Mary Darthard, surrounded by family members after the tragedy that was Lytell-Darthard II.
PART 8: THESE HANDS
Bert Lytell was haunted by a ghost. It followed him wherever he went for the last four decades of his life. Sometimes he’d be sitting in a chair at his brother’s house in Oakland, surrounded by light-hearted nieces and chattering relatives, and then he wouldn’t be there anymore. His eyes would dull and lower to something that wasn’t there. Ellen noticed her uncle staring at the floor and asked her parents about it. They told her what he saw.
He saw Jackie Darthard, the shadow of Jackie Darthard, dying on a hospital cot.
April 21st 1948. Bert Lytell was 24 years old and 160 lbs when he marched down the aisle to fight his second main event at the Milwaukee Auditorium. He slipped through quivering ropes and paced the ring, rolling his shoulders and reveling in his physical prowess like boxers do.
Ten paces away, the sixth-ranked middleweight in the world reveled just as much. His name was Jackie and he was one in a parade of teenage glory-boys that boxing used to beckon, a slugger good enough to fight Bert to a draw the first time they met. “Once an opponent has been hurt, Darthard is after him without letup,” his hometown paper boasted. “He packs lethal wallops in either hand.”
Like most black contenders, Jackie had to take an extra job to make ends meet. He worked at a mattress factory and washed dishes when he wasn’t training, though he had high hopes about this rematch with Lytell. He was sure it would launch him into the big-time, and the lucky blue cap he wore into the ring and everywhere else would make it a cinch. His wife remembered that cap and the tiffs they had when he wore it to bed. She made the mistake of hiding it once; “I thought we was gonna get a divorce,” she said years later.
In the third round, Bert landed a right hook to Jackie’s head and a left that went deep into his stomach. Jackie went down on his face and didn’t get up until the referee counted nine. Another left sent him down again. He used the ropes to get to his feet and barely beat the count. In the fifth round, Sammy Aaronson peered under the ropes from the Lytell corner and saw a sick look on Jackie’s face. His instincts, honed over twenty-seven years in the racket, told him something was wrong and he started hollering at the referee: “That kid’s hurt! Stop the fight!” It seemed to be a stunt to get his man the win and the referee ignored him. “Get a doctor! Take that kid out of there!” An official leaned over his shoulder. “Keep your mouth shut,” he warned, “or you’ll be suspended.” Sammy knew he was breaking the rules but kept at it anyway. No one listened. After the round ended, he told Bert to take it easy.
In the closing seconds of the sixth round Bert crowded Jackie into a corner and then landed a clubbing left to his temple at the bell.
Jackie slumped on his stool. “Give me a drink of water,” he said as he draped his arms along the ropes. He started tossing his head and his trainer started worrying. “Jackie, how do you feel?” he asked.
“Give me a drink of water and I’ll get him this round.”
“You can’t go out this round.”
“No, don’t stop it. He’ll get a knockout on me!”
“You can’t go out this round, we are going to stop it.”
“No don’t stop it, don’t stop it.”
The trainer then asked Jackie where they were staying. Jackie said “sixteen, sixteen… Oh my head hurts, my head hurts, my head hurts...” The rest was incoherent and he went limp.
Sammy wasn’t even looking at Bert during the one minute rest. He was fixated on what was happening in the other corner and was already heading over there when Jackie slid off the stool to the canvas.
Officials rushed up the stairs into the ring. One of them scrambled under the ring, grabbed a stretcher and slid it under the ropes. Silence like a black veil fell over the 5,044 in attendance. Bert dropped to his knees. “Is he gone?” he kept asking. Jackie was carried out of the auditorium and rushed to the County Emergency Hospital.
A reporter approached Bert and asked him if he knew that Jackie was in bad shape. “I don’t know if he was talking to me or mumbling to himself but he said that he was hurt in the stomach,” he answered before excusing himself to go visit his opponent at the hospital.
By 1am reporters, state officials, and trainers from both corners were standing around in silent vigil outside of Jackie’s room. A few fans filtered in and volunteered to give blood transfusions. Sammy peeked into the room and saw the unconscious fighter’s head wrapped in bandages and his chest rising and falling with deep gasps that came too far apart. “I couldn’t stand it,” he said. Bert sat in a chair and prayed. Tears were seen streaming down his cheeks. A reporter from The Milwaukee Journal was watching him. He saw the flattened nose that all fighters eventually share and the scar tissue over the eyes. “It’s easy to see he packs a terrible wallop,” he wrote, “but when he talks it’s a quiet, gentle voice, you might say like a woman’s.” He was fondling a cigarette and the reporter remarked how it looked like a little white match in those big hands of his.
Those hands killed a contender. A nurse came out of the operating room and said that Jackie Darthard was gone. It was 8:40 in the morning on April 22nd 1948 and Jackie was still wearing his boxing trunks. Bert was inconsolable. The county medical examiner said that the cause of death was “a brain hemorrhage, caused by external violence.” Bert killed him, and he knew it. He was going to quit the ring.
Mary Darthard was Jackie’s mother. She and a few family members were on their way to Milwaukee in a borrowed Buick when a newsflash said that Jackie had died that morning. When they arrived into the city, they went to the District Attorney’s office where an official hearing was being conducted. Bert was already there. He was standing further down the corridor when he saw the family come in. He watched Mrs. Darthard sob convulsively while Jackie’s sister and younger brother dabbed at her tears and stayed close. Some minutes passed before he was able to gather up his courage and approach the slender, well-dressed woman.
“I’m Bert Lytell,” he murmured, “I just want to say I’m sorry.”
Mrs. Darthard quickly composed herself and took his hands into her hers. “I know how you feel, son. Just like Jackie would have felt,” she said, “it wasn’t your fault. It was God’s will, I guess.”
The most feared middleweight in the world began to cry.
“Brace up, honey,” she told him. “Don’t let it ruin your life.”
Bert wouldn’t let it ruin his life. But it changed him. He began pulling his punches whenever he had an opponent hurt and he could no longer bring himself to stage those all-out attacks like before.
The beast was gone. Only the man remained.
Twenty years later, the hands that killed Jackie Darthard were shining shoes in an Oakland Laundromat. Their power to startle was undiminished. “I can still see his knuckles and joints, all worn and beaten,” his nephew Kelvin told me, “—they were huge.” Bert probably looked at them with both pride and sorrow. Those hands could not offer a glittering championship belt for his nephew and nieces to admire, but they could offer a lesser treasure more dear: a fraying scrap book with old newspaper clippings carefully taped to pages. It told the story of what he was —.
Bert Lytell’s scrap book was lost. More losses would follow.
In 1986, he was 62 years old and evicted from his apartment on Sunnyside Street. He moved only as far as the driveway and was determined to stay right there. His girlfriend was with him. At 4’5 she must have reminded him of Tiny Patterson. Her name was Patricia Taplin and she was less than half his age —“Pat” he called her. The police were called by the new tenant and the couple refused to make a statement after being admonished for trespassing. The responding officer wrote “offense likely to continue” in the report.
Soon after that, Ellen got word that her uncle was living in his car and she too responded to the call. She became his angel. Never far from her mind were those Christmas packages he used to send to her, her brother, and her sisters, wherever he was. She would be there for him now, wherever he was. Ellen set him up in a hotel room in downtown Oakland and paid the bill.
The old fighter eventually found an apartment with his girlfriend and was on solid ground …for a little while. Pat died, unexpectedly, in 1987. The loss devastated him. He didn’t know what to do, didn’t know where to turn, so he went for the bottle with both hands. He tipped and drained, tipped and drained, and tumbled down into alcoholism. He stayed there, uncomfortably numb, until a doctor told him that unless he wanted to die he had no choice but to give up drinking. Bert gave up drinking.
In June 1989, he was chosen to receive a special acknowledgement at an awards banquet for distinguished former athletes in Cuero, Texas. Someone even remembered his right name: The Victoria Advocate announced him as “Calvin Lytle, middleweight boxer.” He didn’t attend. In January 1990 he was admitted into Fairmont Hospital in San Leandro, California after he couldn’t endure the pain in his abdomen any longer. A liver biopsy revealed that he had a “metastatic adenocarcinoma of unknown primary origin” —cancer.
It was too late to save him.
THE BEAST OF STILLMAN’S GYM winds down to its conclusion this Thursday. Don’t miss it.
Graphic is from The Milwaukee Sentinel, 4/23/48 (Frank Stanfield, photographer).
Darthard tragedy covered in The Milwaukee Journal 4/22,23/48, The Milwaukee Sentinel 4/22,23/48, and As High As My Heart: The Sammy Aaronson Story by Sammy Aaronson and Al Hirschberg, pp.87-91. Telephone interviews with Kelvin Lytle and Ellen V. Choyce, October 2011 and January 2012. Description of Darthard’s syle in Kansas City Times, 2/10/48. Pete Ehrmann’s “The Jackie Darthard Story” was another resource for this essay and is highly recommended. It offers more details about Jackie Darthard as remembered by his wife. Awards banquet reported in Victoria Advocate, 6/17/89. Cause of death found in Bert Lytell’s Certification of Death, State of California, #000693.
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