Jim Gilliam: Only the good die young
October’s birthday boy is the only October birthday in the years of the Sunshine Boys. Born Oct. 17 in Nashville, Tennesse, Jim Gilliam also died Oct. 8, in Anaheim, California, at the untimely age of 49 from a fatal brain hemorrhage. He packed a lot of baseball into his short life, and all those professional innings were for the Dodgers, first in Brooklyn and then Los Angeles.
You’ve got to have something, talent and grit at the least, to come up behind Jackie Robinson. Gilliam, known as Junior, had both plus a warm personality that made him a popular teammate. His thoughtful, almost scientific approach to the game, learned from a Negro Leagues mentor, and his genuine personality made him well-liked across the league.
Gilliam came up as a second baseman. I remember clearly my resentment at someone replacing Jackie. Junior didn’t. Robinson had begun to age when he was moved to the outfield, the hot corner, and also first base. Aging he was, but multi-talented he also was. Gilliam wasn’t flashy. But he was steady, with sticky fingers. If a ball was hit between first and second and was catchable, Gilliam was going to get it. He could be counted on to gobble up even some that weren’t catchable by many other second-sackers.
With a career batting average of .267, Gilliam wasn’t a star in the batter’s box. He was, however, a good clutch hitter, a good bunter; and because he was a switch-hitter, he was a dart out of the box when he bunted from the right side of the plate.
From “This Day in Baseball,” we learn that he was “soft-spoken” and “soft-spoken” and succeeded Jackie Robinson at second base in 1953, which kicked off a 14-year career. The switch-hitter was named Rookie of the Year, scoring 125 runs and drawing 100 walks as the Dodgers won their second straight pennant. He slugged two homers, one from each side of the plate, in the World Series that fall.
Gilliam’s versatility prompted his move to third and the outfield, but he continued to be a valuable member of the Dodgers wherever he played. In his 14 seasons as a player, his teams won seven pennants, and in 12 years as a coach, Gilliam was on three more pennant winners.
Dodger manager Walter Alston said of Gilliam, “He didn’t hit with power…but he did the little things to win ballgames. He never griped or complained. He was one of the most unselfish ballplayers I know.”
Hitting behind Maury Wills, he often gave himself up by smacking the ball to the right side of the infield to move over the rabbit-fast Wills.
When Jim was 14 years old, his mother bought him his first baseball glove. Two years
later, in 1944, he used that leather when he was paid to play for the Crawfords, a local baseball team. The next year, the team’s owner, Paul Jones, fielded a team in a league subordinate to the Negro Leagues called the Nashville Black Vols. In 1946, the Black Vols’ parent club, the Baltimore Elite Giants of the Negro National League, brought up the 17-year-old as a right-handed batting reserve infielder. It was his tryout for the big club that made him into a switch-hitter.
When Baltimore manager George “Tubby” Scales observed Gilliam having trouble hitting curveballs thrown by right-handed pitchers, Scales yelled, “Hey, Junior, get over on the other side of the plate.” Scales had been a right-handed hitter in his own 24 seasons of professional baseball and prided himself on his scientific approach to the game. While the move to switch-hitting undermined what little power the prospect had, batting left- handed against righties enabled him to make good contact, Further, Scales’ nickname for him stuck.
Gilliam hit .253 in his first season with Baltimore and built on that to hit .302 in 1949. From 1948 to 1950, Gilliam was selected to play for the East squad in the Negro Leagues’ all-star contests, the East-West Games. In the winters of 1948-49, 1950-51, and 1952-53, the infielder played in the Puerto Rican Professional Baseball League.
A scout for the Chicago Cubs in the Washington-Baltimore area scouted the players on the Elite Giants. He watched Gilliam in 1949 and 1950 and recommended Junior’s immediate purchase. His report stated the player was “the best young prospect in the Negro American League.” His scouting report advised Gilliam was “a clean-cut youngster with an accurate snap throw, a good eye, hustler with the knack for punching the ball to all fields.”
And so it began. How did it end? The Society of American Baseball Research gives us this information for a perfect ending.
Gilliam didn’t have a Hall of Fame number, but on his death, the City of Los Angeles named a park after him and the Dodgers retired his number. Our salute to this man couldn’t end any better than with Davey Lopes’ words: “A father, a friend, and locker-room inspiration who never will be forgotten.”
Leave a Comment
Leave a Comment