Bert Lytell, Outcast.
PART 7: BLACKBALLED
Bert Lytell never quit boxing. Boxing quit him.
Long after his sudden disappearance from the ring, he told his niece Ellen Choyce the truth of what happened. “I was blackballed,” he said. Someone approached him about throwing a fight, and he refused. He refused even after he was warned, in underworld parlance, that there was no choice.
This would have been sometime in 1950 or 1951, when Frankie Carbo and his hoodlums had become the power behind the International Boxing Club (I.B.C.). Carbo had a suite at the Forrest Hotel and could flick a cigarette at Madison Square Garden, then located on 49th Street between Broadway and Eighth. Sammy Aaronson’s Boxing Enterprises was further down on Broadway. When a new guild was set up by mob-controlled managers to take a bigger slice of televised matches at the Garden, things got worse. Managers either joined and paid dues or were frozen out. Sammy was disgusted enough to dissolve his operation in 1950 and became something of a humanitarian. Bernie Bernstein started handed out cards that said he sold custom clothing on the side, and Tiny Patterson disappeared into history. All of the fighters in the Aaronson stable became free agents, which meant that they were now unprotected.
Bert was among them. His independence was ground out like a cigarette butt under a shoe, and the shoe was a black and white wing-tip with an elevator insole. We’ll never know who told Bert to throw a fight –-it could have been his new manager or a stranger chewing a toothpick, but we do know who was pulling the strings. It was Carbo.
Bert didn’t do well with being “told” to do anything. He was staunch in the belief that a man always has a choice and that was how he lived his life. If they took a look at his military record they’d have known that. Navy brass used less Brylcream than wiseguys but they gave orders too and what they got from Bert was defiance. He spent much of his service in the brig and probably felt okay about it because no one was in there telling him what to do. When they opened the iron door at the end of a stretch and he emerged with the sun burning his eyes and his stinking clothes hanging off him, the orders kept right on coming. So he showed them all over again: He swore at a petty officer. He left the ship without permission. He stole a Navy truck.
Many of his choices were bad ones, though he would insist on his right to make them. For strong men barred from accessing conventional means of wealth and power, pride is precious. It’s all they have. Sometimes it’s all that matters.
So Bert said no –-and unlike Jake LaMotta, he didn’t change his mind.
It’s likely that he was blackballed by the mobbed-up managers’ guild. The guild would punish a stubborn fighter until he got connected and did as he was told. Bert didn’t know what he was up against. He didn’t see the strings by the pinkie rings, didn’t see how much control they had over what opportunities he would get and what opportunities he would not get. He thought he could shake them off.
By December 1951, he had gone about as far from New York City as he could without falling into the Pacific. His last bout was two months old and two months is a long time to go without a purse –-especially when it’s skimpy to begin with. Bert was desperate. He showed up at the sports desk of the Oakland Tribune. “Lytell is looking for work,” read the next day’s edition, “Ring work. He’d like a fight, but none of the 165 [sic] pounders, or even the 175 pounders, want any part of him.” No manager or promoter did either. Everyone knew that Carbo not only had strings, he had buttons, and the I.B.C. wasn’t called “Octopus, Inc” because of his taste for insalata di piovra.
Whatever was left of Bert’s hope and promise was put on the skids. At only 27, he would never again have a professional prize fight. They made damn sure of it. He was reduced to the status of sparring partner for champions and contenders, working in the camps of Sugar Ray Robinson, Joey Maxim, Gerry Dreyer, and Randy Turpin (who he dropped with a left hook). By taking away the livelihood of a man who had nothing more than a ninth grade education and no real earning power outside of a boxing ring, they put his life on the skids.
In 1954, vice squad officers picked him up in Oakland as a suspected member of a drug trafficking ring. They claimed that he had two fresh needle marks on his arm and then let him go for insufficient evidence. After that he moved back east, perhaps to get the heat off or to avoid further trouble.
He left behind six nieces and a nephew –-Ellen, Evelyn, Lauren, Donna, Alfreda, and the twins Karen and Kelvin. Kelvin (i.e. Calvin) was named for him. Ellen was the oldest and was given the middle name “Virginia” after her grandmother, Bert’s mother. She remembered that he would work out at a gym in the Bay area and recalls watching his fight films. When still a little girl, he taught her how to stand and punch properly; and there was one time in grade school where his lessons came in handy. But her fondest memory of him has nothing to do with boxing. It has to do with his generous heart. Every Christmas when he was gone, presents would arrive in the mail from Uncle Bert for all of his brother’s children, without fail.
He returned to California in the late 1960s. Kelvin, now in his 40s, remembers taking the bus downtown and hanging around with him in the Laundromat where he owned a shoe shine stand. “He was nice, gentle, and very popular –-everybody loved him,” he said. Bert eventually applied for a job in a foundry where the work was intensely hot, grueling, and hazardous. The noise, like the roar of the crowd, was deafening. It must have reminded him of the ring. He was employed there for many years.
He lived in the section of Oakland blackest with pins on police incident maps and his apartment was burglarized at least five times between 1976 and 1982. He lost cash notes and at least four televisions when they smashed a window and climbed in or pried his door open. Lucky for them he wasn’t home.
He was no wide-eyed innocent. Rounder at 200 lbs. and 54 years old, he was arrested in a parking lot for possession of “dangerous drugs with intent to distribute” in 1978. The day after his birthday in 1984 he was driving downtown in his red ’65 Oldsmobile and was stopped by police for busted rear lights. They found a loaded .38 in the car and he was charged with “possession of a firearm by an ex-felon.”
When he was 64 years old, he was arrested for possession of cocaine. The police report recorded the color of his hair as gray; and Bert was, alarmingly, 160 lbs again…
Bert Lytell killed a man. He carried that tragedy with him for the rest of his days. Mary Darthard was the victim’s mother. You won’t forget her. CHECK BACK SOON FOR PART 8 OF “THE BEAST OF STILLMAN’S GYM.”
Graphic courtesy of Harry Otty, with alterations by the author.
Telephone interview with Ellen Choyce, October 2011. As High As My Heart: The Sammy Aaronson Story, p. 84, 85; Bernstein selling clothes mentioned in an AP wire, 11/7/50. Carbo’s style of shoe mentioned in “Events and Discoveries,” Sports Illustrated, 7/18/55. Looking for a fight, Oakland Tribune 12/7/51. Sparring AP 9/1/51, 4/7/54, AP and AAP 9/4/51. For excellent treatments of corruption in boxing during this era, see Jeffrey T. Sammons’ Beyond the Ring: the Role of Boxing in American Society and Jacobs Beach: The Mob, the Fights and the Fifties by Kevin Mitchell. Narcotics raid covered in Oakland Tribune 6/7,10/54. Oakland Police Department Public Records/Crime Reports, Consolidated Arrest Reports.