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Friday, April 5, 2024

The Many Battles of Soldier Bartfield

Soldier Bartfield's opponents could fill up a pretty great all-time top ten list. "Rarely were so many battles of blood and thunder against so many notable fighters credited to one man," wrote Lester Bromberg.

Bartfield fought so many great champions because he didn't actually care who he'd fight. "Never mind whom I gonna fight, what's the poyse?" he once exclaimed, saying the word "purse" with a Yiddish accent.

Bartfield was a Polish Jew born in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. He listed his town of birth as Lancyzn and the date as February 15, 1892. Or maybe it was March 15? Eh, it was so long ago who could remember. The area where Bartfield grew up, called Galicia (not to be confused with the region in Spain), had been obtained by the Hapsburg monarchy in the late eighteenth century and wouldn't be returned to Poland until Jacob had immigrated to the United States.

I remember my mom and her mother-in-law, both born in the Bronx and each learning Yiddish as their first language, gently mocking the cadence of Galician Yiddish and laughing about how hard it was to understand. When Jacob arrived on Essex Street on the East Side of New York at the age of 16, he probably wasn't very easily understood either. While in New York, he learned English and spoke it with a thick Yiddish accent.

Initially, Jacob worked in an iron foundry, building his muscles as he raked in $3 a week. He then joined the army where he fought the legendary Pancho Villa.

Not the Filipino flyweight, but the Mexican revolutionary. Bartfield, a first class private, was part of the 11th infantry sent to the Mexican border at the height of the Mexican civil war. "We had a good outfit, and those bandits knew it," Jacob recalled. "Soon as we turned up, they ran like hell."

He had turned pro back in 1911 and fought consistently until 1916 when he spent ten months out of the ring protecting the southern border. In the meantime, Bartfield built up an impressive array of opponents. You can find them all on BoxRec, and many in the Hall of Fame. He fought Benny Leonard, Ted "Kid" Lewis, Harry Greb, Mickey Walker, and Jack Britton. But "Soldier" Bartfield didn't just fight these guys once; he fought Lewis six times, Greb five, and Britton on seven occasions.

Leonard, the legendary lightweight world champion, said of the soldier, "Bartfield hits you with punches you wouldn't expect. You just don't know what to look for. Aside from this, he's very strong, takes a hard punch as well, and keeps pressing you all the time." Jacob knew all the veteran tricks, his chin resembled steel, and he exhibited the endurance of a migrating penguin.

But Bartfield didn't just fight the best. He fought everyone just a smidge below, too. He took on the world middleweight champion  Al McCoy four times, he broke three of Mike Gibbons's ribs, and battled other champions such as Dave Rosenberg, Jimmy Slattery, and Billy Papke, just to name a few. He actually beat some of these guys too, just never for the title.

Soldier had two title shots. In 1919, he lost to Mike O'Dowd for the middleweight crown and to Johnny Wilson the following year. Bartfield faced many of the top contenders in and around his weight as well. But his toughest opponent, he was quoted as saying, "Dey vas all tuff guys. But my tuffest fight vas mit Lockport Jimmy Duffy.

"De punching vasn't so tuff, but dey troo us out of de ring in de sevent' round. Ve didn't get paid. Boy vas dat tuff!" In their 1917 fight, Bartfield was dominating when Duffy and his corner contended that Bartfield had hit him low. Bartfield and his backers were just as adamant it was a legal punch, but he was DQed though Duffy was later accused of acting.

Bartfield's biggest purse was $25,000, but he often made much much less. And in the case of his fight against Lockport Jimmy Duffy, nothin'.

Bartfield was managed by Dan McKetrick and the ingenious Doc Kearns, the man who guided Jack Dempsey's career. Soldier stood a half-inch above 5'8" and was the type of opponent a smart manager would have his boy fight only if he believed he had a real gem. And even then, Bartfield might still win. "I had a punch they couldn't get away from, a left hook," he said. "That I followed up with a right hand."

Even though he didn't move there until the early 1920s, Bartfield became synonymous with Brooklyn. He represented the loveable tough guy who didn't always win, but always gave his best. After at least 220 professional fights, Bartfield finally retired from boxing in 1925. At the age of 33, he was already described as "punchy," suffering the effects of what is now called CTE. "Those who remember me, I thank," he once said. "And those who don't I can't blame. I have trouble remembering, too."

He fought twice more in 1932 and then hung up the gloves for good. After his career, he worked as a ship fitter for the U.S. Navy in Brooklyn's Navy Yard, continuing through the war. He married Sara and they had a son named Horace. Eventually, they split time between Brooklyn ad their farm near Hunter, New York.

When he got older, Bartfield would sit in Brooklyn's Canarsie Park listening to the birds sing and watching the seasons change. Young women would wave to him and make small talk. "You know what the women there call me? 'That nice old Jewish man,'" he explained.

Jacob Bartfield died on October 2, 1970 at Brooklyn State Hospital at the age of 78. The countless wars, in the ring and on the battlefield, had taken their toll. He was ready to find some peace.

Assorted uncited articles located at the Hank Kaplan Archives.
Silver, Mike. Stars in the Ring. 2016. Pgs. 31, 33.
Tranter, Edward. "Sport Topics." The Buffalo Enquirer. Jul. 5, 1927. Pg. 12.

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