Chuck Connors: Go Western, Young Man

Sometimes the best thing that can happen to a Cubs player is to have the team let him go. Greg Maddux, Dennis Eckersley and Lou Brock wouldn’t be wearing World Series rings if not for the favor bestowed upon them by the North Siders. Who knows if they would have become the Hall of Famers they are today if they’d remained Cubs.

No one benefited more from this phenomenon than Chuck Connors, who credits the Cubs for paving the way for him to become the TV and movie star he would eventually become.

Connors, best known for his starring role in the TV series “The Rifleman,” was a multi-sport athlete before finding fame as an actor.

The striking 6-foot-6-inch 200-pounder played both professional basketball and baseball. After serving in World War II as a tank-warfare instructor, in 1946 Connors joined the newly formed Boston Celtics. On November 5, 1946 during warms ups of their very first game, Connors became the first professional basketball player to ever shatter a backboard, though it wasn’t the result of a rim-shaking dunk but rather a shot hitting the front of the rim on an improperly installed backboard. His basketball career was short-lived – he played only in parts of two seasons with the Celtics before he left the hardwood in pursuit of a career on a baseball diamond.

He landed in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization, where he played in all of one game at the Major League level, as a pinch-hitter, hitting into a game-ending double play. As a first baseman playing behind Gil Hodges, he saw the handwriting on the wall and lobbied Brooklyn owner Branch Rickey to trade him. On October 10, 1950, Brooklyn announced that Connors had been traded to the Chicago Cubs along with Dee Fondy, another first baseman.

When Chicago manager Frank Frisch installed Fondy as his first baseman during spring training in 1951, Connors was assigned to the Cubs top farm club, the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. Not making the Chicago Cubs turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to Connors. “Greatest break I ever got,” Connors said in 1954. “I’m out there right in the middle of the movie business where, if a guy has anything, he’s got the chance to break in.”

In Los Angeles, Connors thrived playing for the Angels. During the first half of the 1951 season, he compiled a .321 batting average in 98 games, with 22 home runs and 77 RBIs. His success in the City of Angels, earned him a mid-season call-up to the Cubs, where he switched places with Fondy, who was farmed out to the Angels (they also switched uniforms, as Connors wore the same number 40). Connors didn’t do much in his half-season with the Cubs, though, hitting a weak .239 in 66 games with just two homers and 18 RBIs. The Cubs finished in last place that season and the team shipped Connors back to the Angels. He never returned to the majors, because Hollywood came a calling.

While Fondy took back the role of first baseman for the Cubs in 1952, Connors landed a small role in his first movie, “Pat and Mike,” starring Spencer Tracy and Kathryn Hepburn, thanks to Bill Grady, the casting director for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, who was a passionate fan of the Los Angeles Angels. The move turned out to be a good one for Connors, who made $12,000 as a movie actor before 1952 spring training began, more than double his $5,500 salary in baseball.
Connors wasn’t ready to give up baseball just yet. He played the 1952 season with the Los Angles Angels, but it became obvious to all who saw him play that season that he was more skilled as an actor than as a baseball player. He became known more for his clown-like antics on the field than for his hitting or fielding. Once, after hitting a home run, he slid into second base, cartwheeled to third base, and then crawled to home plate. Other times, he reportedly threw raw hamburger to rowdy fans at a road game and taunted umpires with Shakespearean quotes.

He officially retired from baseball in 1953 to focus on acting. His big break came when he played Lucas McCain, the sharpshooting good guy in the popular “Rifleman” series, which originally ran from 1958 to 1963, in the heyday of television westerns. The character, a homesteader and single father, disposed of varied frontier villains with his Winchester rifle.

In his nearly 40-year acting career, Connors appeared in at least 45 films and numerous television series and specials. He was nominated for an Emmy Award for his portrayal of a slave owner in the mini-series “Roots” and also won a Golden Globe Award in 1959.

The “great big mountain of a man,” as described in the chorus to the theme song from “The Rifleman” had smoked up to three packs of Camel cigarettes a day for more than 30 years. He died on November 10, 1992 in Los Angeles at the age of 71 of pneumonia stemming from lung cancer.

Randy Richardson is the author of CHEESELAND. An all-new edition of his Wrigleyville murder mystery, LOST IN THE IVY, was released by Eckhartz Press on Opening Day.

Photo by ABC Television-the back image has been rotated and altered to make it visible and legible enough to see the ABC information on it. (eBay itemphoto frontphoto back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons