequent assumption of team ownership responsibilities, youngest brother Ben left the team to take over as manager of the new Washington Potomacs. The manager asked his brother John to come to the district and take over as pitching coach. There the elder Taylor took over a staff whose most notable player was 50-year-old Andrew “String Bean” Williams. Unable to elevate the overall performance of his pitchers, Taylor quit baseball for good after the 1924 season. He returned to Peoria, and his job as a masseur, and remained there for the rest of his life.
John Taylor was the first documented “Steel Arm” in baseball, but he was not alone. William “Steel Arm” Tyler pitched in the Negro Southern League, and eventually for the Kansas City Monarchs, between 1925 and 1930. Walter “Steel Arm” Dickey pitched for the Knoxville Giants, the Montgomery Grey Sox, and the St. Louis Stars before dying in a homicide in March 1923. Finally, Johnny “Steel Arm” Davis was a talented hitter who played for a number of teams between 1918 and 1938. Sadly, he also died violently, shot in a gunfight in 1941.26
In 1940, Taylor was still living in Peoria, this time at a boarding house, and working 50-60 hours a week at the bathhouse. According to the census, he was divorced by then, but there is no clear indication of whom he married or when, or precisely when the marriage ended. It is probably reasonable to assume, though, that his wife was from the western Illinois area.27
John Taylor passed away on March 25, 1956. He is interred at Peoria’s Springdale Cemetery. Taylor’s grave went unmarked for 51 years, until SABR members Jeremy Krock and Melinda Figge located the grave and dedicated a small memorial to the man on May 6, 2007.28
John Boyce Taylor’s baseball life was much less heralded than those of his brothers, yet it was a life well spent. According to James Riley, Taylor “emphasized clean living and hard work, and set an example for his players, abstaining from the use of both alcohol and tobacco in any form. He was a hard worker and possessed a sweet baseball disposition.”29 That is a fitting epitaph for the player, the coach, the manager, and the man.
Sources and acknowledgments
Thanks go to the 2016 monograph “Forgotten Heroes: Charles Isham ‘C.I.’ Taylor” by Dr. Layton Revel and Luis Muñoz, published by the Center for Negro League Baseball Research. It was invaluable in placing John B. Taylor’s accomplishments within the larger context of the game immediately before, and then after, the 1920 formation of the first Negro National League.
This biography was reviewed by Phil Williams and Rory Costello and fact-checked by Jeff Findley.
1 United States Census, 1880; South Carolina, Anderson County, Varennes twp. June 1880: 4.
2 United States Census, 1870; South Carolina, Anderson County, Rockmill twp. July 1870: 14.
3 United States City Directory, Anderson, South Carolina, 1917. Online: https://www.ancestry.com/discoveryui-content/view/964267805:2469?tid=&pid=&queryId=c6b625abc453b6db148fe766f6b1cbb2&_phsrc=DJf35&_phstart=successSource
4 United States military registration, South Carolina/Anderson County 4th Ward/7th Precinct: John Boyce Taylor; September 12, 1918
5 “Biddle University,” The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Story, Online: https://www.cmstory.org/exhibits/turn-20th-century-life-charlotte-1900-1910-schools/biddle-university-now-johnson-c-smith
6 “Steel Arm Johnny” Taylor, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (e-Museum), online: https://nlbemuseum.com/nlbemuseum/history/players/taylorsaj.html
7 “Pithy Locals” Wilmington Messenger (NC), June 20, 1890: 8.
8 “Steel Arm Johnny” Taylor, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (e-Museum), online: https://nlbemuseum.com/nlbemuseum/history/players/taylorsaj.html
9 Dr. Layton Revel and Luis Munoz. “Forgotten Heroes: Charles Isham “C.I.” Taylor,” Center for Negro League Baseball Research, 2016: 3.
11 “Birmingham Giants Close the Season” Indianapolis Freeman, October 30, 1909: 13
12 “Red Wing Booked to Play Rochester Today” Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 18, 1909: 41.
13 “Bobby Marshall A Hero” Minneapolis Journal, July 27, 1909: 10
14 “Bobby Marshall A Hero.”
15 James Riley. “Taylor, Johnathan Boyce” The Biographical Encyclopedia of The Negro Baseball Leagues, New York: Carroll & Graf, 1994: 767.
16 “Chicago Giants, 2; West Baden, 0.” Chicago Tribune, September 7, 1910: 10.
17 Revel and Munoz, 6.
18 “Banner Card for the Fans” St. Louis Star and Times, July 23, 1911: 22.
19 “Sprudels are Winners” Indianapolis Star, May 24, 1912: 6.
20 “Reds Beat Sprudels” Indianapolis News, October 9, 1912: 13.
21 Box score. Indianapolis Freeman, September 7, 1912: 14.
22 United States military registration, South Carolina/Anderson County 4th Ward/7th Precinct: John Boyce Taylor; September 12, 1918.
23 “Negro Giants Beat Black Devils, 1 to 0” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, May 19, 1920: 8
24 “Stars Resume Play Tuesday” Detroit Free Press, June 22,1920: 14.
25 United States Census, 1920; Illinois, Peoria, Ward 4, District 0095. January 3, 1920.
26 Note in the. Wisconsin State Journal, December 17, 1941: 20.
27 United States Census, 1940; Illinois, Peoria, Peoria, District 104-30; sheet 62A.
28 “Remembering “Steel Arm” Johnny Taylor,” Society of American Baseball Research. Online: https://sabr.org/latest/remembering-steel-arm-johnny-taylor/
29 Riley, 767.