School of Hard Knocks
Thanks to Mike Tyson, boxing again has come under heavy fire. But many fighters end up with worse damage than a gnawed ear. Forty-nine years ago one of the most poignant cases was that of a young fighter who stepped into the ring at the Milwaukee Auditorium.Jackie Darthard and Ernestine Alexander grew up around one another in Kansas City, MO, and early on, Ernestine says, "I couldn't stand him. He used to pick at me all the time."So naturally they fell in love and got married. They were both only 15 years old, and had just finished the eighth grade. "Just babies," sighs Ernestine. From the beginning, she shared her husband with another love. "He lived and breathed boxing," she says. Slept it, too. Sometimes, dreaming he was in the ring, Jackie would hit his wife in his sleep. Laughing, she recalls, "I'd say, 'Was you doing that on purpose?'"Jackie Darthard, who started boxing when he was 12, had so much natural ability that at 15 he won the national amateur flyweight tile. In 1946, the church choir singer turned professional and became an immediate sensation by knocking out 12 of his first 14 opponents. They called him the "Kansas City Slicker," and in his first year Darthard lost only one fight. In mid-1947, Darthard set out to conquer bigger worlds, and in boxing Milwaukee was just below New York then as a major fight venue, with several promoters running cards regularly at the Auditorium and other sites. A young businessman named Frank Balistrieri became the city's top promoter of boxing through the 1950s before moving on to other pursuits that were outlined when he was named in 1961 on the Senate floor as the head of the local arm of the Cosa Nostra crime syndicate.On June 5, 1947, Darthard made his debut at the Auditorium, knocking out Detroit's tough Fist Dever in three rounds. Local fans, wrote Milwaukee Journal sports editor R.G. Lynch, were impressed by Darthard's "speed, fine boxing and hard punching."By the time Darthard upset Eddie O'Neill in Milwaukee on October 10 of that year, in his third local appearance, Lynch wrote that Milwaukee ring experts considered him "the classiest ring man who has come to town in years, barring only Willie Pep." That was high praise, inasmuch as future Hall of Fame member Pep was then world champion in the featherweight class and had lost only one of 110 professional fights.Three weeks after Darthard won a decision over hometown favorite Jimmy Sherrer at the Auditorium, in a fight in which he suffered his first knockdown when Sherrer put him down briefly in the first round, he faced the toughest test of his career on November 18, 1947. His opponent was Cecil Hudson, a strong, crafty veteran who had beaten top welterweight contender Tommy Bell and future middleweight champion Jake LaMotta. More than 3,000 fans witnessed the Auditorium 10-rounder that often degenerated into a brawl, foul tactics having been employed by both boxers. "They seemed to enjoy the game they were playing, grinning at each other, tying each other up, whaling away at times, pulling dirty tricks," wrote Lynch the next day.Darthard got the unanimous decision, and in its end-of-the-year rankings, The Ring magazine, "The Bible of Boxing," rated him the ninth-best middleweight in the world under world champion Rocky Graziano. Within several months, Darthard would climb to the number five spot. He was only 18, and the future looked limitless for the Kansas City Slicker. According to Lynch, Darthard's managers "see in this rapidly growing youngster a potential heavyweight contender." But that was before Bert Lytell.The second-ranked contender in the 160-pound class, "The Chocolate Kid," as Lytell was called, was one of the great fighters of the 1940s. He was too good, in fact, ever to get a crack at a title. But the Fresno, CA fighter had beaten such other greats as Charley Burley and Holman Williams. And, Lytell had twice as many fights as Darthard when they fought on February 16, 1948, at the Kansas City Municipal Auditorium. The Slicker received a fair going-over in the ring, but Lytell got one from the judges. The fight was called a draw, but even a Kansas City Times reporter wrote, "Lytell was the winner by a thousand points, more or less. Darthard put up a savage fight, but at times was in a state of utter confusion. He punched and swung against a target so elusive that the blows found no resting place. The fight was rugged all the way and something more than rough at times."It would have been a good time to pull back and take a breather. Darthard, who wouldn't turn 19 until May 4, had fought 33 times since turning pro two years previously, usually at least once a month. His wife suggested some time off. Her husband's climb had been difficult on Ernestine. She had attended "one or two" of Jackie's fights. But "they got on my nerves," she says. "Professionals was no comparison to Golden Gloves. I didn't want nobody to hit on him like that. But I knew it was his life, so I had to live it, too."There were other, worse hardships in their lives. In their three years as husband and wife, Ernestine had lost three babies at birth. And despite Jackie's success in boxing, it was hardly a lucrative profession for him. In those days, black boxers were on the lowest end of the boxing pay scale. The $2,400 he got for the Lytell fight was Darthard's top purse. He and Ernestine lived in an apartment owned by Beau Davis, Jackie's manager. They didn't own a car. The fifth-ranked middleweight contender worked at a mattress company between fights, and even washed dishes to help make ends meet. But now Jackie had a reputation, and new fight offers were pouring in. Darthard took the one he wanted most when they offered him a rematch with the Chocolate Kid in the city in which the Kansas City Slicker figured he couldn't lose."This is my lucky spot," Darthard told Milwaukee Sentinel boxing writer Ray Grody here the day before his April 21, 1948 rematch with Lytell. "I've never lost a fight here in six starts."Kansas City was a nice place to live," Darthard said, but "give me this here town when I'm fighting. You know, I've won 36 of 38 fights. Mickey Savage beat me in my fourth bout in 1946, and this fella Lytell held me to a draw about two months ago. Both occurred in Kansas City. See what I mean about Milwaukee? It seems I do my best fighting here." Brew City wasn't his only lucky charm. There was the blue baseball cap Jackie wore into the ring for every fight. That had started when he played baseball after weighing-in for a bout one day. The game ran late, Darthard had to rush to make it to the arena and ended up unconsciously wearing the cap into the ring. He won the fight, and after that he insisted on wearing it in the ring right up until the referee sent him and his opponent back to their corners with instructions to "come out fighting." Ernestine remembers that cap well."He never took it off," she says. "He even slept with it. I hid it once, and I thought we was gonna get a divorce." His child-like belief that all the luck was in his corner accompanied Jackie into the ring at the Milwaukee Auditorium that night, but fate might have telegraphed what was in store for him in several events leading up to the fight.The most chilling was a dream Darthard's mother had in Kansas City the night before. In it, Mary Darthard saw her son being carried out of the ring. Forty-nine years later, Ernestine wonders if Jackie himself didn't have some kind of premonition about what would happen here. After he rejected her suggestion that it was too soon to be fighting Lytell again, she asked to at least accompany him to Milwaukee."I don't think you need to come to this one," he answered.And then there was his lucky blue cap. When Darthard arrived in his dressing room at the Auditorium, he discovered that his most prized talisman somehow had been left back at the rooming house he and Davis were staying in near North Fifth and West Vliet streets.He wouldn't fight without it. "Oh, Beau! I forgot my cap!" he told his manager. "Go get it right away. It's by the bed in my room." A messenger was dispatched for the cap. But its, and Darthard's luck had run out.Ernestine was descending a stairway in her building in Kansas City when she heard a radio announcer say her husband was hurt. She was driven to wait at her parents' home, while her mother-in-law and several of Darthard's siblings drove all night to Milwaukee in a borrowed car. On Highway 41, at the city's southern limit, the Darthards' car was flagged down by Dorothy Byrd, identified later by Journal writer Richard L. Davis in a widely anthologized piece as the madam at a Milwaukee house of prostitution, the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold. Byrd had gone driving in search of an incoming car with Missouri license plates and black occupants because she didn't like the idea of the Darthards coming alone into a strange city.It was Byrd who informed the Darthards that Jackie had died after emergency surgery to stem the bleeding in his brain that had caused him to slump to the ring floor after the sixth round of the fight. The teenage ring sensation had gotten one thing he wished for that night. Before the fight, Darthard told Grody: "I just hope he comes to me. I'll be there to meet him. That's how I want him to fight -- slam-bang. Let him trade punches with me and you'll see some fireworks -- and Mr. Lytell will explode right on his back."Lytell did as Darthard had hoped. He knocked Darthard down twice in round three. After Jackie got up the second time, Lytell's manager, Sammy Aaronson, noticing what he later described as a "sick expression" on Darthard's face, yelled at the referee to stop the fight. But he was told by a state boxing inspector to be quiet because he was violating a state ordinance against yelling at ringside.Two weeks earlier, a headline in the Journal had announced, "State Ring Board Approves Rules To Guard Against Boxing Deaths." One of the new rules adopted by members of the Wisconsin Athletic Commission, then in charge of governing rings here, called for a boxer who was knocked down to receive an automatic eight-count from the referee before being allowed to resume the fight. But because they hadn't yet been published by the Secretary of State's office, the new rules weren't in effect that night.In the Slicker's corner at the end of round three, Beau Davis was worried. "How do you feel, boy?" he asked Darthard. "I'm straight now. I can come on from here," the boxer answered. "I'm just getting warmed up. He got a couple of lucky punches, that's all." "How many fingers do you see?" asked Davis, waving a couple in front of Darthard's eyes."Two. Do you think I can't count?""Where are we staying in Milwaukee?""Sixteen-twenty-four N. 5th St." replied Darthard, adding, "Say, cut out the jive, man. I'm all right. I'm going to get this chump." "Well, cover up then," admonished his manager, to which the young boxer snapped, "I don't need to cover up. I'm all right!" Darthard did better the next round, but by the sixth Lytell was pounding him again. After the Kansas City boxer returned to his corner, Davis again asked Darthard where they were staying in town. "All I know," replied the fighter, in the last coherent sentence he would utter, "is that I'm in Milwaukee fighting." An ambulance took him to County Emergency Hospital on North 24th Street and Wisconsin Avenue, and surgeon Harry P. Maxwell cut open Darthard's head and tried to staunch the hemorrhaging in his brain caused by Lytell's blows. But the Kansas City Slicker died at 8:30 the following morning without ever waking up.After an inquiry, District Attorney William J. McCauley ruled that Darthard's death was an "unavoidable accident." Davis said his fighter's health had been good, although he recalled that after the Sherrer bout, Jackie had complained of a terrific headache. Mary Darthard, Jackie's mother, said she was satisfied, and told the weeping Lytell, "I know how you feel, son. Like Jackie would have felt. It wasn't your fault. It must have been the will of God, I guess. Brace up, honey. Don't let it ruin your life." Jackie Darthard's life wasn't the only thing lost that night. When they were gathering his personal effects at the morgue, missing was his lucky baseball cap. It was never seen again.Before the body was shipped home to Kansas City, a few hundred turned out in Milwaukee for a service at the O'Bee Funeral Home. About 2,000 attended Darthard's funeral in Kansas City, and heard Rev. I.L. McAllister say, "One of the saddest things of all in professional boxing is the spectator," who "wants to see the flow of blood. The fighter must be cut down. The fighter hears the roar of the crowd. He tries, and expects to bring his opponent down."Ernestine was helped through her devastating loss by loving and supportive parents. Like Jackie's mother, she never blamed the man whose fists made her a widow at 18. "I had a lot of respect for Bert Lytell," she says. Ernestine never married again. Today, at 67, even though her health is not robust, her spirit is."I still miss him, but I know God knew best," she says. Her only exasperation is directed at whomever walked off with her scrapbooks and memorabilia heralding Jackie's meteoric boxing career. Today she doesn't even have a photo left of her late husband. But, she says, "I still have my memories in my heart." The Jackie Darthard story might seem especially tragic because he was a young man whose life ended just as fame, fulfillment and even greatness seemed so near.But his widow doesn't see it that way. In fact, Ernestine thinks the Kansas City Slicker couldn't have asked for better luck after all. "Boxing was in his blood," she says, "and he went doing what he loved the best."