Before he governed North Fork, New Mexico with a Winchester rifle on ABC’s The Rifleman, Chuck Connors played in the major leagues. It was, however, a short stint—one game for the Brooklyn Dodgers and 66 games for the Chicago White Sox in 1949 and 1951, respectively. His journey to Hollywood resulted from his geographic base. In Connors’s 1992 obituary, Bruce Lambert of the New York Times wrote, “Mr. Connors had a lackluster sports career, but his towering height of 6 feet 5 inches and his square-jawed masculinity made him a natural for rugged acting roles. When his struggling athletic career landed him with the Los Angeles Angels, a minor-league [sic] baseball team, he began picking up minor movie parts and soon gave up sports.”
Connors also played for the Boston Celtics.
The Rifleman ran for five years, from 1958 to 1963, starring Connors as rancher Lucas McCain and Johnny Crawford as Lucas’s son, Mark. Lucas helped North Fork’s sheriff keep the peace from intruders seeking to do harm. The Rifleman‘s popularity carved a prominent foothold in the vast array of western-themed television shows in the 1950s and the 1960s, including Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and Rawhide.
In a 1959 profile of Crawford, the St. Petersburg Evening Independent explained the dynamic between Crawford and Connors. “An avid baseball fan, Johnny doesn’t miss a chance to skip dancing, singing and acting lessons to root for the Los Angeles Dodgers, which, he tells you with much gusto, is his favorite team,” stated the Evening Independent. “He particularly relishes working with Chuck Connors, who formerly played with the Brooklyn Dodgers. As Johnny expressed it: ‘Chuck has taught me lots of special little things about baseball. Like how to hold my bat, and how to field the ball and run the bases. he and I are real close. I go out to his house to play ball with him and his sons and swim in their pool.”
Connors reunited with his former boss in the Dodgers organization—Branch Rickey—during the September 13, 1959 episode of What’s My Line?, a game show hosted by John daly, where panelists deduced a guest’s occupation through a series of “yes or no” questions. On occasion, the panelists failed to guess correctly. Celebrity guests often used fake voices while the panelists wore eye masks to prevent immediate identification.
At the time, Rickey devoted his energy, acumen, and stamina to forming the Continental League. Although it ultimately failed to launch, the league’s demise caused the expansion of the National League to Houston and New York in 1962.
After panelist Arlene Francis correctly guessed Rickey’s identity, a conversation ensued regarding the new league. Rickey the Continental League’s president, assured that the enterprise would flourish with a target start date of 1961 and a 154-game schedule. “Inevitable as tomorrow morning,” declared Rickey.
New York, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Denver, and Toronto already had Continental League rights. When Daly asked about the remaining three slots and potential contenders, Rickey clarified, “More than we can fill. The embarrassment is in the field of exclusion rather than inclusion. We shall have a very difficult time in choosing the other three. In fact, we are now laboring hard, at the moment, to choose a sixth one, which will be announced surely in the next few days.”
Connors graciously acknowledged Rickey’s impact on his life. “I remember Mr. Rickey, who actually gave me my career in baseball,” stated Connors. “And it’s a pleasure to see him again.”
“It’s a pleasure to see you, too,” responded Rickey.
A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 27, 2016.