Posts Tagged ‘Lou Novikoff’

Lou Novikoff: The Mad Russian

December 13, 2010

"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.

Lou Novikoff: The Mad Russian.

March 23, 2010

His family name earned him “The Mad Russian” moniker, but he may as well have been called “Cowboy” for his October 12, 1915 birthday in Glendale, Arizona, when that place was still a small western town further out on the desert from Phoenix. The place is now just another sun-tea melting suburb of the Arizona capital city, coming complete with its own fancy high-tech load as a National Football League stadium.Like a lot of other places in America, then and now are two different worlds in the history of Glendale, Arizona. Coming of age in the 1930s, the bats and throws right rookie outfielder that was young Lou Novikoff was all baseball. At 5’10” and 185 lbs,

Lou Novikoff

Lou had better than average hitting ability that included greater success with fast balls than it ever did with big league curve balls and other pitches of stealth and surprise. His abilities and World War II were enough to buy him a short career in the major playing for two of the worst franchises from that era. By the time the 1945 Cubs had rallied enough to take the National League pennant, Novikoff was back in the minors, hitting .310 for the Los Angeles Angels of the AAA Pacific Coast League.

Novikoff had several light-out batting years in the minors. He batted .351 in his 1937 rookie season with Ponca City. He followed that whacker of a debut by hitting .367 for Moline in 1938 and .376 for Tulsa, Los Angeles, and Milwaukee in 1939. A .363 mark for Milwaukee in 1940 and a .370 BA for Los Angeles in 1940 were then enough to earn Lou his big time shot. With stats in the stratosphere, it’s hard to conceive that he did not raise a few hopes in Chicago that they might be getting the next Joe DiMaggio or right-handed Ted Williams.

It wasn’t to be, but that’s an all too familiar career-capper, isn’t it?

By the time I ever saw Lou Novikoff during his short time with the 1949 Houston Buffs, he was pretty much traveling on the comical recitation in the newspapers of his “Mad Russian” sobriquet. His reputations as a fun-loving goofball did not disappoint in reality, even though he batted only .230 with but a single homer for the horrendously bad ’49 Buffs. It wasn’t hard to hide mediocrity that season. Lou was surrounded by it in the Buffs dugout.

There was an occasion, in a game against Beaumont, as I remember, when Lou Novikoff seized upon an opportunity to do something on a baseball field that I had never seen before or since. During a late inning pitching change by Buffs manager Del Wilber, Novikoff left his position in left field to take a quick rest room break in the Buffs clubhouse on the other side of the Knothole Gang stands down the far left field line.

Unaware of his departure, Wilber made his change on the mound and the home plate umpire gave the signal for the game to resume … with no one in left field for the Buffs!

Meanwhile, we Knothole Gangers are yelling back at the Buffs clubhouse: ‘HURRY UP, LOU! THEY’RE GETTING READY TO START THE GAME AGAIN WITHOUT YOU!”

All of a sudden, we see Lou Novikoff running out of the clubhouse, trying to fix and button his baseball pants as he runs back to the field. He’s saying something loud, something like, ‘OHHH BOY! OHHH BOY!”

Unfortunately, Lou didn’t make it. Before he could get back on the field, a Beaumont batter had banged a dunk liner into left field. By the time the Buff center fielder had rushed over to pick it up, the very surprised Beaumont hitter had turned it into a two-run triple that would ultimately drive the nail into the Buffs’ coffin for the night.

By the time Lou Novikoff had resumed his position in left after the fatal play, Buffs manager Del Wilber was racing down the line in red-faced

Lou Novikoff as a Chicago Cub

awe, yelling, “WHERE IN THE *&$#** WERE YOU?” As I recall, Wilber pulled Novikoff on the spot and put somebody else in, but that part of the memory blurs. He may have left him in there. The nineteen player roster limits that existed in the Texas League back in that era didn’t allow for a lot of managerial object lesson opportunity. I do recall that Novikoff was soon released after the potty-run incident.

When asked about his decision to leave the field during a game, the Mad Russian had a very simple explanation for the press. “When you gotta go, you gotta go!” Lou exclaimed.

Lou Novikoff passed away in South Gate, California on September 30, 1970, less than a month shy of his 55th birthday. Like it or not, he will be remembered forever by his catchy nickname.