Thursday, October 12, 2006

October 12th, 1915

Lou Novikoff Born

Known as "The Mad Russian," Lou Novikoff had the good fortune to be in the Majors during pretty much the only period of the twentieth century when it was not only acceptable, but even favorable to be associated with the Soviet Union, 1941 through 1946. Ten years later and the Glendale, AZ native would have been answering questions from Joe McCarthy. (That would be this Joe McCarthy of course, not this one.)

Novikoff was an absolutely hellacious minor league, winning batting titles practically everywhere he went, and being voted Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year in 1939. However, Novikoff was perhaps a Quad-A hitter, as although he posted good numbers in 1942, hitting .300 on the nose, he never lasted in the Major Leagues, especially not after the Second World War brought many of the regular players home. This was perhaps because Novikoff had a reputation of being something of a butcher an outfielder, particularly inept when it came to tracking line drives. Novikoff was also said to be afraid of ivy, a problem for anyone hoping to patrol the outfield at Wrigley Field. After 1946, Novikoff spent the rest of his baseball career in the minor leagues.

Once that career ended, Novikoff returned to the sport of softball, and played until he was fifty-three old. He was a good enough softball player to lead his team to three championships and was the first man inducted in the International Softball Congress Hall of Fame. (Worth noting here that Novikoff was playing fast-pitch softball, so not quite the mental image you might have of a Sunday beer league game.)

One final note on "The Mad Russian:" presumably his nickname comes in part from the Russian sound of his last name, but also perhaps on account of his behavior. According to various, potentially apocryphal stories, Novikoff once stole third base, the only problem being that the bases were loaded at the time. Asked for the logic behind such a move, he explained that he'd really gotten a good jump on the pitcher. One of Novikoff's minor league roommates reported that he was prone to coming back to the hotel just when the rest of the team was waking up; indeed Cubs' manager Charlie Grimm is reputed to have turned on his radio before going to one night only to find that player singing live from a bar. Novikoff died of a heart-attack just shy of his fifty-fifth birthday, but I think it is safe to say he managed to fit a lot of life into those fifty-four years.

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