Chuck Eisenmann, then with the Kearney (Neb.) Irishmen baseball team, shows off one of the stunts taught to his German shepherd, London, the future star of The Littlest Hobo in the movies and on television.
By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
December 28, 2010
The star of the heartwarming Canadian television series The Littlest Hobo was a dog who showed an uncanny knack for arriving at a time of peril. After performing heroics, the shrewd stray resisted entreaties to stay, preferring instead the adventures on offer further along the open road.
The vagabond canine — in truth, several look-alike German shepherds — was handled by Chuck Eisenmann, himself a restless, wandering spirit.
Eisenmann, who has died, aged 91, spent decades promoting what he described as a unique, modern method of teaching animals — four-legged performers and their two-legged owners alike. He rejected the word trainer, preferring instead to be thought of as an educator.
“Any dog has the seeds of genius,” he pronounced.
He insisted dogs were capable of more than simply reacting to barked commands.
“The educated dog has the power to reason and to act on the conclusions reached,” he said.
Accompanied by his pack, he made untold thousands of personal appearances to promote his technique, as well as the movies in which the dogs starred.
The ballyhoo promised “the world’s greatest intellectual dogs! Hear them talk, add, subtract! See them do feats of intelligence! See the world’s only dog with a 5,000 word vocabulary in three languages!”
The arrival of the dog man and his amazing pooches was headline news in isolated locales such as Elyria, Ohio; Lawton, Okla.; and Mason City, Iowa,
By the late 1960s, Eisenmann was a guest on television talk shows, appearing on the Mike Douglas Show with a men’s fashion designer and the National Apple Week Queen, and on the Steve Allen Show with the comedian Henny Youngman and the folk-rock band the Youngbloods.
In 1972, Eisenmann conducted a demonstration for the benefit of the psychology club at the University of British Columbia, as recounted in Weekend Magazine.
He commanded his dog, London, to jump into the air.
The dog jumped.
“This time, London, when I say ‘jump’ it will mean lie down and put your paws over your eyes ... London, jump!”
The dog dutifully lay down before covering its eyes.
He expounded on his theories in a series of softcover instruction guides with such titles as “Stop! Sit! and Think” and “A Dog’s Day in Court.” He posed with five of his dogs for the cover of a 1975 long-playing album called “Educate your Dog by the Eisenmann Method.”
Before finding fame as a dog expert, he owned a night club, worked as a sports editor, enlisted in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, and served as commandant and athletic director of a military school. Four years of military service during the Second World War interrupted a professional baseball career that included pitching for teams in Ottawa and Vancouver.
Charles Paul Eisenmann was born on Sept. 22, 1918, at Hawthorne, Wis. (He would later add two years to his birth date so as to not appear too old a baseball prospect, a common practice at the time.) After graduating from high school, he joined the peacetime U.S. Army at age 18.
A gifted athlete, the right-hander pitched for a service team in Hawaii, according to research by the baseball historian Gary Bedingfield for his “Baseball in Wartime” blog. Scouts noticed the 6-foot-1, 195-pound hurler with a looping curveball and he was signed to a contract, beginning his pro career with the Henderson Oilers of the Class-C East Texas League, far down baseball’s alphabet ladder.
A stint with the Vancouver Capilanos, a Class-B team, the following summer led to an eventual promotion to the old San Diego Padres, two levels below the major leagues. He pitched in just three games before swapping his red-and-white flannel uniform for army greens five months after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
In 1943, having graduated from officer school, the second lieutenant pitched for the Signal Monarchs in an eight-team league featuring American, Canadian and British soldier athletes in London, according to Bedingfield. Eisenmann’s hurling led his squad to the title over a Canadian hospital team.
The historian also notes the officer suffered severe injuries when the blast of a V-1 buzz bomb blew him through the wall of his office.
“That bomb didn’t make the slightest preliminary buzz and the only warning I had was when I heard a guard on the roof shout, ‘Jump!’,” Eisenmann later said. “I instinctively did and was actually in the air when the explosion came. It blew me backward right through the wall of the room. Fortunately, the wall was crumbling with the explosion.”
He followed the Allied armies through northwestern Europe after having organized in Paris the first baseball game to be played on liberated French soil.
After returning stateside several months after the end of the war, he resumed his playing career in the high minor leagues. After three seasons, he gained his reward with a promotion to the parent Chicago White Sox at the end of the 1948 campaign. But he was not called on to pitch before season’s end and, as it turned out, sitting on the bench at Comiskey Park was as close to a major league appearance as he ever got.
He pitched in 17 games for the Ottawa Giants in 1951, another way station in a career that also saw him wear the uniform of the Lake Charles (La.) Skippers, Yakima (Wash.) Pippins, Tulsa (Okla.) Oilers, Memphis (Tenn.) Chickasaws, Syracuse (N.Y.) Chiefs, Birmingham (Ala.) Barons, Oakland Oaks and San Francisco Seals.
At age 34, he was released, though he refused to give up the game. He worked briefly as an umpire in California and took turns on the mound for semiprofessional teams in Nebraska and North Dakota, where he pitched for the Bismarck Barons of the ManDak League.
It was while operating a nightclub in the offseason that he got his first dog, which he named London after the city that had so bravely faced down the Nazis. Ever after, his top dog carried that name.
The dog accompanied him to the ball park in summers. One newspaper account described London’s panoply of tricks: “The dog brought keys from Eisenmann’s car, bowed to the crowd, brought a bat and a broom to the pitcher, ran the bases, brought a ball bag from the mound, told how old he is (five), imitated a kangaroo, closed a door, turned out a light, played dead, untied a boy and did a little typewriting.”
In 1955, with his master managing the Kearney Irishmen, London was sent onto the field during a game to bring a warmup jacket to the pitcher, who had reached first base. The dog mistakenly went to the pitching mound before spotting the pitcher and completing the delivery. But the delay caused the other team to protest and the umpires banished Eisenmann and London from the field.
The rhubarb attracted the attention of Life magazine, which devoted a two-page spread to the pair.
In turn, the article was noticed by Dorrell and Stuart McGowan, brothers who had in mind an idea about the adventures of a homeless dog. The Littlest Hobo, a movie released in 1958, told the story of a stray who befriends a boy and rescues his pet lamb from a date at the slaughterhouse.
This was followed two years later by My Dog, Buddy, starring London in the title role in a story of “a huckleberry-faced boy and his dog.” The boy is orphaned when his parents are killed in an automobile accident.
London and younger understudies Toro and Thorn starred in two other movies, The Marks of Distinction and Just Between Us, the latter in which a dog jumps from a trestle and leaps onto the wing of a taxiing airplane.
The baseball wonder dog and his owner were also featured in the 1963 book, “London: The Dog Who Made by the Team,” by David Malcolmson
That same year, the CTV network added to its schedule a new show, also named The Littlest Hobo. It was billed as an adult action series, airing in the early evening. The program got solid reviews — “the star will amaze you,” wrote gossip columnist Walter Winchell — and found a global audience in syndication. The series, which lasted three season, was filmed at the Hollyburn Film Studios in West Vancouver and other locales in British Columbia.
The altruistic Alsatian rescues a prospector from death in the desert, thwarts a bank robbery, and stops another dog from attacking a politician on the command of his evil owner, portrayed by Eisenmann. Along the way, London befriends a Cuban refugee boy, an ex-prize fighter, a lumberjack, a bronco rider, a nightclub singer, the owner of a Chinese restaurant, and an aboriginal boy who is both deaf and mute in a episode starring Chief Dan George. The friendships are always short-lived, as the hobo dog drifts along to the next town, riding the rails to adventure.
The series was revived in 1979 for a six-season run. By now, Eisenmann had seven dogs (two of them female) to satisfy a hectic schedule. The series, filmed in Ontario, attracted such actors as a teenaged Mike Myers and the venerable Al Waxman.
The series was syndicated to more than 40 countries, a rare Canadian cultural export outside of pop music to find so wide an audience.
Eisenmann had a simple philosophy to explain his success with his animals.
“A dog thinks just as a human does, and if you treat him as a stupid animal eventually he will act that way,” Eisenmann said. “That’s why I act positive around my dogs and treat them as friends.”
Eisenmann, who died on Sept. 6 at Roseburg, Ore., leaves two daughters, four grandchildren, six great-grandchildren, and a sister.