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Conrad Burkman – The Man Who Has Seen It All

Conrad working hard at the 2004 Glass City Open

With his seventieth birthday recently eclipsed, Conrad Burkman has cemented his place as the elder statesman of pool. The long-time publisher of The National Billiard News has been deeply involved in the pocket table games for well over forty years and his memories over that time are priceless.

We recently had a conversation with Mr. Burkman that point out the sources of his expertise and highlight the depth of his experience. Our first question was a query as to how he had first become immersed in the game.

"My first involvement with the game was back in the early sixties when I began playing in a local pool league. I played out of Cushion and Cue in Livonia in a league owned by Ray Abrams. One of the drills with this league was that you were required to help referee his yearly pro tournament, The Motor City Open. Ray owned three poolrooms at the time, Livonia, Oak Park and Allen Park.

"Our league played Straight Pool and the Motor City Open was a Straight Pool tournament, so it was kind of a natural and easy thing for us to do. I did my bit there and there was a fellow watching named Joe Farhat from Lansing and he owned a room called The Velvet Rail. Joe thought I was a pretty good referee so he asked me for my help with the State tournament. It seemed like a pretty good gig so I said, 'Sure, I'll come up'.

"The next year the US Open (Straight Pool) was going to be in Lansing. I agreed to referee there and the very first match I drew was between Irving Crane and Joe Balsis. I was scared to death. Here were two of the legends of the game and I had to go make calls on them. But after the match was over Crane walked over to Bob Freshley (Tournament Director) and said: "I want that fellow to referee all of my matches. He's the best referee I've seen in years".

"As it turned out, Balsis and Crane met again in the finals. The finals were televised on local TV and that was my first time to ref a televised match. The next year the US Open was held in Las Vegas at the Sahara and ABC's Wide World of Sports was televising it nationally. They were looking around for someone with TV experience to do the refereeing. I volunteered that I had that experience, left out the little bit about it being local, and got chosen to be the TV ref. From there the refereeing just snowballed and before I knew it I was the BCA Head Referee.

We asked Conrad what matches he had officiated over the years that really stood out in his memory. He mentioned three. "One was between Jim Rempe and Joe Balsis. Rempe was playing masterfully, running out, and he got to where he only needed one more ball to win the match. He chose the nine ball in the side pocket and played some draw on the ball to leave Balsis safe in case the shot missed. He did miss the shot and Balsis wasn't left safe enough. Joe ran 47 and out on him to win 150-149! Jimmy didn't recover from that loss for years.

"Another interesting match was one between Joe Balsis and Steve Mizerak. Again, this was in the finals and ABC's Wide World of Sports was televising the match. Keith Jackson was the sportscaster and Willie Mosconi was his color man. Mizerak had a shot where he was jacked up over a ball to try a really tough shot into the corner pocket. He made the shot, but the cue ball backed up and hit the ferrule of his cue. I called the foul while the crowd was still shouting and applauding the shot. I had to yell 'foul' three times before Mizerak could hear me over the noise. Of course, Balsis had seen the foul as well and he was already halfway to the table before the ball ever fell. Steve knew he had fouled and never argued a bit, just went over to his chair and sat down.

"Mosconi, on the air, says: "Oh, that is so unfortunate. That referee has just cost Mizerak the match." As it turned out, Mosconi was twice wrong. First, Mizerak wound up winning anyway. And right after the match concluded Keith Jackson came running out and said he wanted to interview me on the 'controversial' call. And I said "What? I didn't make any controversial calls." Which is when Jackson told me that Mosconi had told the world that I had made a bad call on a perfectly legal shot!

"My first reply was: "Well maybe that's why he's sitting back there and not playing anymore." I mean, this got me hot. I knew the call was good and so did the players. So we went back into the TV booth and they began showing the shot on replay. They had to slow it down to where it was nearly stop-frame, but the foul showed up clearly. The cue ball crawled nearly half an inch up the ferrule and you could see it. Keith Jackson apologized to me, but Willy never did."

But the crowning story from Conrad has to be the one that involved a wild-west style of gunfight. Conrad had agreed to direct a tournament in Joe Burn's poolroom, Forest Park Billiards, in Dayton, Ohio. The room was under a shopping center, in the solid concrete basement of the center. Conrad picks up the tale: "I didn't want to work the tournament so I tried to price my way out of it. When Burns, who co-promoted the tournament with Billy Stroud, contacted me to hire me I told him I needed three grand to do the tournament. This was a three-week affair but I knew that figure would keep me out of it. Burns looked at me and said: "OK, You got it."

"Which sprung a trap on me I tried to elude by quickly adding: "Wait, I'm not done yet. I also need all my expenses like food and hotel covered and I want to go home every Sunday night and come back on Monday night." I was sure this would put Burns off. When he said: "OK, it's yours." I was trapped for sure.

"At the end of the tournament Buddy Hall was playing Youngblood Brown for the All-Around title. Buddy and Youngblood had to play three disciplines: Nine Ball, One-Pocket and Bank Pool. Of course, Nine Ball was Buddy's game while One Pocket and Banks were both realms claimed by Youngblood. Buddy got to choose which game to start with and he surprised everyone by choosing Banks. A great move. They played the Banks and Buddy just beat Youngblood's brains in. He murdered him.

"A fellow named Bill Steigel was the referee. I was sitting on the sidelines in one of those tall spectator chairs. The players took a break after that first match and they both took turns going to the restroom. When they came back to the table Youngblood was almost out of it. He was hanging on to the table and he was walking real shaky. Anyway, this really big guy sitting behind me reached over and tapped me on the shoulder. "What's wrong with our boy out there?" he asked me. And I said: "Y'know I don't know. But he looks kinda funny doesn't he?" And this real big guy says: "Well, find out!"

"So I walked over to Steigel and asked what was up with Youngblood and Steigal said he thought Youngblood took something in the restroom. He had screwed up his chemicals. Steigal wanted to know if he should stop the match and I told him "Hell, no. He took the stuff, let him live with it!" And I walked back to my chair and sat down. And the big guy goes: "Well? What is it?" And I told him we thought maybe Youngblood had taken something in the restroom.

"This apparently caused the big guy great consternation. He growled: "Stop the match!" And I said: "I'm not stopping the match!" and as I said that I turned around to look at him and he said: "Look at this, white boy!" and he pulled open his coat and showed me this big ol' .45 stuck in his belt. And he told me: "You either stop this match or I blow your brains all the way across this damn pool hall." This put me to sweating pretty good.


"Just then in came promoter Joe Burns. He walked right up to me and said: "How's it going?" Now Burns was facing me and the gunman was right behind me so I said: "The guy right behind me wants me to stop the match or he's gonna blow my brains out." And Burns replied: "Well good for him!" and walked off.

"Which put me resuming the question of whether to save my dignity or my life. So a few minutes later the time had come to tell the players to get ready to resume play and that decision was yet to be made. I became aware that four or five guys had entered the room but I had not diverted my attention from the matters at hand to really notice them. Suddenly Joe Burns was in front of me again, this time wearing a deerskin coat, the kind you see in the old west movies with fringe coming down off the sleeves.

"And he asked: "Which guy is gonna shoot ya?" And I indicated the big guy behind me and Joe looked at him and asked: "You got a piece?" And the big guy opened his coat and showed the gun. In reply Burns opened up his coat and he had two pearl-handled revolvers stuck in his belt: "Well, go for it motherfucker!" And he pulled out those two revolvers and shot them into the ceiling and plaster fell everywhere and you can't imagine the noise of twin .44's going off in a concrete bunker.

"Quick as a snake he had one of the guns under the big guys nose. All of this before the bug guy could even get halfway to his gun. And Burns goes: "Gimme your gun and get out and never come back!" And the guy leans down to me on his way out and tells me I'll never leave town alive. Burns said: "Nah, Conrad, you'll be fine." That night Burns sent two armed men with me to the hotel. One stayed out in the parking lot all night and the other was stationed just outside my door. They had two cars and the next morning they sandwiched me in between them and escorted m all the way to the Michigan state line.

We wanted to know how Conrad had morphed from being a referee into being a sought-after Tournament Director. "Well, mostly I was a Straight Pool ref. I only did a couple of Nine Ball matches. And refereeing paid lousy. I could have ref'ed every day of the year if I would do it for free, but Tournament Directors got paid, sometimes pretty well. So I branched out into tournament direction where I would also ref the final match.

"Soon I got to direct some pretty big tournaments. The Miller Lite tournament was four to five thousand players, the BCA tournaments were big, and the Valley Tournament. This all got curtailed when my mother fell gravely ill and I needed to cut back my travel. That's really how I fell out of it. I had train Ed Scott Smith and he had taken over the show real well and by the time I could have restarted that gig I had pretty much lost interest in it. It is much harder work than most folks realize.

The years of experience that Conrad has logged give him a grand overview of the famous names. We asked him how he would compare the last series of great players like Greenleaf, Mosconi, Lassiter and Balsis to today's crop of stars. He told us first that it really isn't a fair comparison. "They play different games. On different equipment. Probably the best of the earlier players was Greenleaf. He set many of his accomplishments on ten-foot tables, quite a bit different from the nine-footers employed by players since the fifties and sixties.

"Willie was a great player, but he never played anything but Straight Pool until late in his career when he could make a lot of money playing Fats on TV. Luther played everything. Now he didn't get the recognition that Mosconi did because Luther was a hustler and didn't even start playing tournaments until later in his life. But I think Luther has to rank right under Greenleaf because he was more imaginative than Mosconi. I mean, the drawback to all those old great players was they only played Straight Pool except for Wimpy.

"Today's players play many different games. Earl in his prime played absolutely the best Nine Ball under pressure that I've ever seen. Reyes is the best all-around player I've ever seen. Boston Shorty was probably the next best all-around player. Shorty played tournament-caliber Nine Ball, Eight Ball, Ten Ball, Straight Pool, Banks, One Pocket, Carom Billiards, he played it all. So does Reyes.

We also wanted to know about Conrad's history with the National Billiard News. As publisher of the oldest billiard publication we knew the road could not have always been smooth. "Two friends of mine, Ray Abrams and Bob Mullins, bought the National Billiard News and got into a bit of a hole right from the get-go. After only three issues they needed another partner to buy in to supply the money to keep it going.

"So I thought about it and told them that I would come on board if I could have say in how the money was spent and the advertising and the subscriptions. They agreed and I've been here ever since. When I came on we had only 300 subscribers and maybe 200 of those were freebies. We righted the ship and eventually Ray and I bought everyone else out. Ray continues his presence on the masthead but hasn't visited the office in a number of years, so I have control of the publication.

The National Billiard News continues today as the only national newspaper on the game. Conrad and Editor John Cash gather the news of the game every month and they fill the paper with photos of the stars of the game and tournament results and news from around the country as well as the international news of note.

Their have been some, well, interesting, times for the NBN. Conrad remembers the first color cover that wasn't. They had spent over $800 for color separations to do the cover and someone dropped the ball and never got the seps to the printer. Not long after that an editor, who had been storing all the file photos at his apartment, had an apartment fire. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when it was learned that the photos had escaped the blaze. But there was another fire the very next night and that one ate all the pictures.

Conrad still very much enjoys his role in the game. "There are travel benefits to this job. You get to go to some neat places and I still really enjoy watching the matches. Plus, I have made some really great friends over the years."

One of the memories that really sticks out for Conrad is his presence at a couple of the Johnston City tournaments. "That really was something else. That was the first time I ever saw Luther play. He was playing Harold Worst from Grand Rapids in Nine Ball. Luther was driving Worst nuts by quoting Bible passages. Luther would get bored in the hotel rooms at night and the only reading material there was the Gideon Bible, and so he read the Bible all the time. Worst scratched on the eight ball in one game and sat down. Tugboat Whaley was sitting in the stands at the foot of the table and was a famous referee of the day so Luther called out to him: "Boat, spot that ball, will'ya?" And Tugboat got up, put aside the hot dog he was eating and spotted the ball. Luther got down and fired that spot shot in and the eight ball made a sound like a flat tire, whomp, whomp, whomp, all the way into the pocket. And it left tracks. Yellow tracks. Tugboat had gotten mustard from his hot dog all over that ball and it stained the table so bad they couldn't get it out all week. Luther couldn't believe it. He just looked at him and said: "Jeez, Boat!"

Conrad continued: "Looking back on it now Johnston City was just the greatest experience. You got to see so many greats all in one place. Weenie Beanie, Fats, Shorty, all the hustlers and their backers like Titanic Thompson and it was just a terrific tournament. It was laid out with a pit for the games to be played in, a pit recessed three feet into the floor with three tables in it and padded bleachers arranged around three sides of it. The flow chart covered the whole back wall. There were even padded bleachers out back in the Cue Club, where all the hustling went on.

The memories and the stories could go on forever. If you haven't made the acquaintance of this icon of our game you can easily do so. Go to a pro tournament. He's the guy sitting in the front row snapping photos with his Nikon. And if you never get the pleasure then at least get his paper. Call the NBN at 248-348-0053 and sign up. You just might learn a few things.

All photos courtesy of Diana Hoppe – Pool Pics by Hoppe