The intention was never to name every baseball player who tried his luck at acting, but fans of "The Rifleman" can rest assured. Rob Edelman wasn't about to leave Chuck Connors off his list.
"From Spring Training to Screen Test: Baseball Players Turned Actors," published earlier this month by SABR (Society for American Baseball Research), is a new book produced by Edelman and his co-editor Bill Nowlin. An Amsterdam resident and University at Albany professor who has written several books about the movie industry, Edelman has also been a life-long baseball fan.
"I mention in the introduction that we didn't try to get everybody in the book because then we would have ended up with an encyclopedia," said Edelman, who along with teaching film history at UAlbany is also a film commentator for WAMC-Northeast Public Radio and a contributing editor to "Leonard Maltin's Moive Guide."
"So we picked and choosed. We have guys who had lengthy careers in the sport and then did some acting, and we also had guys who barely played in the major leagues and then went on to a long TV and film career, like Chuck Connors."
Inside the book are 47 short biographies of baseball players-turned-actors produced by a number of baseball writers. There is also a chapter about individuals closely related to baseball, such as singing cowboy Gene Autry, a long-time owner of the California Angels, and Edelman also wrote sections about baseball in film and television.
The idea to write the book started taking shape in Edelman's head after he made a presentation before SABR members at a spring training conference two years ago.
"I got to chatting with Bill Nowlin, my co-editor who's been involved with SABR for a long time and who's done a lot of book editing, and we thought it'd be great to come up with a book about ballplayers who became actors," remembered Edelman. "We also wanted to include individuals like Gene Autry and director Ron Shelton, who never played in the major leagues but became very successful in Hollywood and were huge baseball fans. Anything that connected baseball and show business we would include."
Edelman himself provided short biographies of Greg Goosen, Art Passarella, Mike Donlin and former New York Yankee centerfield Bernie Williams. The first three are obviously not household names.
"I was a New York Met fanatic," said Edelman, explaining his decision to write up the chapter on Goosen, a catcher/first baseman who played for the Mets and three other teams in five years in the Major Leagues. "I had followed him when I was a kid because he was a Met, and then he becomes Gene Hackman's stand-in and ends up having a lot of walk-ons in a lot of films. Then there's a guy like Mike Donlin, who had a pretty good baseball career and then marries a vaudeville, stage star and ends up being in a lot of movies, many of them uncredited, but he was a fascinating guy."
For baseball players who became actors, Connors and Bob Uecker are probably in a league of their own.
Connors, born in 1921, died in 1992 at the age of 71. A Brooklyn native, he played one game for the Dodgers in 1949, 66 games for the Chicago Cubs in 1951, and was sent back to the minor leagues in 1952. He had 201 at bats in the major leagues, a life-time batting average of 238, and he did hit two home runs, both with the Cubs.
Earlier, Connors had played in the National Basketball Association, making him just one of 12 individuals who have played in both the NBA and the Major Leagues. He helped the Rochester Royals to the league title in 1946, and the following season played for the Boston Celtics.
Connors turned to acting in 1952 and had a small role in "Pat and Mike" with Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. He gained his greatest fame playing Lucas McCain in "The Rifleman" for six seasons (1958-1963)
Uecker, meanwhile, who remains a Milwaukee Brewers' radio broadcaster, played in the majors for six seasons between 1962 and 1967. He was in several movies, typically as a player or an announcer, and also had a successful TV sitcom from 1985-1990, "Mr. Belvedere," in which he played a sportswriter.
As for baseball movies, Edelman has a favorite, 1989's "Field of Dreams" with Kevin Costner. He balks, however, at coming up with any kind of list.
"There are baseball movies, and there are movies that aren't really about baseball but they have some great baseball references in them," said Edelman. "Some of those movies are great movies, but they're not completely about baseball. "The Best Years of Our Lives" from 1946 really isn't about baseball, but when the three veterans returning home following the war ask the cab driver, 'how's the team doing?' and he tells them, 'sixth place,' the three men collectively all groan. Maybe it's not a baseball movie, but they use baseball in a great way to begin telling the story."
He did, however, offer these few words about some of Hollywood's best films in a baseball setting.
"Field of Dreams" - If anyone asks me for a top five list or something like that, the one I always choose is 'Field of Dreams.' It captures the poetry of baseball. Near the end of the movie when the Kevin Costner character asks his dad if he wants to play some catch, it brings tears to my eyes. I lost my father a couple of weeks past my third birthday, and for people who either did not have fathers or people who had fathers but never did anything athletic with them, I think that's an incredibly moving sequence.
"Bull Durham" - It's funny with vivid characters that accurately portrays life in the minor leagues. It's realistic because the director, Ron Shelton, spent quite a few years in the Baltimore Oriole system and he knows what he's talking about in the film.
'The Natural" - I had a problem with it because it veers too much away from [Bernard] Malamud's novel. As a great film, you could talk about it at a number of levels but it will always be a bit disappointing to me because of the ending. It's completely different from the book, but you know Hollywood. They have to have a happy ending.
"The Bad News Bears" - The two sequels weren't much, but the original with Walter Matthau was a very important baseball movie. It's not just a kiddie comedy. It deals, in a serious way, with how young people are treated, and how kids should be allowed to play for the fun of the game, and not have pressure put on them to win. If you make a mistake and you're a 10-year-old kid you shouldn't be yelled at. It should be about having fun.
"Fear Strikes Out" - Today you have to have a certain level of proficiency as an athlete, and while Anthony Perkins gave a good performance as Jimmy Pearsall, he's not believable as a baseball player. He was fine dealing with all the psychological issues Pearsall had, but it was obvious he was no baseball player.