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A ballplayer's roving lifestyle on and off the field

A cartoon of baseball player Lou Novikoff, a lovable eccentric known as the Mad Russian.

From the David Eskenazi Collection

Marty Krug farms an orange grove in Sanger, Calif., where he retired after a career as an ironworker and, before that, a professional baseball player.

He is 86 now, in good health, which is a surprise as it was once reported he had suffered a heart attack in the middle of a ball game.

He bears the name of a father who, as a young man, had been a benchwarmer with the Boston Red Sox when they won the World Series. In 1912. Two seasons before Babe Ruth entered the big leagues.

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Like most ballplayers, the Krugs lived itinerant summers, travelling the byways of small-town America where baseball provided cheap entertainment and passionate civic identity.

For one fortunate season, the Krugs even wore the same uniform.

Sixty years ago, father and son arrived in Victoria to play for the Athletics of the Western International League. The elder Krug was manager, the younger a slugging first baseman.

They played at Royal Athletic Park, a modest stadium in which baseball's diamond was shoehorned into a rectangular city block.

"It was a strange ballpark," Mr. Krug recalled. "The outfield fence did not curve. Down the left-field line was probably 340 feet, centre field was about 300 feet, and right-field was 406 feet."

Unfortunately for him, Mr. Krug batted left and right field was where his long drives went to die.

"The best ball I could hit would never even reach the fence," he said.

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The Athletics were not a good team in 1950, though the roster boasted its share of characters.

The pitching staff included Bullet Bob Jensen, a stocky, 6-foot-2 hurler whose reputation for throwing fast was made all the more effective by his lack of control.

"He looked like Li'l Abner on the mound," Mr. Krug said. "He was a huge guy who could throw hard. He was just wild enough to scare everybody half to death."

Another pitcher was Aldon (Lefty) Wilkie, the pride of Zealandia, Sask., who had a couple of cups of coffee with the Pittsburgh Pirates book-ending overseas combat duty in the Second World War. He eventually gave up baseball to become a chicken farmer.

The fiery Edo Vanni feuded with manager Krug, nearly causing a player revolt and leading to the levying of $100 fines on two players. To promote ticket sales, the irrepressible Mr. Vanni wrestled pigs and bears before games. He sold tickets in winter by trudging door to door in snowshoes. Once, he borrowed a friend's Seeing Eye dog to guide him to home plate to deliver the lineup to the umpires, an unsubtle comment on the acumen of their judgments the previous day.

Joining him in the outfield was Byron Chorlton, who eschewed his first name - suitable, perhaps, for a poet - in favour of the single letter K, which he insisted be spelled without a period.

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All were pikers in the oddity sweepstakes when compared to a mid-season acquisition.

By the time Lou Novikoff arrived on Vancouver Island, his antics were familiar to a generation. The madcap eccentric's résumé included stints as a carnival strongman and harmonica player.

He complained the foul lines were crooked. At Chicago's Wrigley Field, he refused to retrieve balls lost in the ivy growing along the outfield wall for fear of spiders. It is said he once attempted a steal of third with the bases loaded, explaining his boneheaded attempt at larceny by insisting he had too good a jump on the pitcher not to do so. Not for nothing was he known as the Mad Russian.

Mr. Krug even spares a few kind words for an umpire, usually no friend of anybody, as he sings the praises of the colourful Amby Moran, a former National Hockey League player from Winnipeg who became a prominent arbiter on the West Coast.

"He was such a swell fellow to have behind the plate. He would never get into an argument. 'Marty, that ball caught just a hair of the outside corner.' He left you speechless."

(Mr. Moran, a wartime shipyard worker, enjoyed gambling and drinking. He missed most of a season as a player after being arrested for assaulting a police officer in Manitoba.)

The senior Krug was a stern taskmaster. He had played against Ty Cobb, carried on his thighs permanent scars inflicted by the metal cleats of the great Rogers Hornsby. Having his father as manager was not a happy circumstance for the younger Krug.

He asked after some old teammates.

Alas, almost all are gone, though their time on the diamond is permanently etched in baseball's immutable record keeping.

One of the tribulations of living to a grand age is bidding adieu to old comrades.

Four years ago, he lost one of his best friends with the death of Robert (Buzz) Knudson, who played briefly for baseball's Hollywood Stars but had greater success in Hollywood's editing suites, where the sound engineer won three Oscars for his work on Cabaret, The Exorcist, and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.)

After his season in Victoria, Mr. Krug soon left baseball after having suffered an angina attack in the middle of a game. He did some coaching, then became an ironworker.

He worked on dams, bridges, skyscrapers.

In 1958, he was sent to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where he built superstructures on Johnston Island to hold atomic bombs as part of the U.S. nuclear testing program.

Once, he had to climb 20 metres up a structure to pour dry ice inside an overheating panel of an armed and fully fuelled missile.

He even met Wernher von Braun when the rocket scientist needed a decoy to avoid a visiting congressional delegation.

He witnessed two detonations on Johnston Island that August.

"When the bomb went off, you could go out at night and read a newspaper until dawn," he said. "The skies just rolled with colour."

He remembers gooney birds falling dead from the sky, like so many fly balls coming to earth, victims of the shock wave.

What did he think of the awesome power of the nukes?

"They'll get the job done."

He said it as though speaking of a pitcher with good control.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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