Detroit’s Charles Bernstein, whom I’ll already start calling Chuck Burns, born May 25, 1917, died July 4, 2002, had a sports background before he became a serious table tennis player. As he later told a reporter, he’d “captained the Northeastern YMCA basketball team for two years,” and he’d also “played one season in Class C of the Detroit Baseball Federation,” where he had a 600 batting average. Sliding into base one day, he hurt his leg and had to find another outlet for his gutsy go-get-‘em, hustling style of play. Hence his involvement in table tennis.
Columnist Betty Stoll Angelo, in her Dec. 24, 1981 interview with Chuck, fills us in on other details of his late teens/early 20’s life. He’d learned his table tennis at a Detroit Y (presumably the Northeastern?), and in 1936 had won the Detroit News’s annual Novice tournament. He’d graduated from Eastern High School at age 16, then, after attending the then Wayne City College for a couple of semesters, had later, in 1939, opened “Campus Table Tennis Courts” with the $400 he had saved from his sales “of notions to Detroit businesses.”
Unranked, a relative unknown, Chuck appeared at the Sept. 7-9, 1939 Canadian National Exhibition Tournament in Toronto, and, defeating a number of opponents—Montreal’s Pierre Chapdelaine, one of the best players in Canada; Cal Fuhrman, the Ohio #1; and two of Detroit’s best players, Al Marshall and U.S. Top 25 Harvey Davis—he reached the Men’s final where he was runner-up to Harry Cook, a leading exhibitionist of the day.
That fall, at the Philadelphia Intercities, Chuck was a member (his record an undistinguished 1-6) of the Detroit team with Max Hersh, V. Lee Webb, and Gar Gomon that finished by winning only 1 tie while losing 5.
In his first National’s, at Indianapolis in 1940, Chuck had a good win over one of Minneapolis’s best, Harry Lund. And at the Intercities he had an even better one—over Garrett Nash, U.S. #2.
The Feb., 1941 Western’s saw Bernstein, not yet Burns, in good form. He was the losing Men’s finalist to Billy Holzrichter—in three closely contested games. Since Chuck’s backhand was heavily loaded, and he had a good flick from that side, Billy played ball after ball to his forehand. Both Holzrichter and Bernstein’s semi’s had been great crowd-pleasers. Billy, down 2-1 to Nash, won 18 in the 5th, and Chuck beat Bill Price in a fierce drawn-out battle, 32-30, 21-10, 13-21, 22-20. Chuck said later that retriever Price gave him a lot of high, no-spin balls, and that when the game got close Bill often came in and began rolling the ball, hoping to create a winner. At season’s end, Chuck was U.S. #20.
The 11th annual Intercities, the last such Championship because of the War for five seasons, was played in the Bal Tabarin room on the 6th floor of Chicago’s Hotel Sherman, Dec. 27-28, 1941. Only 7 teams could be accommodated. The 4-table venue offered a hardwood floor, high ceilings, a window-free background, and air-conditioning. One of the most intense ties, though not the final itself, was N.Y. vs. Detroit. At first it didn’t seem a likely one to watch, for in 1940 Detroit had finished dead last on a percentage basis among the teams. But in 1940 Charles Bernstein (5-6) was not this Intercities’ Chuck Burns (10-4) and Garrett Nash (6-7) was not married to Marie Van Loon (“sweet, soft-spoken deb of the Motor City”), not living in Detroit, and not in the process of compiling a 9-3 record. U.S. Champ Lou Pagliaro opened by losing 9, 19 to Burns (who in the Detroit-St. Louis tie had outsteadied Price, George Hendry, and Allan Levy), and, as Dick Miles would lose all three (he fell in straight games to Webb, Nash, and Burns), Tibor Hazi would have to come through—and did. He beat Nash deuce in the 3rd, Burns 25-23 in the 2nd, and Webb without a struggle. Which brought the tie to 4-4. Paggy then 8, 15 dominated Nash—and undefeated N.Y. went on to defeat previously undefeated Chicago for the title.
Shortly after Chuck had beaten Pagliaro he was at the Chicago USO, where he was introduced as “The man who had just defeated the U.S. Champion.” It was then that Chuck first began to think of giving exhibitions—for money of course. On approaching an agent he was booked on the spot. With Nash he worked Frank Barbaro’s Bowery (where comedian Benny Rubin also entertained). There were other Detroit engagements in the early ‘40’s—for example, at Carl Oglesbee’s Haymarket Club, and at the Michigan Sportsmen’s and Boat Show with Webb.
Chuck would win the Michigan Closed an almost uncountable number of times. Perhaps his first was the Jan., 1942 one at Pontiac where, down 2-1, he rallied to beat Nash. He also won the Doubles with Garrett—over Hersh and Webb.
Quite amazingly, with comparatively little competitive play behind him, at the 1942 National’s 24-year-old Chuck advanced all the way to the Men’s final. Perhaps the fact that this Open was played in his hometown Detroit had something to do with his success. At any event, though he started shakily—he went 5 with 5-game Preliminary winner Joe Elliff of Toledo—he later beat Hazi, Jimmy McClure, and in the semi’s, with a big 27-25 2ndgame, Eddie Pinner. Though Burns had bested Pagliaro in the Intercities, he was no match for him here. Chuck told me that Paggy gave him some sort of “hook forehand” that he’d never seen before and that it was very effective.
By this time Chuck had married Shirley (called “Leigh”) and would become the father of four—one daughter and three sons.
During the 1942-43 season the Michigan TTA had been having a difficult time finding a playing site, so obviously the 18-table downtown Detroit Club that was opened in late 1940 with such fanfare by Mayor Jeffries wasn’t in these War times (or in any time?) sustainable. Still, the Apr. 3-4 Michigan Closed was held at Detroit’s Fairview Gardens, and in the Men’s final Defending Champion Burns avenged his loss in the earlier Western Open to Webb by trouncing him 10, 13, 5—this after 8, 12, 10 destroying Hersh in the semi’s. Since Webb and Hersh (who won the Doubles over Burns/Glenn Whitcroft 19 in the 5th) will be respectively U.S. #8 and #9 this season, Chuck looks well prepared for the National’s that will be played the following week.
At the St. Louis University Gym, the #3 seed Burns faced a U.S. Open quarter’s match with the promising newcomer Miles, the #7 seed, who’d disposed of the furloughed Pfc. Nash in 4. A stocky type, Chuck was not one to flash around court swatting forehands. Because of an old (torn cartilage) knee injury that would keep him out of the Service, he’d developed a close-to-the-table game—fancied himself something like a boxer in the ring of the court, except he didn’t “dance.”
At the 1941 Intercities Burns had beaten Miles—and though of course Dick had improved, so had Chuck, who had the reputation of being a wily player given to trying to psych out his opponent. There was also the matter of Burns’s style. Here, in the advice he would one day give to others, is the patient, pugnacious stance he early adopted:
“…[O]ffensive strokes, forehand and backhand, I try to use like a left jab, or flick shot, with no backswing, hitting with follow through quickly. I find it easier to return the ball, particularly offensively with the same angle my opponent moves it to me. On return of serve, if unable to attack, chop first ball to opponent’s forehand, second to middle, third to backhand, then repeat with varying spin on every third shot if possible. This will enable you to possibly upset opponent’s timing. Get set to hit every good loose ball and quickly prepare to defend against a possible counter. On defense, move laterally with the outside foot. Defensive or control players [like Chuck] must gradually assert their offensive moves as the match wears on, so that the offensive player will tend to rush and hopefully try bad shots.”
Burns again beat Miles—this time –20, 14, 21, 20 in what he always considered his greatest match. In the semi’s, however, against Hazi, whom he’d defeated in the National’s the year before, he suffered what had to be his biggest disappointment—a 21, 19, -12, -20, -15 loss. “I was on top of my game,” Burns, reminiscing, would tell Detroit suburban reporter Don Vogel 46 years later (Oakland Press, Aug. 19, 1989, D-13). “In the semifinals the ball looked like a balloon,” and late in the end-game 4th he was leading. “I had two straight [chances] where all I had to do was drop the ball over the net for the points that would have won it. Both stayed on top [then fell back]. Then I smashed two forehands into the crowd and that was it.”
Chuck was always saying, “Winning is everything”—and that it was his lifelong credo no one could doubt, least of all his son Ron who once wrote that he had memories of “my father flying off into winter snowstorms in precarious looking DC3s to an endless string of tournaments” (Newport News, VADaily Press, Aug. 2, 1973). So when Chuck told reporter Vogel that “It took me six years to get over that loss” to Hazi one can believe it.
Chuck didn’t attend the 1944 National’s. Perhaps at this time he was working at a war plant and months away yet from testing his trick knee on a USO Tour. However, he surfaced at the Nov. 11-12 Jack Taggert Memorial Open in Detroit (Taggert, a member of Detroit’s Intercity team before going into the Service, died when the plane he was in, on taking off from a carrier, crashed into the sea). Here Burns was upset by one, Alex Taub, a high school student whose Michigan rankings were 7th in the Men’s, 3rd in the Junior’s—though, in fairness, Chuck “was playing his first tournament since pulling a ligament in his leg last year,” and the brace he wore “seemed to slow his movements.”
Burns also missed the Detroit, Apr., 1945 National’s. For some time he’d been registered as a USTTA exhibition player. He remembered for a lifetime how, once, when trying out for an exhibition (his first?) he’d “choked like a rat—was so nervous he couldn’t even serve”—and yet was hired (“You guys are terrific” said the man watching and hiring). Now Chuck was about to set off on an 8-month USO Tour with Ruth Aarons who last summer had been reported doing exhibitions in France with Garrett Nash—though he’d then split with her and Topics would have him in Algiers performing on one occasion with Ted Mosher “before 1000 people, most of them Arabs” who according to Mosher were “quite apt to sit stonily with their eyes moving and then cheer and yell like mad.” Chuck said Garrett as an entertainer was good with his delivery, but, though he could hit down the lines and smack a backhand anywhere, he couldn’t hit a forehand crosscourt when it was called for.
Burns took his physical on May 16, 1945 and 5 days later started drawing a salary. As writer Bob Latshaw tells us, Chuck was mustered in with comedian Jack Benny, harmonica player Larry Adler, and actress Ingrid Bergman, the Ilsa of “Casablanca”—which, as it happened, was where Chuck’s particular Camp Show started out. There he was challenged by Ed Gardner, the Archie of the very successful radio program “Duffy’s Tavern.” Chuck gave him 15 points—won. He also remembers playing, on the rooftop of a hotel there, the tennis and later movie star Jinx Falkenberg (who preferred to play table tennis as a penholder).
Unit #612: “The Racketeers”—that was their troupe’s name. Chuck and Ruth traveled with Jimmy Treston, who did impersonations of singers Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby and of singer/comedian Danny Kaye; Ann Sharon, a puppeteer; and Lois Sterner, a tap dancer (who was accompanied by accordionist Hal Freeman). A photo of them in bathing suits on a beach in Tripoli appeared in National Geographic and was later reproduced in the Nov., 1988 Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame induction dinner program.
Sometime during that summer of ’45 Chuck threw his bad knee out. “Can you do the show?” Ruth asks. “All you have to do is just stand there.” Then, said Chuck, “she moves me around like crazy.” Perhaps it’s to this particular performance that an Oct. 11 article published by Hq Port Service, Khorramshahr, Iran alludes: “Ruth Aarons and Chuck Burns, the table tennis experts, put on a good show for the crowd, with Ruth demonstrating that the fair sex isn’t always the weaker sex. Chuck, however, was hindered by a bad leg, and couldn’t play his usual driving game”—which, come to think of it, maybe was their usual “line” everywhere they went? And they did go places—Karachi, Cairo, New Delhi, Benghazi.
Early in 1946 Ruth continued Touring without Burns. The War Department gave Chuck a Civilian Service Emblem Award for his USO service outside the U.S., and he returned home and went into the real estate business, became a developer, and sold low-cost tract homes to returning soldiers.
Burns was soon back playing—but more or less only locally. At the 1946 Detroit Intercities, his team climaxed as best it could be winning all its ties before losing to N.Y. 5-0, and Chicago, 5-2, when Burns beat Bob “Andy” Anderson, and Hersh held off Dan Kreer.
At the 1947 Michigan State Closed, Burns defeated 3-time Champion Hersh in a (15, 23, -19, -16, 17) bruiser. Burns/Hersh figured to win the Men’s Doubles, and did—but, down 2-1, they had to come from behind to beat Arnold Brown and tournament bridge player Cliff Bishop. But at the Michigan Open that followed, though Hersh had –18, 20, 18, 20 difficulty with former U.S. Boys’ Champ Gordon Barclay in the semi’s, he beat Burns easily. Chuck and Max again won the Doubles—but barely, deuce in the 5th, over Barclay and fellow South Bender Dale McColley.
Burns/Hersh continued their winning ways at the ’47 Chicago National’s, knocking off former World and National Champions Jimmy McClure/Sol Schiff before losing in the final to the super steady New York pair, Doug Cartland/Arnold Fetbrod
Since the Mar., 1948 Central Open was in Detroit, Burns played—but, though he won the Doubles with Hersh over Holzrichter/Brown, he lost in the semi’s of the Singles to the mercurial Webb who knew his game so well. Thereafter Chuck began talking like he’d had enough tournament play (which he’d been greatly curtailing anyway). But then he went to the Apr. Columbus U.S. Open, where he beat Nash but lost in the quarter’s to Cartland, and where he and Hersh, from up 2-0 and at deuce in the 3rd, dropped their Doubles match with Miles/Freddie Borges whom they’d eliminated at the last National’s.
Though year after year Burns wasn’t playing enough to get a National Ranking, he did surface in the Nov., 1950 Chicago Central Open, where in the quarter’s, leading 2-1, he lost to Webb, and where in the Doubles he and Glenn Whitcroft were beaten in the final in 4 by Bob Harlow/Allan Levy.
Chuck enjoyed playing in the National Team Championships, but, bizarrely, at the late Nov., 1950 tournament in Columbus, Ohio, on arriving by rail, he was faced with such a snowstorm that he just threw up his hands and got back on the same train that was returning to Detroit.
Though current Michigan Closed Champ Whitcroft had beaten Chuck at an earlier tournament at Royal Oak, MI, Chuck avenged that loss in winning the Mar., 1951 Michigan Open, beating along the way Hersh and Barclay. Since all of these players were nationally ranked, and Chuck not because of Insufficient Data, his wins were considered “upsets.” But at the National Team Championships in the fall, Chuck had a 10-3 record—only New Yorkers Miles, Pagliaro, Cy Sussman, and Johnny Somael were better.
At the 1952 National’s, Chuck beat U.S. Junior Champion Carl Dentice, then fell to U.S. Top 10 Hal Green. In Doubles, Chuck and Max lost in the quarter’s to the eventual winners Miles/Schiff.
In 1953, at the 18th Michigan Open, defending Champion Burns (who was also Vice-President of the Michigan TTA) lost in the quarter’s in 5 to U.S. Top 20 Tim Boggan—after which he apparently played even more sparingly than he had previously.
Up through 1953, some players considered themselves too “old” to continue playing competitively into the Over 35 Senior’s. But perhaps when in 1954 the USTTA extended the Senior’s age to Over 40, word got out that, “Hey, a lot of players out there even in their late 30’s can still be competitive.” As if Burns didn’t know that…and woe to anyone unprepared to ask for a spot if Chuck suggested a game or two for a small wager at his private (office) table. There he held court. At any event, for whatever reason, Burns wasn’t making the tournament scene….
…Until the Toronto CNE that started the 1955-56 season. Then, for more than another quarter of a century, he would play in earnest (though still picking his tournaments). In both the Nov., 1955 and Oct., 1956 Michigan Open, he lost to the eventual winner Marty Prager (but he did have a win over ’56 U.S. Boys’ Champion Norbert Van de Walle, the Outstanding Player at the Nov., ’56 National Team Championships (where Burns was 9-4).
In 1957 Burns played in his first Senior’s (Over 40)—in the 28th Michigan Closed, where, in addition to the Senior’s, he also won the Men’s and Men’s Doubles. Later that fall, in Toronto, Chuck, tenacious as ever, never one to give away a point, leading Keith Porter 17-8 in the 5th, lost in deuce. It happens. The following month, in the Michigan Open, where 10-year-old future USTTA Hall of Famer Connie Stace (later Sweeris) was crowned “Queen,” Chuck beat Keith before losing in the final to Van de Walle. Chuck, now 40, and after 14 years, was back with a National Ranking—U.S. #15.
At the Nov., 1958 Michigan Open, he lost in the semi’s to U.S. #4 Van De Walle, but won the Doubles with 1957 U.S. Champion Bernie Bukiet. Then he Captained the Detroit team to the NTC’s, where he had an 8-4 record. The Michigan Open and Closed, the NTC’s, the U.S. Open, and the Toronto CNE—these were Chuck’s yearly tournaments, and, up until this time, he seldom went to others.
But in 1959 Chuck, Al Wasserman, and Herb Schindler, Jr. revived interest in t.t. in the Metro Detroit area, and Michigan TTA President Graham Steenhoven fostered a series of local tournaments. Chuck began to play more, attended his first Eastern’s, where he beat Hazi in the Senior’s, and for the ‘59-60 season he was ranked U.S. #11.
After he won both the Mar., 1961 Central State Open in New Albany, IN and the May, ’61 Midwest Championships at the Beatty Club in Columbus, Ohio, both over fellow Detroiter Leo Griner, U.S. #12, Topics spread a large action shot of him on its Sept. cover. Chuck, the U.S. #1 Senior, is wearing some kind of glove on his playing hand, and the bottom of his hardbat blade is taped where his forehand forefinger would rest—except that that’s the side he’s shown returning a knuckled backhand with….Ah, a photo not long after shows the other side of his blade white-taped at the bottom as well.
At the 1962 National’s, Chuck, as feisty and determined as ever, had the distinction of playing what Topics columnist Danny Ganz said was the tournament’s “worst match to watch”—an epic 5-gamer with runner-up Van de Walle, a youth less than half Chuck’s age, that was finally expedited (as was Norbie’s losing final with Miles). Chuck, at 45, wasn’t only Michigan #1, he had the confidence to think he could beat Van de Walle and Miles and win the U.S. Open title.
For the 1962-64 seasons, Norman Kilpatrick was elected USTTA President and Chuck Executive Vice-President—Chuck receiving more votes (179) than any candidate for any office. When Kilpatrick resigned after serving for one year, Chuck became the USTTA President for the ’63-64 season. Although he ran for re-election the following season he was beaten by Herman Prescott, Executive Director of a Virginia Boys’ Club
At the 1963 NTC’s, Topics tells us, the “Team Captains voted Ralph ‘Pete’ Childs Jr. [25-2] as the Most Valuable Player, just edging U.S.T.T.A. President Chuck Burns [16-0!] for the award.” Childs, along with Dell Sweeris, Danny Robbins, and Chuck’s son Doug, was a member of the winning Michigan Juniors Team.
In 1942 and ’43, Chuck was ranked U.S. #3. Quite amazingly, 20 years later, in 1961-62-63 he was still ranked among the U.S. Top 10.
Burns was beaten in the Senior’s at the 1964 Eastern’s by Dr. Andreas Gal and his unusually thick racket. But at the 1965 Michigan Open, Chuck won the Men’s and the Senior’s; and what’s more, his sons were also Champions with him—Doug winning the Under 17 Championship and Paul the Under 15’s.
Chuck’s favorite tournament had to be the Toronto CNE, where he twice Captained the U.S. Team in the International Matches against Canada. Almost every year, for 11 straight years—from 1955 through 1965 (age 38-48)—he won…something. Total: 3 Men’s Doubles; 1 Mixed Doubles/1 runner-up; and 5 Senior Singles/3 Runner-ups
At the 1966 NTC’s, or what was now being called the U.S. Open Team Championships, Chuck had another good result —he was 16-3, a bit better than his son Doug, 14-5, who nevertheless beat him in their match. No matter, for the ’66-67 season, Chuck was again #1 in Michigan (in the Closed he’d taken out two formidable young players, Robbins and Sweeris) and, now 50, was #13 in the U.S.
From 1956 through 1968 (age 39 through 51) Chuck reached the U.S. Open Men’s eighth’s 7 times (the last time in ’68 when U.S. Champion Dal-Joon Lee beat him); in 1962, almost 45, he’d advanced to the quarter’s. During this time, in U.S. Open play against North America’s most enduring stars, Schiff, Hazi, and Canadian Champ Max Marinko, he won 2 Senior Singles, had 2 runner-ups; won 3 Senior Doubles, had 1 runner-up. Then after the 1967-68 season, in which he was the #1 U.S. Senior, he again left the tournament scene.
And again was back at the ’72 National’s on Long Island, where he beat Laszlo Bellak in the semi’s of the 50’s before losing to Marinko. Ditto with the very same opponents in ’73. But this time he really came to play. He won the 40 and 50 Doubles with Schiff. In the 40’s, before losing to Bukiet, he beat ’72 Pennsylvania State Champ Bill Sharpe in 5. And, deigning to enter the Class A, he lost to Richard Ling in the final.
After 1973, he didn’t play in the U.S. Opens…except for 1982 when he made his debut in the 60’s a winning one—over George Hendry. Paired with Boggan he also reached the final of the Over 40 Doubles.
Although it hadn’t been his habit to travel long distances to tournaments, he was in Vegas in ’76 for the first U.S. Closed—I think primarily because he liked the thought of being a current National Champion. There he won his only U.S. Over 50 Singles. Back the next year, he won his first U.S. Closed Over 60’s, would follow that, 7 years later, with one more. But, finally, that was it—his play had become the quilt, or jigsaw puzzle, of Memory.
I, Tim, personally always liked and admired Chuck. I thought him so savvy and so gutsy I just couldn’t imagine him dying. He was too wily for that—too full of life, had too many entertaining tales to tell. When his longtime friend Danny Robbins called to tell me, “Chuck Burns died,” I was shocked—I couldn’t believe he was 85, that his heart—he had such a great heart—had stopped. In 1984, his last year of serious competition, we won the U.S. Closed Over 50 Doubles, and later in the 1990’s, just for the fun of it, we played on a team at the USOTC’s—it was his last hurrah.
Chuck once endeared himself to me not as a player but as a spectator. It was 1977, and my sons, Scott and Eric, and Rutledge Barry are playing the Seemiller brothers in the final of the National Team Championships at Cobo Hall. The tie is 4-4 and Eric and Randy are in the 3rd game (worth $750) when a woman photographer from the local Free Press creeps up to the barriers to take a photo. Eric, 14, stops play, and says to her quite loudly, indignantly, “You’ve some f______ nerve! What do you think you’re doing? This is a National final!” Chuck up in the stands howled, and I can still see him, still hear him say, “That’s my kinda kid!”