Unless you started following baseball on Sunday, you know how many years it’s been since the Cubs have won the World Series.
It takes a lot of bad players to go that long without, and among them on the Cubs was an alleged first baseman named Chuck Connors.
He played 66 games for the last-place Cubs of 1951, and not very well. Connors batted .239, slugged .303, fanned 25 times and committed eight errors; he accumulated -0.8 of WAR, which would have been worse had he only played more.
Connors never played in the major leagues again. He went to Los Angeles to play ball in the minors and act in the big leagues of Hollywood. He made it in the latter, starring in The Rifleman and getting a bear hug from Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, who appreciated him more than Cubs fans (we can assume Brezhnev never saw Connors play first base).
Of all the roles Connors played, in none was he as unconvincing as major-league first baseman. Apparently, Connors was more adept with the props of a weapon and saddle than he ever was with a bat or a glove.
Connors’ baseball career is little noted or remembered among fans, but with one exception.
Thirty-five years ago, our playback league expanded to include two brothers, one a Phillies fan, one a Cubs fan like his father. Somewhere in the course of playing games, The Rifleman must have come on the TV because the brothers said as children the show was banned in their house.
Naturally I asked why. Guns? Frontal nudity? Bad acting?
No. Chuck Connors.
And they then told the story — not for the first time — of how their father, born in Chicago, raised a Cubs fan and transported to Philadelphia as a teen, had gone to Shibe Park as a young man in 1951 to root for the Cubs.
Family lore said Connors lost both games of a doubleheader for the Cubs, but with the help of baseball-reference.com, it was apparently just one that felt like two. The offending game was apparently on July 20, with their dad among the 10,642 in attendance. With the score tied in the bottom of the 11th, Connors dropped a toss from pitcher Bob Rush allowing Eddie Pellagrini to reach. After a wild pitch, Connors booted a ball hit by Eddie Waitkus allowing Pellagrini to get to third, from where he scored the game-winning run on Richie Ashburn’s single.
Two errors, one lost game and one angry Cubs fan. Ten years later, no Rifleman.
You have to appreciate that kind of principled parenting. If nothing else, that’s how you hold a grudge.
From the older son: “I was watching TV with my dad one night and on some show they were talking about Connors and how he gave up a promising (baseball) career for acting. That sent my normally mild-mannered father into a tirade that included a recounting of (how) the stone-gloved, ham-fisted Connors single-handedly managed to lose.”
You could feel the rage in the second-hand telling.
(To be fair to Connors, he’s one of 12 players to play in both the NBA and MLB, so he must have been a pretty fair athlete. In the interest of trivia, who were the other 11? Answer below the pick.)
For years there was an Internet rumor, almost certainly untrue, that Connors had once done a porn film. Even if it were, said the oldest son, it would not have been “nearly as obscene as his performance in (that game).”
The brothers eventually rebelled and watched The Rifleman, finding out they weren’t missing much.
Years later I accompanied the family on several of their baseball trips, to Chicago, Boston and Baltimore. I knew better than to bring up Chuck Connors.
In Chicago their dad was better than Frommer’s as a travel guide, and pointed out the important civic landmarks: the site of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and the Biograph Theater, where Public Enemy No. 1 John Dillinger was killed.
The Biograph was still open when we visited and we saw the Perfect Storm, making sure not to walk out near any women in red dresses, since that’s what got Dillinger gunned down.
Their dad — who turned 90 this year and is enjoying this season much more than Chuck Connors and 1951 — was indeed Midwestern nice instead of Northeastern nasty. When Connors moved on from The Rifleman in 1963 to Branded in 1965, dad allowed his children to watch.
I would have banned Branded, too.
The pick: This series has a 2004 feel to it. The Red Sox, after exorcising the demon that was the Yankees, swept the 105-win Cardinals. These Indians aren’t as good as those Cardinals, and their chances start and mostly end with getting a lead to Andrew Miller in the middle innings. That might work with Corey Kluber, but after him the Indians rotation options are a pitcher who hurt himself working on a drone (Trevor Bauer), one who hasn’t pitched since Sept. 9 (Danny Salazar), one who was third in MLB in home runs allowed (Josh Tomlin) and one whose entire major-league experience is 15.1 innings (Ryan Merritt). If the Indians lose Game 1, it’s a long way back. It’s time for Cubs fans to forgive everyone who represents 108 years of futility. It’s time to forgive Steve Bartman, Alex Gonzalez, Ernie Broglio, Leon Durham, Leo Durocher, Don Zimmer, the billy goat’s owner and the billy goat himself. And, yes, Chuck Connors. Cubs in five.
Trivia answer: The 12 players, according to nbahoopsonline.com, who have played in the NBA and MLB were Connors, Danny Ainge, Frank Baumholtz, Gene Conley, Dave DeBusschere, Dick Groat, Steve Hamilton, Mark Hendrickson, Cotton Nash, Ron Reed, Dick Ricketts and Howie Schultz.