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Max Surkont Went Home Again

After 26 years of playing baseball a journeyman pitcher returned to Pawtucket. He had never really left

It-is a barroom, plain and simple. You would have to go down a side street, in a working-class neighborhood of Irish, Poles and French-Canadians in Pawtucket, R.I. to find it. Then you probably wouldn't be attracted to it unless you had a powerful thirst or you were a devout baseball fan and noticed the bats and the ball on the sign above the door—and the name, Max Surkont's. But if you did go in you would enjoy it, for Max keeps a place that is as unpretentious as a dugout but as warm and clubby as a locker room.

You must remember Max. He was that big Polish kid, a pitcher, who was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1937. He was 15 years old, and when the Cards' scout took him out for a post-signing dinner at a hotel in Providence, Max didn't recognize anything on the menu so he ordered a 95¢ hamburger plate.

Max roamed through the game for 26 years, seven of them in bits and pieces in the majors with six different teams, the rest with 10 teams in the minors. As a classic journeyman, Max had a few large days and so many small ones. There was the time in 1953 with Milwaukee when Max threw eight successive strikeouts at the Cincinnati Reds, a modern record that still stands, though Johnny Podres and Jim Maloney have since tied it. Then there was the day in Jersey City, 1941, when Max was with Rochester and his teammate, Whitey Kurowski, hit the game's first pitch for a homer and Max made it hold up for a 1-0 victory by throwing a no-hitter. But Max turned into his 40s and, after his 1963 season with Buffalo, he retired and went back home.

There are too few of these good pub-like bars run by ex-athletes who work at it—and too many named for athletes who give little more than their names. Max likes the business and works at it. His place is on the ground floor of a three-story tenement-type building, owned by Max, with four apartments above the bar.

Inside, as with any good barroom, it is a reflection of the owner and what he has done. In Max's case that would mean unglamorous but comfortable, uncomplicated but pleasant. It is as far removed from the sparkle and tone and size of big-league watering spots such as Stan Musial and Biggie's in St. Louis, say, as were Max's baseball accomplishments compared to those of his friend and former teammate, Musial.

Behind the bar at Max's is a bat that Musial gave him; it has been split and now is affixed, V-shaped, over the cash register, in the prime spot among Max's display of memorabilia. There is the baseball from the no-hitter at Jersey City, and a few other baseballs from events and places long forgotten. There is a lighted board that lists the standings of the eight-team cribbage league Max fosters; he also sponsors a bowling team and a Softball team, playing first base on the latter. There is a picture of John Kennedy on the wall and a blue New York football Giants' pennant, from the time Max and a bunch of the guys chartered a bus and went down to see the pros.

There is a jukebox, usually silent, and a cigarette machine, and the grill and the refrigerator behind the bar and that's it. But that is all that is really needed. For the men who come into Max's do not come in for the decor. Some come to have a belt and a hand of cribbage or a game of pool. Some have a beer and read a paper or watch television. Others want to talk with Max and just have a place to be.

Few are strangers. "I guess I know about everyone who comes in here," Max was saying not long ago, "all guys I grew up with, played with around here. I never get any drunks. I shuffled them out fast when I took over." At his current weight of 240 pounds on his 6-foot frame, one cannot doubt that the shuffle Max gave was fast.

"Sometimes a guy will bring his kid in to meet me and talk baseball with me," Max went on, "but you know it's funny—the sport they talk about mostly now is pro football. Not so much baseball, especially not much about the Red Sox. I think everyone is disgusted with the way that operation is working up there. Women we hardly ever get, and that's all right with me. In a place like this they're nothing but trouble, anyway. Besides, when there are women around guys don't drink as much."

The big times are Saturdays and Sundays, particularly when the football games are on television. Then there'll be 75 to a hundred patrons bellied up to the bar, and an argument or a friendly wager is easily available. At any time, from the 7 a.m. opening (6 a.m. on Saturdays) until closing at one in the morning, there is always at least a handful of customers. Max can name practically everyone, and provide background notes as well.

"The young guy," Max was telling a visitor recently, at a seat across the room from the bar, "he's a sailor; I call him The Admiral. He's off the Wasp—that's the one that picks up the astronauts, you know. Next to him, in the black jacket, is a Purple Heart man from the Marines. We grew up together. He was in the Pacific like I was. I was in the Navy three years—LSTs. And I kid him about it, about what a soft time he had."

Two men were shooting pool, one wearing a work uniform of forest green, the other in street clothes. "The guy in green is The Hawk, a Frenchman," Max said. "We played basketball together on the Consolation Church team for years. The other guy is Charley. He was badly wounded in Korea. They thought he was gone and they threw him on a truck with a lot of dead guys; then they heard a moan and finally pulled him off. He's on full disability; he does little jobs for me here and I couldn't get along without him. The old guy at the end of the bar, I grew up three doors from him. The other guy, the one with the white hair, he's an old friend of my father's. And the next guy down, he's a baker and the third baseman on our Softball team."

So Max went on down the line, picking out the construction worker, the painter, the mill hand and giving the antecedents and accomplishments of each. A man came in carrying a resupply of pickled eggs, pigs' knuckles and lamb tongues, and Max excused himself to go pay for the delivery.

"I went to school with his sister," Max said of the man. "Knew him all my life, too."

When Max first took over he did a good business with nightly food specialties; i.e., fish and chips or steamed dams on Fridays. Then he felt it was not worth the trouble and he dropped it. Now he is considering reinstalling the system and, if he can acquire the land next door, expanding the place and getting into the full-meal business as well. But until that time, he is offering only a selection of sandwiches.

Except Saturdays. Saturday is the day he features golabki, a Polish treat consisting of a mixture of rice, hamburger and pork rolled in cabbage leaves. Max's golabki are not everyday golabki. His are made by his 72-year-old mother.

"She makes about 200 of them every week," Max said pridefully, "and she takes two days doing it. I sell them for 20¢, and you ought to see the way they gobble them up around here!"

So with all his friends around, and his golabki, and his taking a regular turn behind the bar along with being on the premises at other times, Max feels that he couldn't wish for more.

"I haven't missed baseball at all, I'm so busy," he said. "Another thing about this business—you always have some money in your pocket, not like it is when you're scratching around making a salary by the week. I really think there is more security here than there is in baseball—if a guy is a fringe player, I mean."

He glanced about his premises, and what he saw brought a small smile of satisfaction. "Not bad," he said. "Not bad at all."

It was suggested to Max that possibly there was a pleasant story in his place and his doings, but this would involve a risk.

"A risk? What risk?" he asked.

"Well, your place might get popular and 'in,' " he was told, "and if that happened, maybe the neighborhood guys would stop coming."

"They wouldn't do that," Max said quickly. "They like to be where there's action. Anyway," he had to chuckle before he said it, "anyway, this place would never get 'in.' "

One can hope he is right.