Kevin Joseph Aloysius Connors
- Bats Left, Throws Left
- Height 6' 5", Weight 190 lb.
- School Seton Hall University
- High School Adelphi Academy
- Debut May 1, 1949
- Final Game September 30, 1951
- Born April 10, 1921 in Brooklyn, NY USA
- Died November 10, 1992 in Los Angeles, CA USA
Chuck Connors played two seasons in the major leagues and was for a while in 1951 the starting first baseman for the Chicago Cubs. He was best known as the star of The Rifleman, a television series that ran from 1958 until 1963. He also had roles in movies like Airplane II and Roots, appearing more than a hundred times in various movie or television roles.
He was originally spotted by Hollywood while playing in the minors for the Los Angeles Angels in 1952. His first role was in the Tracy/Hepburn comedy Pat and Mike.
He was also a professional basketball player for a couple of seasons. During his brief basketball career, he earned the distinction of being the first Pro Basketball player to break the glass behind the basket while making a slam-dunk during a regular-season game, an honor many people think is held by NBA-great Darryl Dawkins. Source: Eric Nadel's radio short-clip series: "A page from Basketball's past."
Connors was a baseball, basketball and football star in high school, playing for a private school on an athletic scholarship. When Connors was acting up in college, the teacher (a Father Gilhooley) told him to take part in the declamatory contest if he liked to talk so much. Chuck did so and won the contest, which helped him develop his interest in acting.
Connors was a teammate of NBA Hall-of-Famer Bob Davies in college, but preferred baseball and signed with his hometown Brooklyn Dodgers in 1940.
1940-41: Starting his minor league career and retiring
Going 1 for 11 for the Newport Dodgers that year, he broke his finger after four games and did not play again for two years, attending Seton Hall University in the fall of 1940 and being placed on the voluntarily retired list in 1941.
Out of retirement
Paul Krichell noted that Chuck was unprotected and signed him for the New York Yankees. Replacing Joe Collins at first with the Norfolk Tars, Chuck hit .264 and slugged .408. Teammate Bill Wight recalled that Connors often would recite Casey at the Bat, Sheakespeare or other poetry.
Into the army
Connors was drafted by the US Army in November 1942 and became an instructor in tank maintenance and operation. On leave, he played basketball in the American Basketball League for the Brooklyn Indians and in 1945-46, he was with the National Basketball League's Rochester Royals as a teammate of Del Rice.
1946-50: Back in the Brooklyn chain
Chuck related that he would write Branch Rickey in 1946 asking for the Dodgers to acquire him. The Yankees waived him and Brooklyn claimed their old prospect back on April 23. He was assigned to the Montreal Royals and was a spring training teammate of Jackie Robinson's before being sent down to the Newport News Dodgers, where he batted .293/~.373/.507, stole 19 bases and homered 17 times. He led the Piedmont League in home runs, six more than anyone else. That year, he played regularly for the Boston Celtics in the BAA, a forerunner to the NBA. He would play briefly for the Celtics the next year but devoted his attentions to baseball after that.
In 1947, Chuck helped the Mobile Bears to their first Southern Association title in 25 years (they were out of the Association for 13 of these years, though). He hit .255/?/.424 with Mobile, second on the Bears in homers (15, 6 behind George Shuba and tied for 7th in the Association.
Connors met his future wife, Canadian model Elizabeth Riddell, on a blind date in 1948, and had a very good year at AAA, batting .307/~.382/.496 with 88 RBI, 36 doubles and 17 homers for the pennant-winning Montreal Royals. He was one double behind International League leader Johnny Groth, tying Hal Rice for second in the IL.
In the 1948-49 Cuban Winter League, Chuck hit .257 and slugged .361 for the champion Almendares team and made the league All-Star team at first.In the 1949 Caribbean Series, he tied for the lead in doubles (3) and steals (4) while batting .409 and slugging .545 for the champs.
In 1949, Connors made Brooklyn's roster out of spring training as the backup first baseman behind Gil Hodges, a teammate of his in 1946. Chuck finally appeard in the 13th game as a 9th-inning pinch-hitter for Carl Furillo with one on and one out against Russ Meyer. Connors rapped into a double play, Meyer to Granny Hamner to Eddie Waitkus, to end the game, in his only at-bat for his hometown team. Manager Burt Shotton said later that he had hoped to reduce the odds of a double play - and in retrospect, it was a good call, as Connors did not ground into another one in 201 more major-league at-bats. After another 12 days on the bench, Chuck was sent bck to Montreal, where he hit .319/~.385/.514 with 108 RBI, 84 walks and 20 HR despite his late addition to the team.
Chuck returned to Almendares in winter play and hit .287, slugging .412, as the team again finished first. He did not play in the 1950 Caribbean Series.
In his third year in Montreal, Connors put up a .290/~.399/.423 season with only six homers, though he was still clearly reaching base enough. Unfortunately, Hodges still held down first for Brooklyn. Connors was taunted regularly by fans in other cities; in one instance, he threw raw hamburger into the crowd in Rochester, NY, saying "Eat, you wolves!"
1951-1952: His last years in baseball
Connors was dealt with another 1B, Dee Fondy to the Chicago Cubs for Hank Edwards and cash after the 1950 season ended. Phil Cavarretta was aging and the first base job was opening up in the Windy City. Fondy won the role to begin 1951. Connors was sent down to the Los Angeles Angels to start the year and he hit .321/~.394/.572 in 98 games in the Pacific Coast League before being called up to Chicago. He became the starter the rest of the way and wound up with the most games at first for the team, for whom he hit a disappointing .239/.282/.303, a far cry from what he had shown in AAA. Fondy would get the job back the next year and hold it for five years.
In 1952, Connors returned to LA to bat .259/~.321/.379 in a rapid decline and injured both shoulders. He continued to please the celebrity hawks in that city with his antics in the field.
Connors had first been offered an acting job by a baseball fan from the movie industry in 1951 and retired from baseball two years later, feeling that his career was over for the most part and that he might not recover from his shoulder injuries. While he was slowly developing his acting resume, he did a pregame show for the PCL, sold insurance and was a door-to-door salesman for water softener.
In 1957, Connors' acting career took off with his performance in Old Yeller, earning him the role in The Rifleman. To develop the role, Chuck learned to speak without his Brooklyn accent and taught himself how to care for a horse. He became arrogant with his new stardom before tiring of the Hollywood star lifestyle and cutting back and developing perspective. He had earlier said that "Talent is G-d-given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful" and did heed his axiom after the initial rush of fame.
He was divorced in 1962, having had four sons.
There were rumors that Connors would run for the Senate in the 1960s, but he decided not to. While he was friends with Republicans like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, he criticized the conservative movement's disdain for welfare and intellectuals and devotion to religious orthodoxy, preferring a middle of the road political agenda. Being so close to scandal-plagued politicians also made him cynical about politics over time.
Connors was an avid reader and his secretary said he read 250 books a year and retained it all. After his acting career quieted down, he worked more on a ranch he owned in Southern California.
In 1986, he said that he had fulfilled his goal in life, playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Sources: Baseball's Forgotten Heroes by Tony Salin, The International League: Year-by-Year Statistics by Marshall Wright, Pat Doyle's Professional Baseball Player Database, 1947 and 1951 Baseball Guides, Stephen Davis's 1951 and 1952 PCL seasons for Diamond Mind Baseball, Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History by Jorge Figueredo
- Tony Salin: Baseball's Forgotten Heroes, Masters Press, Chicago, IL, 1999, pp. 9-28.