Brooklyn Boro

Only the good die young

October 15, 2021 William A. Gralnick
Head shot of writer William Gralnick
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Taking over for Mickey Mantle or Ted Williams? Tough assignment. But can you imagine being asked to replace Jackie Robinson at second base for the Brooklyn Dodgers? That, for most anyone, would be mission impossible. It wasn’t for James Jim (Junior) Gilliam whose number 19 was retired two days after his death. We’ll come back to that.

Gilliam was one of the last major leaguers to start his career in the Negro Leagues. At age 24 he was installed as second base baseman for the Dodgers with Robinson moving eventually to third. He ended his career as one of the first black coaches in either league. His first year he was Rookie of the Year. Not a bad way to start.

Gilliam was no Robinson. History made it that no one could be a Robinson. There’s only a 1st at something one time. The things that made Gilliam be able to handle the job were many, one of which was his easy demeanor, his desire to be the best Jim Gilliam he could be and not be the Greyhound chasing the uncatchable rabbit that was Jackie Robinson. He was a player who was well liked by his peers and his coaches. Walter Alston said that what made Gilliam so good was that he did the little things that won ball games. A look at his stats doesn’t always show that, but we’ll look at some things that did.

Another thing was Robinson’s intuition that the team had to grow, new blood was necessary. Having seen Robinson play third base, seen some of his amazing glove work, I can say, as the standings showed, the infield lost nothing. It was a great double play around the horn: Robinson to Gilliam to Hodges and then others. Or Reese to Gilliam to Hodges.

One thing Gilliam had of Robinson’s were superior baseball instincts to go with his “steady-as-she-goes” talents. One instinct was that he couldn’t and shouldn’t play in Robinson’s shadow. He had to create his own. He could bunt. He could steal. He was quick and while no home run hitter, he was king of the triples. He played a smooth and almost flawless second base, steady but not flashy. He didn’t make many errors, especially mental errors. When you noticed Gilliam, you were surprised. Like Reese, he was a yeoman, did his job, went home to his family.

Let’s look at the numbers and the numbers he was a part of. Gilliam did what lead-off hitters are supposed to do. He got on base and scored—100 runs in each of his first four seasons. His 17 triples in ’53 were the most since 1920 In ’59 he was second in the league in walks behind Stan Musial. Add 21 stolen bases to cap off his rookie year.

In 1956 Gilliam posted a batting average of .300, made the All-Star team, and was 5th in the MVP voting. He was 2nd in walks, this time behind his teammate Duke Snider, and his 21 steals placed him second behind Willie Mays. On July 21st of that year, he tied an 1892 record of twelve (12) assists in one game! His last year in Brooklyn he led the league in putouts and fielding percentage and was second in steals.

It would be boring to recount his successes in the post-season games in which he played. I’ll share just one. In the third game of ’55 series, he drew a bases loaded walked to drive in the decisive run in the game. The Dodgers went on to win their First world Series. Next year had finally arrived.

Jim Gilliam was born in October, a native of Nashville, Tennessee. One of the things about him that got noticed was his death. In also died in October. He had a massive brain hemorrhage. Dead at the tender age of 49. So, as we say Happy Birthday to Jim Gilliam, we also note that his death underscores that “only the good die young.”

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