Which NBA and MLB player left sports to become TV’s first crossover celebrity?

By Scott A. Rowan

A star on the basketball court, the baseball diamond, and the television screen, Kevin Joseph Aloysius “Chuck” Connors did it all and set milestones along the way that few philosophy students could ever imagine attaining.

This excerpt is from “The Cubs Quotient: How the Chicago Cubs Changed the World” by Scott A. Rowan. Available now at Amazon and SherpaMultimedia.com.

Connors’ most widespread fame came from his role as Lucas McCain, the lead character of The Rifleman—ABC’s No. 1 show during its first season in 1958, and No. 4 overall, trailing three other westerns (CBS’s Gunsmoke, NBC’s Wagon Train, and CBS’s Have Gun — Will Travel, respectively). The Rifleman was the first show on television to feature a widowed parent (Connors) raising a child.

But sports fans will likely be more impressed by Connors’ athletic achievements than his acting ones. The 6’5″, 200-pound Connors was a well-rounded athlete who played basketball and baseball at Seton Hall, where he studied philosophy and literature. The New York native signed as a free agent with the Brooklyn Dodgers for the 1940 season, then signed with the New York Yankees for 1941 before being drafted into the army. After his tour of duty (during which he served at West Point), Connors re-signed with the Dodgers in 1946, remaining in their minor league system until he was traded to the Chicago Cubs in 1950.

While Connors made athletic history in 1946, it wasn’t with Brooklyn. That year he signed to play with a new professional basketball team, the Boston Celtics. On November 5, 1946, Connors made NBA history by becoming the first player in league history to shatter a backboard. It happened during pregame warm-ups before a game against the visiting Chicago Stags. The feat wasn’t as entertaining as the mighty dunks that Shaquille O’Neal and Darryl Dawkins became known for years later. The backboard in question was missing a key part, causing the rim to rip away from it when Connors took a simple set shot. It took an hour to fix.

Chuck Connors with the Boston Celtics.

Connors averaged 4.6 points per game during his only full season with the Celtics. After playing four games in the 1947–48 campaign, he turned his attention to baseball full-time.

On October 10, 1950, Connors and Dee Fondy were traded to the Cubs for Hank Edwards and cash. In 1951, Connors earned only two home runs, 18 RBI, and a .239 batting average in 66 games before the Cubs relegated him to their AAA affiliate in Los Angeles. After spending the 1952 season there, Connors left baseball to pursue a career in acting. His screen debut came in the 1952 film Pat and Mike starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.

“They paid me 500 dollars for my week’s work in that movie,“ said Connors according to former colleague David Fury. “I figured they’d made some mistake on the adding machine, but I stuck the check in my pocket and shut up. Baseball, I told myself, just lost a first baseman.“

Chuck Connors as “The Rifleman.”

Connors appeared in more than 120 movies and television shows during his acting career, including classics like Old Yeller, Geronimo, and cult favorite Soylent Green. In 1984, Connors became the only former Cubs player or coach to earn a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (former Cubs announcer Ronald Reagan also has a star, and, with their mutual connection to the Cubs, was also a personal friend of Connors). In 1991, the former first baseman was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. In 1977, he earned an Emmy nomination for his role in the television miniseries Roots.

A scholar with a sense of humor, Connors used his intelligence to befuddle and entertain teammates and fellow actors throughout his life. As a young baseball player, he memorized Shakespearean passages for use when the time was right. According to Fury, Connors scolded umpires after a bad call by saying, “The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune I can take, but your blindness is ridiculous!”

The umpires still ejected him.

Connors was not the only Cubs player with a noteworthy basketball background. Pitcher Fergie Jenkins played for the Harlem Globetrotters in 1967 and 1968, touring with the team throughout the United States and Canada.

Jenkins conceded that the Globetrotters wanted him mostly because he was Canadian and his celebrity status would boost their attendance on tour through the Great White North. After Jenkins proved himself as a basketball player, the Globetrotters brought him back in 1968. Though he had fun playing with Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal, Jenkins was perplexed (albeit thankful) that the Cubs let one of their star players participate in another sport.

“The funny thing is the Cubs gave me their blessing to play basketball,” Jenkins wrote in his autobiography Fergie, “but they went ballistic when I went horseback riding.”

Jenkins was the fourth in a string of baseball players hired by the Globetrotters as celebrity participants. The others were Satchel Paige (1954), Bob Gibson (1957), and Lou Brock (1961). Jenkins, however, was the only Canadian ever to suit up for the team.

SOURCES:

“TV Ratings: 1958–1959,” classictvhits.com, http://www.classictvhits.com/tvratings/1958.htm, accessed July 2, 2013.

David Fury, “Chuck Connors,” riflemanconnors.com, 1992, http://www.riflemanconnors.com/chuck_connors_in_memory_of.htm.

“Chuck Connors Cowboy Hall of Fame,” riflemanconnors.com,http://www.riflemanconnors.com/chuck_connors-cowboy_hall_of_fame.htm, accessed July 2, 2013.

Fergie Jenkins with Lew Freedman, Fergie (Chicago: Triumph Books, 2009), 90.

-SOH-

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