‘The Rifleman’ Star Chuck Connors Played Multiple Professional Sports Before Acting Career

by Suzanne Halliburton

Chuck Connors always will be known as The Rifleman. His grave stone even shows a photo of Lucas McCain.

If Connors had his way, however, he would’ve been Hall of Fame worthy as a first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Or maybe as a standout for the Boston Celtics. At 6-foot-6, he certainly had the height to play basketball. And his frame scared pitchers when he was at the plate. He was left-handed, too.

But because of Chuck Connors’ incredible athleticism, he got his first break as an actor. His background certainly is unique.

Connors is one of only 12 athletes who have played in both the Major Leagues and the NBA. He grew up playing most every sport. Connors attended Adelphi Academy for high school and received numerous offers to play sports in college. He settled on Seton Hall, which wasn’t far from where he grew up in New York. Connors played both baseball and basketball for the school.

And it was there that Chuck Connors became Chuck Connors. Thanks to his Irish background, Connors was given the name Kevin Joseph Aloysius Connors at birth. But by the time he arrived at Seton Hall, he wanted a nickname. Folks called him Lefty or Stretch. Eventually, the name Chuck, stuck. As the story goes, Connors always liked to yell at the pitcher to “chuck it” to him at first base.

Connors Fulfills a Childhood Dream

Connors left Seton Hall after two years and signed with the Dodgers, the favorite team from his childhood. He played four games for the Dodgers farm team in the Northeast Arkansas League. The Dodgers released him. He sat out the 1941 season, then signed with the New York Yankees, playing for the Norfolk Tars in the Piedmont League. And when the season ended, he joined the Army. He spent most of the war as a tank instructor.

After World War II, Chuck Connors Gave Celtics a Try

After the war, Chuck Connors dabbled in basketball. He signed with the newly created Boston Celtics. But basketball wasn’t quite his scene. Over two seasons, he played in 53 games, averaging about four points a contest.

So Connors switched back to baseball. He re-signed with the Dodgers and was assigned to their farm team in Montreal. Finally, by 1949, he reached the Majors, playing one game with the Dodgers. And in 1951, Connors made the Chicago Cubs, playing 66 games at first base. But Connors didn’t have quite enough talent to stay in the Majors. He ended up at the Los Angeles Angels, the Cubs farm team.

A Lasting Impact on Sports and Entertainment

Connors’ greatest impact on sports came in 1966, after he was a TV star. That’s when he helped settle a contract dispute between the Dodgers and its star pitchers — Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. Both were holding out for the same kind of contract, a multi-year deal worth $1 million. Connors helped set up a meeting between Los Angeles Dodgers General Manager Buzzie Bavasi and the two pitchers. Connors knew Bavasi from his days playing in Montreal, so he helped set up a meeting at a restaurant near Dodgers Stadium.

Chuck Connors, if he hadn’t played baseball, probably would’ve never met his wife, Elizabeth Riddell, who was the mother to his four sons. And if he hadn’t been a baseball player, he probably never would’ve been spotted by an MGM casting director. He was supposed to play a boxer, but ended up as a police officer.

The Rifleman came along in 1958. When Chuck Connors died in 1992, he wanted to be remembered for playing Lucas McCain. And his gravestone also acknowledged his three sports teams — the Brooklyn Dodgers, Chicago Cubs and Boston Celtics.