Lou Novikoff: The Mad Russian

"When you gotta go, you gotta go!"

Lou Novikoff. Spontaneous singer in the pre-karioke days. Journeyman professional baseball player. Off-season oil field roughneck. Harmonica player. Russian-American. The Mad Russian. Left fielder Novikoff saw action in ONLY  59 games for the 1949 Houston Buffs. That was the extent of Lou’s Buffs career, but he sure made an impression on us Knothole Gang kids while he was here.

I’ve written earlier about this spunky little short-term outfielder for the 1949 Houston Buffs. To those of us who were Buff Stadium Knothole Gang members, he was one of the friendliest, funniest guys on the team. He seemed to like us kids. That kid-friendly quality always made a difference with us. And hey! Lou Novikoff was one of the few Buff players who would flick an occasional practice ball into our  little campy  cheap-seat section down the far left field line near the home team clubhouse.

Teams didn’t give usable baseballs away quite so freely back in the post World War II era. Club owners back then viewed baseballs that ended up in the hands of fans as lost operational materials – and not as marketing investments in future fan interest.The old St. Louis Browns even hired people to retrieve foul balls and home runs from fans at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis for future use by the club.

Lou Novikoff was just one of those guys who made us kids feel we mattered. He did it with smiles, nods of the head in our direction, a few baseballs, and an occasional song by voice or harmonica tune from the field. As the left fielder, and like Larry Miggins before and after him, Novikoff was the guy we “Gang” members came closest to during each Buff home game.

Novikoff batted only .230 in 59 games for the '49 Buffs before getting shipped off to Newark, but he hit .337 over 11 seasons as a minor leaguer between 1937-1950.

A right hander all the way, Lou Novikoff stood only 5’10” at a weight of 185 pounds. He was a dubious fielder with a great batting record over eleven seasons in the minors (1937-41, 1945-50). He also hit for a .282 major league average over five years in the big time (1941-44, 1946). Only in 1949, Lou’s next to last seasons with three clubs, including Houston, did his average for the entire season fall overall below .300 for the entire year.

Like a handful of other Houstonians, I will always remember Lou Novikoff most for a bizarre thing that happened to Lou and the Buffs in a close  game against Beaumont, I believe, in the late innings. With the game tied in the top of the eighth (I believe), Beaumont rallied, getting the go-ahead run to third base. It was time for a pitching change and Buffs manager Del Wilber had called a time out to make that move.

At the same time, out in left field, we all see Lou Novikoff running to the side gate near the Knothole Gang that also leads to the Buff clubhouse behind us. It’s obvious that Lou is using the time out for an urgently needed potty run.

Trouble is – Manager Wilber and the umpires don’t seem to realize that Novikoff is now missing in action.  In the Knothole Gang, we can all see that the game i about to resume, but there’s still no sign of Lou coming back from the clubhouse.

“He must have really had to go,” flickered through my mind as some other kid yells at the small open ventilation window in the Buffs clubhouse: “Hurry up, Lou! They’re about to start without you!”

And they were too..

All of  sudden, Lou Novikoff came falling, stumble-running out of the clubhouse, trying to pull up and fasten his pants back on at the same time. He got about as far as the gate when we all heard the crack of the bat and turned to witness a fly ball dropping safely in left field.

The game had resumed without Novikoff in place. What should have been an out turned into a double fielded way late in left by the center fielder. Beaumont got the run that would win them the game. Novikoff got chewed out and replaced by Wilber. This night most likely provided the Buffs with the last straw they needed to ship Novikoff out of town for the rest of the year.

Only one of Houston’s three newspapers covered the story accurately. I think that paper was the Houston Press. The other two must have simply been too embarrassed to write about such a happening in 1949. One simply overlooked the incident; the other wrote it off as in issue resulting from sudden illness to Lou Novikoff.

My own eyes on what I saw and Lou Novikoff’s words in the one paper that covered the full story were good enough for me. When asked why he had left the field during the game, Lou replied, simply: “When you gotta go, you gotta go!”

Lou's .300 mark for '42 Cubs was his best MLB full season. Lou Novikoff died in 1970 at the age of 54.

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3 Responses to “Lou Novikoff: The Mad Russian”

  1. James Anderson Says:

    Something I didn’t know for many years is our father was a charter member of the first Houston Buffs Knothole Gang. He’d have a lot of stories to share were he still with us.

  2. David novikoff Says:

    Thank for all you have sed my kids love it a peace of our past he’s my gandfathers brother

  3. Mark Wernick Says:

    Novikoff come under discussion quite a bit in the excellent Robert Greenberg biography of Bill “Swish” Nicholson.

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