Sunday, October 30, 2011
'56 of the month: Max Surkont
Max Surkont accomplished a number of things in his 64 years on earth that I would like to achieve. But I never will.
He played major league baseball from 1949-57. He struck out eight straight Cincinnati Reds in a game in 1953 to hold a major league record for 17 years until Tom Seaver struck out 10 straight Padres in 1970. After his retirement, he ran a restaurant/bar in his native Rhode Island called, aptly, "Max Surkont's Cafe."
All of this sounds very appealing to me, although I've been told -- about both playing baseball and running a restaurant for a living -- that each occupation is all-consuming.
But Surkont's achievements, and my consequential envy, weren't what attracted me to his card.
It was his name. And his face.
Take a look and give a read of what's on the card.
Max. Surkont. He looks like a Max. He looks like a Surkont. But he does not look like a baseball player.
Max Surkont has a name and a face that seem like they belong in a 1950s football game. He would be the end, or maybe a smallish offensive lineman. Surkont was a big Polish kid from Pawtucket, R.I. He served in the Navy during World War II. Arm trouble derailed his status as a top prospect in the Cardinals organization. After bouncing through a few clubs, he landed with the Braves in the early '50s.
When the Braves moved to Milwaukee for the 1953 season, the timing couldn't have been better for Surkont. The large Polish population in Milwaukee made him a fan favorite. Then he tied a major league record on May 25 with the eight consecutive strikeouts. Before he knew it, the Braves were holding "Max Surkont Night" and his son was riding off with a new tricycle.
But in the offseason, Surkont was dealt to the bottom-feeding Pirates. (His wikipedia page says Surkont ate his way off the roster). He went 9-18 and 7-14 for Pittsburgh with soaring ERAs. His career sputtered out in '57 with the Giants. He'd stay on in the minors for six years, playing mostly in Buffalo, which also has a huge Polish population.
Surkont then began his second career as a restaurateur. Max Surkont's Cafe was not much more than a barroom with a pool table, cigarette machine and jukebox, a "where everybody knows your name" place in a Pawtucket working class neighborhood. It opened at 7 a.m. and closed at 1 a.m. His mother made golabki on the weekends, and patrons would arrive on Saturday and Sunday to watch football.
The son of Bronislaw and Malwina Surkont lived in Pawtucket and ran the cafe for most of the rest of his life. He retired to Florida in 1984 and died two years later.
The big Polish kid lived the American dream, playing major league baseball and operating a modest, yet popular restaurant. It's my American dream, really.
I'm officially jealous.
He even said things that I wish I had said -- that is if I ever played in the major leagues.
In former pitcher Dave Baldwin's memoir, "Snake Jazz," Surkont receives the headline quote on the book's web page:
"Baseball was never meant to be taken seriously. If it were, we would play it with a javelin instead of a ball."
Well said, Max.
And, well done.