Sports: Basketball & Baseball
Born: April 10, 1921
Died: November 10, 1992
Kevin Joseph Aloysius Connors was born April 10, 1921, in Brooklyn. He and his sister, Gloria, were the children of Canadian parents who had emigrated from Newfoundland. Kevin did not become Chuck until he was 20. As a first baseman for Seton Hall University, he would yell, “Chuck it to me, baby!” and the nickname stuck.
Prior to his diamond exploits in South Orange, Chuck was a prep football, baseball and basketball standout for Adelphi Academy in Garden City. He was offered baseball scholarships from several universities, but a contract offer from his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers proved too tempting, and Chuck signed with the team after graduation. The Dodgers farmed him out to their Class-D team in Arkansas, where he quickly determined that college was the better way to go. He quit the Dodgers and accepted the baseball scholarship from Seton Hall.
Chuck played freshman baseball in 1941 and then honed his skills in a New England semipro league in the summer. He became the Pirates’ varsity first baseman in 1942. That season, the team was undefeated under coach Al Mamaux. Chuck was also a member of the Seton Hall basketball team in 1941–42. He was a defensive specialist who backed up both the forward and center positions for the squad led by Bob Davies and coached by Honey Russell. A natural showman, Chuck also acquired his love of performing in college.
The Dodgers did not protect Chuck and in 1942 he signed a minor-league contract with the Yankees, who'd scouted him at Seton Hall and also in the New England League. He batted .264 in 72 games at Norfolk that summer. Chuck quit school and enlisted in the Army later that year. He became a tank instructor, remaining stateside during the war. During a stint at West Point, two of his pupils were Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis, aka Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside, who powered Army to a pair of national championships. Chuck’s schedule enabled him to play semipro baseball on the weekends, as well as pro basketball during the winter. He suited up for the Brooklyn Indians, Wilmington Bombers and Crescents of Paterson—all American Basketball League teams.
After Chuck was discharged in early 1946, he decided to become a professional two-sport athlete. He joined the Rochester Royals of the National Basketball League in the second half of the season, serving as a backup center to George Glamack. The Royals won the NBL championship that season, but by then Chuck had left the club to attend Spring Training with the Yankees. Chuck was ticketed for the Newark Bears, but was left exposed in a waiver deal, and was snapped up by his original team, the Dodgers. That summer, he led the Class-B Piedmont League in home runs and was the star of the pennant-winning Newport News Dodgers.
In the fall of 1946, Chuck returned to the hardwood. He signed with the Boston Celtics of the newly formed Basketball Association of America, appearing in 49 games for his old Seton Hall coach, Honey Russell. Prior to a November game, Chuck became the first player to shatter a backboard. It was not a Darryl Dawkins moment, per se. The glass had been installed incorrectly. However, Chuck, at 6’5” could and did dunk. He could also entertain a crowd. He became the team’s designated after-dinner speaker, traveling to sports and business banquets throughout the Boston metro area to promote the Celtics.
Baseball, however, was Chuck’s best game. He left the Celtics early for Spring Training and had another good year with the bat, this time at the Class-AA level. The following winter he suited up for the Celtics for a handful of games before a contract squabble led to the team cutting him. He returned to New Jersey to play for a second stint with the Paterson Crescents. In 1948, Chuck helped the Dodgers’ top farm team, the Montreal Royals, win the Little World Series—the championship of minor league ball.
Instead of playing basketball in 1948–49, Chuck played winter baseball in Cuba. His aim was to unseat Gil Hodges as Brooklyn’s everyday first baseman, but that didn’t pan out. He played exactly one game for the Dodgers tin 1949, spending the rest of the season in the minors with the Royals. He played for Montreal again in 1950, and then was traded to the Cubs. Chicago shipped Chuck out to its farm club in the Pacific Coast League, the Los Angeles Angels. There he hammed it up for an audience of Hollywood agents, producers and casting directors for half a season before getting promoted by the Cubs. Chuck batted .239 in 66 major league games.
After the season, Chuck received a call from MGM to do a screen test for a bit part in the Hepburn–Tracy film Pat and Mike. He got the part and suddenly found himself in the big leagues of the movie business. So sure was Chuck that his future was in pictures that he requested to be exempt from major league play in 1952. He officially retired after one last season with the Angels.
Chuck stayed busy acting in the 1950s, with movie roles, and TV guest appearances. In 1957, he earned his breakthrough part as the owner of beloved Old Yeller in Old Yeller. That led to his iconic Lucas McCain role in the series The Rifleman, which ran until 1963. Always a shrewd negotiator, Chuck got 10% of the profits from that show, which aired in reruns for decades. The straight-shooter image (literally and figuratively) that he cultivated on the series served him well for the rest of his career. After the Dodgers moved to LA, he was a regular in the stands and as a visitor in the dugout.
In 1984, Chuck received a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. He passed away from lung cancer in 1992.