Norman Stephen Taber

Inducted: 2004
Born: 1891
Died: 1952

Norman S. Taber is Rhode Island’s greatest home-grown track star. He was a Providence native and a dominant runner for Brown University, Class of 1913. Taber emerged as a top runner in 1910 when he finished third in the IC4A championship mile for Brown University. Missing the 1911 season, he re-emerged in 1912, finishing sixth in the IC4A cross country, then surprising many by tying mile record holder John Paul Jones over that distance at the IC4A championships.

He was selected for the Olympic 1500-meter team and was one of the favorites at the 1912 Olympics held in Stockholm. When the final was held on July 10, he led for part of the race and challenged leader Abel Kivat on the final homestretch. However, Arnold Jackson of Britain passed them both, and a photo-finish between Kiviat and Taber awarded Kiviat the silver medal and Taber the bronze.

Taber won many of his races with sensational sprints. Some of the experts of the day thought that if appropriately paced, he could set a record for the mile, which was then held by English runner Walter George. In 1915, he decided to try to break Jones’ mile record, and he trained with coach Eddie O’Connor for six months to do so. By June, he was in top form. He defeated Kiviat on June 26 in 4:151⁄5 in the Eastern Trials for the AAU, then won a mile at the Melrose AA in 4:173⁄5 a few weeks later. He chose July 16 to make a special attempt to break the mile record. But he was not just aiming for Jones’ world record but also for Walter George’s professional record of 4:123⁄4, set in 1886.

The Harvard track at Alston, Massachusetts was extremely fast, and the weather was perfect for the attempt. Five seasoned timers were on hand, as were three pacesetters given handicaps to assist Taber in his quest best. J.W. Ryan, who was given a 10-yard lead, set a fast pace, clocking 58 seconds for the first lap. Then, D.S. Mahoney, who had been given a 120-yard lead, took up the pace-setting duties and pulled Taber through the half in 2:05, then 3:13 at the three-quarter mark. J.M. Burke, given a lead of 355 yards, carried Taber on through the final lap, and the crowd, sensing a record, cheered loudly: Taber passed 1500 m unofficially in 3:55, faster than the world record, and it was clear Jones’ amateur record would fall. Taber passed Burke into the homestretch, slowed but kept his form, and crossed the finish line. After a few moments, the official time was announced as 4.!2.3, and pandemonium ensued, with the crowd invading the track. Taber had beaten George’s 29-year-old professional record by 3⁄20 of a second and had become the fastest miler in history. While some raised objections over the pacing involved and the lack of any race, the IAAF ratified the record, and it stood until Paavo Nurmi eclipsed it in 1923 with a time of 4:10.4

The New York Times headline of January 16, 1916, presents another perspective on Taber:
Great Strength and Confidence Aided Former Brown and Oxford Athlete in Smashing Mark that Had Stood for Thirty-two Years.

The Times goes on to say,
“In athletic sports, there is an unwritten law that a champion cannot be made—he must be fitted by nature for the event in which he specializes. This law holds true nine times out of ten, but contemporary track athletics show at least one notable exception to the rule. Norman S. Taber, late of Brown and Oxford Universities, now of the Boston A.A., is today holder of the world’s record for one mile because, in the opinion of many experts, he is what is known in track parlance as a ‘manufactured miler’…because of his great strength, and his peculiar, plodding style…Experts were amazed that Taber the plodder could never do, they said, what such great mile runners as Tommy Coneff and John Paul Jones had failed to achieve. Yet Taber did.”

Taber has a longer stride than any mile runner today, but its length is not equal to that of George’s, who was nearly six feet tall. Taber is a well-built fellow but by no means as tall as George. To many, it seems that an event of this kind is more conducive to record-making than an ordinary race, but in the opinion of Taber, this is not so. Despite the pacemakers, the trial lacked the element of competition, and no matter how hard Taber tried, as he told a New York Times reporter last week, he could not take his mind off the fact that he would have no one to beat to the tape but himself. And to Taber, no one in the world is harder to beat than himself.

So, we must infer that Taber has somewhat better breathing machinery and rather better legs than any athlete who has gone in for mile running in the long interval. Of course, we must be proud of Taber, especially as he is not a man of legs and lungs; he has brains, too, and as he gets along in life, he will depend more on them.

There is an hour, however, when Americans comprehend the need for many muscularly trained young men in the community. Such men lead decent and wholesome lives and set a sound example. All hail to Taber, then; let us praise him and heed his example. A man who, having completed one college course, takes up the hard mental work at Oxford for four years more is an exceptional man in the intellectual sense. The reminder Taber has given us that the man of intellect may also be a man of muscle is worth having.”

Taber set that record while running on a rough, unstable cinder track. In contrast, modern running surfaces are made of smooth synthetic rubber bound with latex or polyurethane installed to a depth of ½ inch on an asphalt or concrete base to ensure stability and more spring in the stride. Technology has resulted in well-honed, carbon-plated spikes, the ringlet, a one-piece tight uniform that decreases wind resistance, and lighter, cushion-soled shoes.

Of greater importance are the vast improvements in conditioning, nutrition, and training, especially dedication and focus. The casual approach to track and field, as beautifully depicted in the 1924 Olympics by the movie “Chariots of Fire,” is a thing of the past. Running has been transformed from an intermittent, pleasurable pastime during Taber’s era to an all-consuming passion shown by modern runners.

At the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, Taber won a gold medal in the 3,000-meter team relay and a bronze medal in the 1,500-meter run. Taber finished third to the famous A.N.S. Jackson of Great Britain and Abel Kiviat of the United States in the memorable 1500-meter race. He gained additional glory by finishing second in the 3000-meter race. Taber presented the two trophies he won at Stockholm to Brown University, where they now hang in the Trophy room at Marvel Gym.

Taber is ranked with the top group of American milers. An outstanding star during his four years at Brown, he was the only man ever to threaten Cornell’s John Paul Jones, the college mile king of the day. In the IC4A mile of 1912, Taber surprised Jones at the wire. Many spectators thought he had nipped the Cornell star, but the judges ruled it a dead heat. This was the closest Jones ever came to losing a mile race in college.

On May 31, 1913, Taber ran again in the IC4A championships and was up against world record-holder Jones in the mile. Taber led in the first three quarters, in 61.6, 2:09.3, and 3:16.1. But Jones launched into his drive as the bell for the final lap sounded, and Taber couldn’t respond. He crossed the finish line in 4:414.25, a new world amateur record and the first-mile record to be recognized by the new governing body of track and field, the IAAF, known then as the International Amateur Athletics Federation. Taber’s 4.162 made him the fourth-best amateur over the distance. Taber became a Rhodes Scholar in 1913 and returned to this country with the British team to compete in the Penn Relays. With the great A.N.S. Jackson on his side this time, he ran on the unit that won the four-mile relay.

Norman Taber was born in Providence on Sep. 3, 1891, one of four children of Alfred and Abbie Taber. He married his Hope High School and Pembroke College sweetheart, Otilie Metzger in 1916 one year after setting the world mile record. Their only child, Mary Honey was born in 1918. Taber began his running career at age 17 as a Hope High School senior. At Brown, he specialized in the half-mile and mile distances and cross country. After graduation, Taber established himself as an expert on municipal finance, and he formed his own company specializing in this field. He assisted with the development of President Truman’s Marshall Plan. Taber later became a Life Trustee of Brown University. At the time of his death in 1952 at sixty-one, Taber was the executive director of the United States Council of the International Chamber of Commerce.

Norman Taber was inducted into the Brown University Hall of Fame in 1971 and The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2004.

For additional reading:
· Cordner Nelson and Roberto Quercetani, The Milers, Tafnews Press, 1985
. Oxford Olympians, University of Oxford., September 20, 2012.

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