Apr 10, 2011

The Life Of The Rifleman

Chuck Connors
1952 Mother's Cookies - Card #4
To the best of my knowledge, this was the only Chuck Connors baseball card that was produced during his playing career.  It was part of a promotional set released by Mother's Cookies in 1952Chuck played first base for the 1951 Los Angeles Angels, which was a club in the Pacific Coast League that served as the minor league affiliate of the Chicago Cubs.

Prior to the 1951 season, Connors had only appeared in a single game at the big league level as a member of the 1949 Brooklyn Dodgers.  In a May 1st game against the Philadelphia Phillies, he was brought in to pinch hit for Carl Furillo with one out in the bottom of the 9th inning.  The Dodgers were down 4-2 and Gil Hodges was on first base after singling off of Phillies starter Russ Meyer.  A home run would have tied the game and given Connors a solid start to his MLB career, but he grounded into a double play to end the game and give the Phillies the win.  His time with the Dodgers may have been short, but he was once part of a lineup that included five Hall Of Famers, including Hodges, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, and the legendary Jackie Robinson.

Fortunately for Connors, this wasn't his only opportunity to play in the big leagues.  The 1951 Chicago Cubs called him up from the minor leagues on July 6th and he spent the rest of the season in the big leagues.  He was the starting first baseman in 49 of the 57 games that he played for the Cubs to finish the 1951 season, in which time he had a slash line of .239/.282/.304 with two home runs in 214 plate appearances.

Connors returned to the minor leagues for the 1952 season, which would be the last year of his baseball career.  Baseball was actually his second career as a professional athlete.  After his discharge from the US Army in 1946, he played for the 1945-46 Champion Rochester Royals (the franchise moved several times in the years that followed and is now the Sacramento Kings).  He continued his basketball career for over the next two seasons in 1946-47 and 1947-48 for the Boston Celtics before transitioning to baseball.

TV Guide: March 12, 1960 (left) and October 23, 1965 (right)

For anyone else, being one of only 13 professional athletes in history to play in both MLB and the NBA would be the highlight of a person's life.  However, these things are only a footnote in the life of Chuck Connors. He was spotted by an MGM casting director when he was playing for the Los Angeles Angels, and this led to a long and successful acting career.  He is best known for starring in The Rifleman, but he has credits in over 130 movies and television shows in a career that spanned four decades.

There are four roles that Chuck Connors plays that I remember him best from.  The first time I saw him was on an episode of The Adventures Of Superman from 1955 that aired on Nick At Nite when I was a kid.  It was called Flight To The North, and it features Chuck as an unusually strong country boy named Sylvester J. Superman who's last name causes him to be mistaken for the real Superman.

The second, and probably the most well known of his feature film roles, is his role in the 1957 Walt Disney film Old Yeller which one of my teachers showed our class when I was in school.  Chuck plays a cowboy named Burn Sanderson who gives the dog to Arliss in exchange for a toad and a home-cooked meal.

The third and fourth are films that I saw for the first time in the late 90's on VHS.  Connors played the villain in a bizarre 1979 horror/slasher film called Tourist Trap, and he plays William R. Simonson's bodyguard, Fielding, in one of my favorite movies of all time: the 1973 dystopian classic Soylent Green.

Mr. Connors passed away on November 10th, 1992 at the age of 71.  He is buried at the San Fernando Mission Cemetery just outside of Los Angeles.  He was a remarkably talented man who lived an interesting life, and his work continues to bring joy to others many years after his death.  Today would have been his 90th birthday.