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Cubs historical sleuthing: Catalina Island spring training

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These color films are views of a long-gone Cubs era. And there’s a future Hollywood star in them!

Flagstaff Films

The folks at Flagstaff Films have unearthed two great color films from Cubs spring training on Catalina Island in 1951.

These are significant for two reasons. First, 1951 was the Cubs’ final spring training at Catalina Island. In 1952, they began training at Rendezvous Park in Mesa, Arizona.

The second reason, I’ll point out after you take a look at the first film:

Unlike some of the prior films we’ve seen, many of the Cubs in this film are easily identifiable by uniform number. Those clearly visible include coach Roy Johnson (42), Mickey Owen (12), Bill Serena (6), Wayne Terwilliger (21), Harry Chiti (16), Hank Sauer (9) and Rube Walker (8). The righthanded pitcher briefly in view (35) is Turk Lown, who would make his big-league debut for the Cubs in 1951. Lown had a couple of decent years for the Cubs, and in 1958 they traded him away for no one you’ve ever heard of and he eventually became a key reliever for the 1959 White Sox A.L. championship team.

If you look at the Cubs’ 1951 uniform number list, you’ll see some of those don’t match. In that era, it was common, not just for the Cubs but for most teams, to re-use the previous year’s uniforms at the following spring training, then debut new uniforms for the regular season. It was a different time.

The lefthanded pitcher (No. 34) who’s warming up is Johnny Vander Meer. As happened so often in that era, the Cubs picked up good players long past their sell-by date. Vander Meer had been a fine pitcher for the Reds, famously throwing back-to-back no-hitters in 1938. By 1950, when the Cubs got him, he was pretty much done at 35. He had a mediocre year for the Cubs in ‘50, came to spring training in ‘51 and was released in late March. He signed with the Indians, pitched in one game for them, was let go and his career was over.

The man you see jumping back to first base at :20 is Chuck Connors. You can see more of him in the second film:

Connors was acquired by the Cubs from the Dodgers in October 1950, along with Dee Fondy, for Hank Edwards. Truth be told, Connors wasn’t a very good baseball player. He hit .239/.282/.303 with two home runs in 66 games for the ‘51 Cubs. He played in the Cubs minor-league system with the then-Triple A Los Angeles Angels in 1952 and then left baseball to pursue a career in Hollywood, where he became most famous for his role in the TV Western “The Rifleman” from 1958-63. A character actor for many years after that, he appeared in the TV miniseries “Roots” (for which he received an Emmy nomination), the film “Soylent Green,” and many guest roles on popular TV series of the 1970s and 1980s. Connors died of lung cancer in 1992.

These spring training films have excellent color and show the Cubs players enjoying themselves even as they did workouts preparing for the season. Unfortunately, it didn’t produce results during the season. The 1951 Cubs finished in last place at 62-92. At the time that was the second-most losses in franchise history.