Sunday, June 12, 2011

Surkont freely admitted "greenie" use

Surkont's only career-contemporary
card as a Milwaukee Brave was in
the 1953 Johnston Cookies team set.

Uncommon commons. Contemporary accounts of tidbits that as a collector of baseball and football cards I found interesting because they helped bring to life the faces on the cards I collected. I figure that if I found these items of interest, so would other vintage card collectors.

When the Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee for the 1953 season, one of the more popular players among the fans was pitcher Max Surkont.

With a large Polish population in Milwaukee, Surkont had a big fan following before he threw out the first pitch. And Max did, literally, throw out the first pitch for the Milwaukee Braves. He was the opening day starter in Cincinnati on April 13.

Even the non-Polish fans in Milwaukee became Surkont fans when he won that first game 2-0, giving up only three hits. By mid-May, when the Braves, who had finished in 7th place in Boston in 1952, took over the lead in the National League, Surkont was 5-0.

His biggest day as a Braves came on May 25, again facing the Redlegs, this time in Milwaukee. Surkont was cruising on a six-run cushion the Braves had put up in the first inning. He struck out the last batter in the third inning, then struck out all three batters in both the third and fourth innings.

At that point, he had tied Hooks Wiltse (1908), Dazzy Vance (1924) and Van Lingle Mungo (1936) for the modern major league record of seven strikeouts in a row. 

Then the rains came. After a half-hour rain delay, Surkont fanned Andy Seminick, the first batter in the Redlegs' fifth, to set a new modern record of eight consecutive strikeouts.

Another rain delay threatened to wash out the game and the record, but after 40 minutes, the game was allowed to continue. Surkont finished the game with a 10-3 win, notching 13 strikeouts and bringing his record to 6-0. The Hall of Fame requested and received the ball he used to set the record.

That record stood until 1970, when Tom Seaver fanned 10 consecutive San Diego Padres.

Surkont lost his next start, on June 4 in Brooklyn, then won two more against the Giants (June 8) and Pirates (June 12) to bring his record to 8-1 when the Braves returned home from the eastern road trip.

On June 16, his 31st birthday, Milwaukee's fan held a "Max Surkont Night" at the ballpark. He was showered with gifts, including a $1,000 savings bond, while his wife received flowers and gifts, and his son got a new bicycle. Max pitched the second game of the doubleheader against the Phillies that night and ran his record to 9-1.

Braves' pill pusher, trainer Charles 
Lacks, appears in the 1954 and 1955
Johnston Cookies team sets. 
The aging right-hander wasn't getting by solely on natural skills, nor guile, according to a late-season account in The Sporting News. In a time before performance-enhancing drugs were considered the bane of baseball, Surkont freely admitted that team trainer Dr. Charles Lacks "gives (me) a daily diet pill that does wondrous things." Surkont added, "It's supposed to cut your appetite and make you feel peppy. Before I started taking them I always felt tired."

The "diet pills" of course were amphetamines, the "greenies" which were ubiquitous in major league clubhouses for several decades after World War II.

Even the pep pills, however, couldn't keep Surkont pitching like a kid. Between June 26-July 11, he lost his next three starts. He then won two and lost another before the end of the month. Bringing his record to 11-5, where it remained for the rest of the season; he never got another decision in 1953.

There was at least one player who had Surkont's number in the 1953 season, however. In the first five games in which he faced Surkont in 1953, Duke Snider hit him for a .583 average, with two doubles, two triples and two homers.

The day after Christmas, Surkont was traded with five other players and $100,000 to the Pittsburgh Pirates for second baseman Danny O'Connell. He pitched into the 1957 season with the Pirates, Cardinals and Giants, then pitched for six more years in the high minors, most of it with Buffalo, another city with a heavy concentration of Polish sports fans. 

After leaving Milwaukee, Surkont never had a winning season in the majors. He ended his big league days with a 61-76 record and 4.38 ERA. He died in Florida at age 64 in 1986.

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