Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Lou Novikoff Story, Part 2 (1941- )

Because there were no Cubs in the 1939-41 Play Ball bubblegum
card sets, I created this 1941-style custom of Lou Novikoff.

(Continued from yesterday)

Novikoff continued playing baseball throughout the 1940-41 winter months in Sunday-league play and against barnstorming teams including Negro Leagues stars.

While he kept in shape playing ball, the writers continued to spread his fame in national magazines including Collier’s (“Clouting Cossack,” Jan. 25, 1941) and Look (“Baseball Gets a New Screwball,” Jan. 14, 1941). I’ve seen internet citations to the effect that Novikoff was also featured in Esquire and the Saturday Evening Post at that time, but I’ve not been able to find specifics. Regardless, he was the most heavily promoted minors-to-majors ballplayer in the 1940-41 off-season.

On March 13, Novikoff was a guest on Bing Crosby’s nationwide radio program, singing and playing the harmonica. It was reported that Novikoff received $250 for the appearance, of which the radio artists’ union claimed $24. Novikoff also received a gift horse from the host. A month later he joined Cubs coach Charlie Grimm on the National Barn Dance radio show, playing harmonica and signing while Grimm played left-handed banjo.

Not only was Novikoff a league-leading batter, but he was also a proficient bowler. On Feb. 6 he led his Long Beach bowling league with a 692 series (267, 177, 248).

In January, 1941, Novikoff created a stir in the sporting press when he rebuffed the Cubs’ initial contract offer of $4,000. Declaring that he “had to eat” and feed his family, Novikoff took a job as a driller (a dangerous job) in Rodgers’ oil field and was duly photographed at work on a rig in stained coveralls.

Before he ever played a game in the
major leagues, Novikoff was a holdout,
declaring he'd rather work in the oil
fields than take the Cubs' initial offer.

As spring training opened on Catalina Island, veteran Chicago baseball writer Ed Burns reported in The Sporting News, “Lou Novikoff, the over-publicized rookie purchased from the Los Angeles Angels for a sum variously estimated at $10,000 to $100,000, with neither extreme having any elements of accuracy, surrendered March 2. He is believed to have settled for a $6,000 contract with some kind of bonus arrangement.”

Cubs management immediately denied that they had upped the contract offer or that Novikoff had any bonus plan; but they would, wouldn’t they?

Manager Jimmie Wilson gave the youngster a strong vote of confidence after the rookie’s first workout. “He’s my left fielder,” Wilson said, “He’ll be in there today and he’ll be in there in October.”

Wilson’s assessment provided to be accurate – for the most part. Novikoff was indeed the Cubs starting left fielder on opening day. And, while the Cubs didn’t make it to October, finishing 30 games out in sixth place, Novikoff was on the field for the season’s final game. However, he had spent most of the second half of June, all of July and August, and the first two weeks of September in the minor leagues.

As a Cubs rookie in 1941, Novikoff swung a big bat – literally. He used a 37-oz. Bill Terry model bat, the heaviest on the team.

Novikoff had a good, but not great, exhibition season. My reading of the box scores shows he played in 25 of the Cubs 27 games against major league opponents. He batted .306 with seven home runs. Novikoff played almost exclusively in left field, batting third.

After a slow start in California, Novikoff picked up the pace considerably as the Cubs and White Sox played their way north from Texas to Chicago in a seven-game series. He hit .375 with three home runs. He made his Wrigley Field debut on April 11, but went 0-for-4.

He opened the 1941 season with the Cubs, but when Bill Veeck bought the destitute Milwaukee Brewers on June 23, acquiring Charlie Grimm from Chicago as a part-owner and manager, Novikoff was also sent north on option.

The Cubs had been struggling to break the .500 mark, largely without help from Novikoff. He was batting .239 at the time, hadn’t started a game since June 11 and hadn’t had a home run since May 28. Critics attributed his slow start to the fact that he had reported to the team 20 pounds overweight.

Unlike his 1939 stint with Milwaukee, Novikoff thrived under Grimm’s management. He began his time with last-place Milwaukee with a 3-for-4 debut on June 24. He hit safely in his first 18 games for the Brewers; in his first two weeks he batted .475. In the June 29 Sunday double-header at Minneapolis, Novikoff was 5-for-7 in the first game with two doubles, two home runs and eight RBIs as Milwaukee won 19-12. In the second game he was 2-for-4 including a home run and three RBIs in a 12-5 win. In that two-game slugfest Milwaukee had 46 hits, the Millers had 22.

Attempting to explain Novikoff’s hot hitting in Milwaukee, Grimm said that in Chicago Novikoff had been trying to live up to his advance publicity and had been “pressing.” Also, in Milwaukee Grimm gave Novikoff a perpetual green light; he was free to hit in any situation.

While with Milwaukee in 1941, Veeck attempted to mitigate Novikoff’s notoriously bad handling of ground balls by leaving the outfield grass unmowed. Despite that effort, Novikoff made 11 errors in 90 games; his .934 fielding average was third-worst among regular outfielders in the American Association.

Novikoff won another batting title with Milwaukee in 1941, batting .370 to edge Columbus’ Lou Klein by three points. Novikoff claimed the title on the last day of the season in a doubleheader in which he had a single and two triples in the opener and a single in the second game—despite arriving at the ballpark more than 20 minutes after the scheduled time of the opener.

When the last-place Brewers ended their 1941 season (40 games out of first), Novikoff was recalled by sixth-place Chicago.
Novikoff appeared in the Chicago Cubs
team-issued picture packs each season
from 1941-44. This is the 1941 issue.

In his first game back in the bigs, Sept. 12 against the visiting Phillies, Novikoff showed the same batting prowess he had exhibited in Milwaukee. He was 3-for-4 with a double, a home run, two runs scored and an RBI in a 3-5 loss. That was his last home run of the season, though he hit safely in the next seven games, raising his season’s average to .255. After that, he was 1-for-15 in the last six games of the year, ending the season at .241.

Rather than sticking around for the Cubs-White Sox City Series, Novikoff returned to California immediately after the season. The Cubs lost their seventh straight intercity series in four straight games.

Cubs players made a reported $495.94 apiece for their participation. Novikoff probably did better than that out west. Blurbs found in TSN through the off-season reported him playing softball and, on Oct. 8, joining a Ted Williams-Jimmie Foxx all-star team to defeat the Royal Colored Giants 9-6 in L.A. Novikoff thrilled the hometown fans with a pair of doubles in the game.

Novikoff was the second player to sign his Cubs contract for 1942, saying it called for a “substantial increase.” Team general manager Jim Gallagher voiced his confidence in Novikoff by saying he wouldn’t take $100,000 for him.

Early winter reports from Novikoff’s home in Long Beach indicated he had gained more than 20 pounds. Through a vigorous program of running, however, “bundled in two sweat shirts and a rubber packet, until his tongue hung out,” according to one press account, by the time spring training was over, he was reported to be in better shape than at any time in his rookie year.

Novikoff also vowed to buckle down to baseball and minimize the outside distractions, saying there’d be no more clowning, harmonica playing and singing over the radio. “I couldn’t get in shape and I couldn’t concentrate on my game,” he said in February. “I knew I was getting in deeper all the time, but I couldn’t turn ‘em down, or they’d be saying, ‘Look, that Novikoff’s getting high-hat already.’”

The Cubs also worked on Novikoff’s base running during spring training. He had not stolen a single base with either the Cubs or Milwaukee in 1941. Chicago assigned former four-time National League stolen base leader Kiki Cuyler to work with Novikoff. The project was not a resounding success; Novikoff had only three (of his major league career four) steals in 1942.

Unlike the glowing testimonial Wilson had given Novikoff prior to the 1941 season, in the opening days of the 1942 campaign his assessment was decidedly dour. He told a Cincinnati baseball writer, “The way I figure it, Novikoff has to hit at least .340 to be of any real value. His fielding, throwing and base running are so far below major league caliber that only hitting, and plenty of it, can keep him in the starting lineup.”

Wilson forgot to factor in injury. The Cubs had planned to platoon Novikoff in left field with left-handed hitting Dom Dallessandro. When Dal sprained his ankle running into a wall in the season opener at St. Louis, the position fell to Novikoff by default.

Novikoff could not rise to the challenge. By May 13 he was struggling along at a .215 clip. Dallessandro was reinstalled as the regular left fielder and Novikoff was appearing more often as a pinch-hitter than in the field. His hitting continued to fall off and by May 30 his average had dropped below .200.

Another injury to Dallessandro forced Novikoff back onto the daily lineup and he responded quickly. By June 18 he had his average back to .243, then went on a real tear. In the next month he hit .389. By Aug. 6 he had raised his batting average 73 points in seven weeks, to a season-high .316.

The only explanation he could offer was to the effect, “the more hits I get, the looser I feel.”

From that point he dropped below .300 only once, when he went 0-for-3 in the first game of the season-ending doubleheader at St. Louis. His 2-for-4 performance in the nightcap allowed him to end the 1942 season at an even .300.

He later said that his failure to lead the league in batting in 1942 stemmed from being hit by a Bucky Walters’ pitch on Aug. 9, during the Cubs’ 18-inning 10-8 win over Cincinnati. “My should hurt so much I could hardly lift my bat,” Novikoff alibied.

Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley did his part to make Novikoff a more productive major league hitter in 1943. When Novikoff was mired in an early season slump, Wrigley came up with a bonus program.

Wrigley told Washington Post writer Shirley Povich, “I guess Novikoff’s my favorite ball player. On our minor league clubs, he led every league he played with in hitting, but one, but (when) we brought him up to the majors, he flopped.”

“I knew he’d be a great favorite with Chicago fans if he started hitting,” Wrigley continued, “by Jimmie Wilson, our manager, told me Novikoff was trying to outguess the National League pitchers.

“In the minors, Novikoff could try a guess with the pitchers,” the owner said.
“But up here the pitching was too smart for him. He took too many strikes through the middle. It sickened me to see him stand with his bat on his shoulder. I brought him up to my office one day and talked to him. I told Lou he was taking too many called strikes. He has a powerful swing and I wanted him to keep swinging, I said, and stop guessing.

“To encourage him, I said I’d give him $10 every time he struck out, if he struck out swinging. If he let a third strike pass with his bat on his shoulder he got nothing. He’s been hitting .370 ever since and the whole experiment has cost me only $30,” Wrigley revealed.

In 1943, Novikoff returned the Cubs contract offer of $6,500, seeking a raise to $10,000.
When negotiations stalled, the team suspended Novikoff and placed him on the ineligible list. However, mired in last place at 7-19, the Cubs reentered contract talks and on May 20, the parties came to terms.

Naturally manager Jimmie Wilson was displeased. A week before the holdout ended he told a reporter, “Novikoff wants to get paid before he produces. No, he didn’t produce last year. I know he hit .300, but up to July 15 he was hitting about .150.

“You know as well as I do,” Wilson warmed up, “that $3,000 or $4,000 means nothing to a club like ours when it’s a question of improving the team. Therefore, the whole thing is a question of principle. Baseball players are paid on the basis of previous performance. Novikoff wants to be paid before he produces.”

During Novikoff’s holdout, Milwaukee Sentinel columnist Stoney McGlynn wrote in his “The Sports Parade” column, “This reporter believes Lou is smart enough to know that a .300 hitter is a rarity in a Cubs uniform and that no matter his fielding flaws the Bruins need someone up there at the dish who can pickle the pellet.”

Tom Sheehan, manager of the American Association Minneapolis Millers, weighed in with his assessment of Novikoff’s hitting in 1943.

“Just from a batting standpoint Lou has his values,” Sheehan said, “but this year more than ever, he figured to be a more potent power at the plate. Why? Because pitching won’t be as good as other years. A number of the top-notchers have been called to service. They were the ones who could either blaze a fast ball past the batter, curve ‘em by or outsmart them with control.

“Control pitchers were the ones to bother Lou. But those without control were his dish. He’ll pick hits . . . off his ear, around his knees, outside and high or outside and low. You never knew what that crazy Russian would hit.

“The records bear this out. Lou led every minor league he ever played in at bat. Why? Because the minor league pitchers lack the finesse, the control the major league stars have. This year the majors will have some of their real stars around, but there will be enough of the others pitching so that Lou figures to have by far his greatest year.”

Novikoff himself agreed with Sheehan’s assessment of pitching prospects for 1943. He said, “With all those old-timers throwing big fat ones to the plate it ought to be easy. I’m going to click from the start.”
Novikoff's only major league baseball card was
in the 1943 M.P. & Co. strip-card set.

His major league days (1941-44, 1946) spanned the years when wartime restrictions severely curtailed the issue of baseball cards. His only real major league card is in the ugly little 1943 M.P. & Co. strip card set of 24, where his image is rendered more as a generic ballplayer than as an identifiable picture.

During the 1944-45 off-season, Novikoff worked in a war plant in Los Angeles and played Sunday ball in one of the fast semi-pro leagues in Southern California.

The Cubs sold Novikoff to the Los Angeles Angels prior to the opening of the 1945 spring training season. Novikoff expressed the belief that the fact that he cleared waivers by the other 15 major league teams during the war-time dearth of slugging was suspicious.

He declared he would play in the majors or nowhere. It is believed that the Angels signed him by making him the highest salaried player in the Pacific Coast League. The Angels could justify his salary because of his immense box office appeal.

In a column bidding farewell to Novikoff, Chicago Herald-Examiner baseball writer Edgar Munzel, speculated that the epitaph to Novikoff’s big league career would be along the lines of, “You may have been a headache, but you were never boring.”

Munzel summed up Novikoff’s appeal to fans as an appreciation of his “duck-waddling gait” his “murderous flailing at pitches whether over his head or in the dirt,” and his “clumsy fielding that was part of the fun for fans.”

Manager Grimm said of The Mad Russian, “I’ve seen worse outfielders; fielding was just a necessary evil in his life.”

Cubs shortstop Len Merullo, who was Novikoff’s teammate during the Mad Russian’s entire time in Chicago, reckoned that Novikoff’s inability to make a big splash in the big leagues was his love of the night life.

It does not appear that Novikoff was a heavy drinker or skirt-chaser, but Merullo related in an interview that Novikoff loved the night life.

            “He was not a hard drinker, but he loved to have as much beer as he could get in him and really enjoyed being around a crowd. He had that big moon face and a big smile, just a very likable type of guy.
            “People just loved to be around Louie and he loved to be around them. He had a good voice and loved to sing and imitate people, loved to entertain. They had radio stations going all the time, broadcasting from taverns, nightclubs and little local places. I remember turning on the radio at night and there would be Louie. He’d be introduced as somebody else, but we knew who he was. As soon as he saw that mike he’d be up there.
            “In the minor leagues you’re playing all night baseball. He could sleep all day and get out to the ballpark. In Wrigley Field, unfortunately we never had lights. Most of the time you’d be away from the ballpark before four-thirty. Louie would get a head start and he’d be up all night. Louie was as good a hitter as there was around in those days, but never in the condition they hoped he would stay in.”

As predicted, Novikoff drew fans to Wrigley Field (Los Angeles, not Chicago) in droves as the 1945 campaign opened. And, as expected, his big bat boomed.

In the first 11 games of the season, Novikoff was 11-for-45, batting .422 with a home run and 120 RBIs.

Moreover, his supposed deficiencies exposed at the major league level were not immediately apparent back on the Coast.

Seattle Rainiers manager Bill Skiff, after the team’s first series with the Angels, sang the praises of the Mad Russian.

“This is the first time I ever seen Novikoff play,” he was quoted. “From what I saw of him in six games there is certainly nothing wrong with his play. Afield I have always heard he was clumsy, but he did all you could ask of an outfielder. He went far to his right and left, came in fast and went far back as the ball demanded. His play of balls bouncing off the wall was superb and there isn’t anything wrong with his arm. He can really throw.

“As far as his hitting, he’s a natural—and what power!” Skiff concluded.

The Seattle manager was apparently so impressed with Novikoff that when the 1946 Pacific Coast League season opened, Novikoff was playing for him with the Rainiers.

When the military draft began in 1941, Novikoff was initially classified 3A, as a married man with dependents. In March of 1945, having earlier been deferred because of his wife’s ill health, Novikoff was called up for a pre-induction physical. He was inducted into the Army at Ft. MacArthur in Los Angeles on July 17, 1945. He’d played his last games two days earlier in a Sunday doubleheader, garnering just one hit in seven at-bats.

Novikoff was assigned to Sheppard Field, an Army Air Corps training center at Wichita Falls, Tex., and played for their service team, the Flyers.
In 1947 the Philadelphia Phillies were Novikoff's last stop in
the major leagues. He's shown here in a spring training wirephoto.

Though still in the Army, Novikoff was the second player picked in the major leagues’ Rule 5 draft of minor leaguers on Nov. 1, 1945. Though many observers expected Novikoff to be the first pick, the Philadelphia A’s chose 35-year-old outfielder Frank Demaree.
The Phillies snapped him up at the $7,500 draft price. Both the Yankees and Dodgers indicated they would have taken Novikoff if he’d been available when their turn came around.

“News that I’m going back to the major leagues is like being born again,” Novikoff said. “I feel the Phillies will give me a real chance and that’s all I want.”

The Phillies were desperate for power when they chose Novikoff. Only one player on the last-place team had hit more than seven home runs in 1945; Vince DiMaggio had 19.

The Phils were willing to overlook Novikoff’s eccentricities shortcomings in hopes his bat could give them some much needed power.

Philadelphia baseball writer Stan Baumgartner (himself a former Phillies pitcher) speculated that DiMaggio could compensate for Novikoff’s lack of range in left field.

“No one ever claimed Lou was a gazelle in the outfield,” Baumgartner wrote in The Sporting News, “but with Vince DiMaggio in center field the other two men need only be traffic officers to direct the Italian in his pilgrimages.”

Novikoff’s “real chance” with the Phillies lasted only from opening day through June 10.
He was used mostly as a pinch-hitter and while he hit .304 in 17 games, he showed none of the hoped-for power; among his seven hits in 23 at-bats, he had only one extra base.

Del Ennis, a rookie phenom, had usurped Novikoff’s spot in left field. Ennis led the team in virtually every hitting category, including home runs, with 17.

Despairing of ever realizing Novikoff’s power potential, on June 17 the Phillies sold him to Seattle in the Pacific Coast League. Novikoff had seen his last of the major leagues.

Many sportswriters, baseball officials and Novikoff himself tried to analyze his failure to hit in the major leagues, even during the wartime seasons. (One writer dubbed him Larrupless Lou.)

Among the possibilities that Novikoff advanced was that he couldn’t hit in Wrigley Field because the left-field foul line “ran at the wrong angle. It was crooked.”

He voiced another complaint about Wrigley Field after declaring that he would never return to the majors with Chicago, “ . . . that Cub park—ugh, you can have it. The background is murder on a batter.” He was referring, of course, to the center field bleachers where fans wearing white shirts made it difficult for batters to pick up the baseball from the pitcher’s hand.

The Phillies sold Novikoff to the Seattle Rainiers. For the remainder of the season he hit .301 against the Pacific Coast League pitching, but without any power; in 84 games he managed just two home runs in 312 at-bats.

Novikoff spent the entire 1947 season with Seattle. His .325 batting mark was in the PCL top 10. In the league's 187-game season, he was third in the circuit with 210 hits, 114 RBIs and 44 doubles. His 21 home runs were tied for fifth-best and equaled his total home run output from 1942-46.

With Seattle in 1947, Novikoff appeared in two card sets. While neither is common, they are not impossible. He was part of a 32-card team set of Rainiers issued by Centennial Flour. He was also in the 16-card Seattle team set that was part of Signal Gasoline's PCL issue.

Newark purchased him from Seattle halfway through the 1948 season. He was batting .327 but his home run production had dropped off again; he'd had only three in 64 games.

His first appearance for the Bears was in the July 18, 1948 doubleheader; he was 4-for-8 at Jersey City. He hit safely for Newark in his first 10 games, going 15-for-43 -- .349. By the end of the season, his batting mark was .327 and he'd found his power, hitting 15 home runs in 70 games.

In 1948-49, Novikoff played in the Mexican Winter League for the champion Los Mochis team. 

In 1949 Novikoff was given permission by Newark to make a deal for himself in the Pacific Coast League. Unable to do so, he returned to Newark. In his debut game with the Bears on May 13 he hit two home runs and a single, bringing in five RBIs. In his first nine games with Newark in 1949, Novikoff had four home runs.

Early in July, batting just .258 but having hit 16 home runs in 57 games, Newark sold Novikoff to Houston in the Texas League. In his last five games with the Little Giants, he was 8-for-18 with nine RBIs.

Novikoff debuted with the Buffaloes on July 9, going hitless in four at-bats with two strikeouts. The next night he was 2-for-5 with a pair of RBIs. His season did not go well. He hit only .230 and had just one home run in 59 games.

Novikoff tried a comeback with the L.A. Angels in 1950, dropping 20 pounds in the off-season, reverting to his prime playing weight, but was unable to make the roster.

On June 5, he signed with the second-place Yakima Bears of the Western International League (Class B). The team was a farm club of the Pacific Coast League San Francisco Seals. Novikoff debuted on June 8 with a home run in a 4-1 win over Spokane.

He spent two months with Yakima, occasionally going to the mound to pitch in a mop-up role in blowout games.

By Aug. 5, Novikoff had been dealt to the Victoria Athletics, also of the Willy League, where he ended the season with his club in fifth place in the eight-team loop.

Novikoff retired from Organized Baseball after the 1950 season. He continued to play semi-pro ball and softball – once again with the Long Beach Nitehawks – in California while working as a longshoreman and in an auto plant until emphysema sidelined him for good.

In 1965, Novikoff was the first man selected to the International Softball Congress Hall of Fame.

Novikoff died in South Gate, Calif., on Sept. 30, 1970. He was 54.

FURTHER READING: Among the many places on the internet that you can read about Lou Novikoff, I especially recommend a 2012 blog from long-time hobby friend Dave Eskenazi.

Dave’s piece is well-illustrated and has much more details about Novikoff’s years in the Pacific Coast League than I have provided.


  1. LOVeEthis post. Lou was a cousin of my dad's.

  2. Lou Novikoff was my grandpa. My mother would love to write a book about her life as a young girl with her dad. I was very young and don't remember him alive, but i remember all the newspaper, magazines, etc. about my grandpa. He was a real celebrity in the day. I remember watching 8mm film home movies of my grandpa with Micky Rooney, Pres. Reagan used to announce the ball games and he sent my mom a christmas card one year during his presidency. I would love to find the picture of my mom, Anita, on the train with her dad. She recalls meeting Doris Day, Mary Martin, and others on the train. Thanks!


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