Ask McGehee: Did actor Chuck Connors once live in Mobile?

Actor Chuck Connors
Above Chuck Connors played baseball for the Mobile Bears in 1947 but is better remembered for his television career as the star of “The Rifleman.” Courtesy Wikicommons

According to the 1947 Mobile city directory, Kevin Connors (who got the nickname of Chuck while playing college baseball) was residing at 1221 Texas Street and his profession was listed as “ball player.” At the time, he was playing baseball for the Mobile Bears, and his team would win the Southern League Championship that same year.

Kevin Joseph Connors hailed from Brooklyn, New York, and in high school, he had excelled in football, basketball and baseball. After serving in World War II, the 6’5” Connors turned first to basketball, playing for the Boston Celtics and he became the first professional player to shatter a glass backboard during a game.

From Chicago to Mobile

A year later, he was a first baseman for the Chicago Cubs and ultimately found himself as a member of the Mobile Bears in 1947. That team had been known as the Sea Gulls until it was renamed the Bears in 1917. It was dubbed the Marines in 1931 before the Great Depression led to its move to Knoxville. In 1944, it was relocated back to Mobile as the Bears once more.

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Hartwell Field had been Mobile’s baseball stadium at the corner of Tennessee and Ann streets since 1927. Post-war Mobile was still crowded with shipyard workers when veterans began returning home. Those men were hungry for entertainment and Hartwell Field’s bleachers were packed with fans at every game.

With baseball players today earning incredible sums, it is hard to imagine that the stars in the 1940s were residing in boarding houses, not private apartments. However, Mobile was still suffering from a wartime housing shortage and countless private homes operated as rooming houses.

One such house was located at 1221 Texas Street, a short walk away from Hartwell Field. The owner of the house was Charles Eastburn, a foreman at Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company. His wife, Sally, ran the house where her cooking skills kept several members of the Mobile Bears well-fed.

On to Hollywood

After a winning season in Mobile, Connors moved on to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers as well as the Chicago Cubs before hitting Hollywood in the early 1950s. His first role was a minor one in the 1952 hit “Pat and Mike” starring Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.

His acting ability and his on-screen chemistry with young actors in Disney’s “Old Yeller” in 1957 led to his being signed to play a widower, Lucas McCain, in “The Rifleman” in 1958. This was the first television show to feature a single parent. McCain was raising his son on a ranch in the New Mexico Territory during the late 1870s.

It is hard to believe in this day and age, but there were critics of “The Rifleman” who complained about its violence. McCain’s rifle was used to take out more than 120 villains over the five years the show ran.

And during those five years, baseball attendance dwindled in Mobile as fans chose to sit at home to watch a game on their television rather than heading over to Hartwell Field. The Mobile Bears were dissolved, and Hartwell Field was closed as a baseball park in 1962.

Chuck Connors continued to appear on television shows and in movies in a career that would span 40 years. In the 1970s, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev came to Washington and was introduced to Connors at the White House. The Russian was a big fan of Connors and gave the actor a bear hug, lifting him off his feet.

Although his character on “The Rifleman” was only shown with a cigarette once in five years of programs, the actor was smoking up to 60 a day, and he succumbed to lung cancer in 1992. Mobile’s most famous Bear was only 72.

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