Friday, April 27, 2018

A hard and brutal business

Centennial Methodist Church, 19th street and Woodland avenue.
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It was a fair and cool Tuesday morning, seventy years ago today, the last time Jackie Darthard went to church.  For some in the 18th and Vine neighborhood April 27, 1948, was a day of anticipation. That afternoon the Blues were to play their home opener in the ballpark up the hill at 22nd and Brooklyn. That evening Sarah Vaughn and local product Charlie Parker, rising stars in the jazz world, would be performing downtown at Municipal Auditorium. But for those who showed up that spring morning at Centennial Methodist, corner of 19th and Woodland, it was a day of sadness.

Nine days earlier Darthard, just a couple weeks shy of his 19th birthday, had attended Sunday services here with his young wife, Ernestine. The pastor, Rev. E.L. McAllister, had called him to the front of the congregation that day and praised his strong faith and clean living. Some in attendance remembered Darthard as a Boy Scout. Or they knew him as hard-working bootblack with a stand on 18thstreet, shining shoes and flashing an easy grin. Some knew he hoped to go to trade school to study the tailor’s art. That would come in due time, after he retired from the ring.

Because they knew him best as a fighter, a two-time Golden Gloves champion here in Kansas City and now a promising professional, a national contender for the middleweight crown. In two years he had lost just one fight and won thirty-five, most by knockout.

Jackie Darthard
His next fight was on the Wednesday after Rev. McAllister singled him out in church. The opponent was a veteran, Bert Lytell, recognized as a strong and hard-hitting middleweight. The two had met in February at Municipal Auditorium here, slugging to a draw. The rematch would be in Milwaukee.

Kansas City fans who watched him train at the gym on 18th street described Jackie Darthard as tough, vicious, a terrific puncher who never backed away from an opponent. His trademark was a little blue baseball cap he wore to the ring for good luck.

Bert Lytell
Good luck deserted him that night in Milwaukee. Bert Lytell pummeled him in the third round and again in the sixth. Lytell’s manager tried to get the referee to stop the fight, but rules prevented handlers from speaking out during a match. In the sixth a brutal right to the head sent Darthard staggering to his corner. He complained of a headache, said he couldn’t see, then passed out. There was a rush to the hospital, surgery to remove a huge blood clot from his brain, but he never regained consciousness. He died the next morning. Bert Lytell wept. 

The news made the front page of the Kansas City Star at a time when sports stories, let alone about African-Americans, seldom did. It was the third death in a U.S. boxing ring in 1948, the sixth worldwide. The next day the Star’s sports editor recalled an earlier fight, “the agonizing minutes” he had spent watching another boxer die in the ring. “Death was not intended, of course, but where the main objective is the rendering of a boy or a man into a state of unconsciousness, death is just a step or two beyond. It’s a hard and brutal game, the prizefight business.”

So that following Tuesday Jackie Darthard went to church a final time, lying in a box carried by fellow fighters, including Bert Lytell’s brother. A thousand mourners packed Centennial Methodist’s auditorium and balcony and vestibule. Another fifteen hundred stood outside in the street. There were flowers and songs and tears. “He always fought the good fight; he neither asked nor gave quarter when in the ring. Prizefighting is hard business,” said the Rev. McAllister, echoing the Star editorial.

“But the most astonishing thing is that grown people will go to such fights and stand and cry for blood and not be satisfied until one or the other of the participants is knocked down and out.”

Jackie Darthard and Bert Lytell after their first fight.

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