Jim Gilliam—Baltimore Elite Giants, Aguadilla, Almendares, Minors, and Santurce (Part I)

Walter Alston—manager of the 1950 Montreal Royals, International League—was probably OK with the Brooklyn Dodgers acquiring Gilliam and two other players, pitchers Joe Black and Leroy Farrell, from the Baltimore Elite Giants, for a combined $9,000. Gilliam’s SABR bio, by Jeff Angus, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/3c15c318, noted that Mickey McConnell, assistant to Brooklyn’s GM Buzzie Bavasi, opined that Gilliam’s speed, bat control and range at second base, could help him claim second base for the 1951 Montreal Royals, also managed by Alston.

So, who was Jim “Junior” Gilliam; where was he from; how did he get his nickname; what is he known for; when did he star in the Negro Leagues, in Puerto Rico, and in the National League? A quick snapshot is: Gilliam was an only child, born (and raised) in Nashville, Tennessee, October 17, 1928. His father died when Gilliam was two; he was raised by his grandmother, since his mother worked long hours as a housekeeper. George Scales, his manager with the Elite Giants, first called him “Junior.” Scales noticed Gilliam was having a hard time hitting curve balls by right-handers, so he yelled: “Hey, Junior, get over on the other side of the plate.” Gilliam played 14 seasons with the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers, 1953-to-1966, participating in seven World Series, and winning four rings. Part I will focus on his post-World War II seasons (1946-to-1950) with the Baltimore Elite Giants; his two years (1951 and 1952) with the Montreal Royals; four winter seasons in Puerto Rico, 1948-49 Aguadilla Sharks and 1950-53 Santurce Crabbers; one AB for the 1948-49 Almendares Scorpions in Cuba; plus, two Caribbean Series with Santurce (1951 and 1953), where his team went a combined 11-1, winning two titles.

Nashville Black Vols and Baltimore Elite Giants

James Riley’s research shows Gilliam quit school his final year of high school to play for the 1945 Nashville Black Vols in the Negro Southern League, earning $150/month. Gilliam learned a lot from 2B Sammy T. Hughes, a holdout the first part of 1946 with Baltimore. Hughes “had no weaknesses” and was a good base runner, a solid hitter, a “thinking man’s player,” and a consistent contact hitter. Hughes lost three years (1943-45) due to military service. He had a .277 AVG for the 1946 Elite Giants, compared to Gilliam’s .280. Willie Wells, Luis “Canena” Márquez, Bill Byrd, and Joe Black were some Baltimore teammates. Larry Doby (.360 AVG) was the best second baseman in the six-team East Division, 1946 Negro National League, Josh Gibson’s final one with the Washington Homestead Grays. Gilliam, barely 17, observed Gibson, Buck Leonard and Cool Papa Bell, with the Grays; Doby, Monte Irvin and Leon Day, with the Newark Eagles. Gilliam and Hughes played next to Tommy “Pee Wee” Butts, their double play partner. Other role models for Gilliam were Rabbit Martínez, New York Cubans, and Dick Seay, New York Black Yankees. (Seay became Gilliam’s coach with the 1950-53 Santurce Crabbers.)

Gilliam was given his nickname (Junior) in 1947, during a tryout at Sulphur Dell in Nashville. Scales yelled, “Hey Junior, get over on the other side of the plate.” He continued to improve under Scales, his manager with the 1947 Elite Giants. Gilliam was full grown at 5’10” by age 18. His eventual major league playing weight was 175 pounds. (Sammy Hughes, in comparison, was 6’3” and 190 pounds.) From 1948-to-1950, Gilliam posted AVG of .253, .302, and .265 with Baltimore; he was a 3x East All-Star selection those three seasons. Baltimore won the first-half of the 1948 season, but Washington Homestead Grays took the second-half, and bested the Birmingham Black Barons in the last Negro Leagues World Series. Gilliam continued to learn, playing behind a quartet of pitchers—Billy Byrd, Joe Black, Jonas Gaines, and Bob Romby. The Grays countered with Wilmer Fields and others, plus an attack with 1B Buck Leonard, SS Sammy Bankhead, and the OF trio of Luke Easter, Bob Thurman, and Canena Márquez.

Aguadilla Sharks and Almendares Scorpions (1948-49)

Gilliam played in one game for the 1948-49 Almendares Scorpions, in Cuba, a club which won the first (February 20-25, 1949) Caribbean Series, in Havana. Scales was managing the Ponce Lions in Puerto Rico, with Fernando Díaz Pedroso at 2B; and Buster Clarkson at SS, but Gilliam ended up in Aguadilla, playing for the Aguadilla Sharks. (The Puerto Rico season began October 16, 1948, eight days after Cuba’s season started.) This was Gilliam’s first chance to play with (and against) white Stateside players, including Chuck “Rifleman” Connors with Almendares, and Don Hoak, his Aguadilla teammate, who played 3B-SS. Joe Buzas took over as Aguadilla’s skipper when Myril Hoag was fired. The Sharks were 4-7 (.364) at the time, and finished fifth of six teams, with a 32-48 (.400) record. Buzas was impressed with Gilliam, who turned 20 in Puerto Rico, October 17, 1948: “You could tell Gilliam was special,” Buzas told the author. “He studied the game; asked questions; was very polite, yet determined. I had managed [shortstop] Artie Wilson, with Mayagüez, in 1947-48, and Fernando Díaz Pedroso [2B], with San Juan, 1949-50. But Gilliam had something extra as a 20-year old…he was headed for greatness in the 1950s and beyond.”

Tom Parker, Paul Wargo, Van Harrington, Junior Gilliam and Dixie Howell (1949)

Aguadilla’s best players were catcher Dixie Howell (.384 AVG), second to Mayagüez’s Easter (.402); and Luis Márquez (.341 AVG), fifth in the league. Mayagüez’s Artie Wilson (.373) was third, and Santurce’s Alfonso Gerard (.342) was fourth. Gilliam knew Wilmer Fields, from the Grays, and Puerto Rico’s top run producer (88) with Mayagüez. He mingled with Willard Brown (Kansas City Monarchs), and Bob Thurman (Grays), the “Babe Ruth-Lou Gehrig” of Puerto Rico, with a league-leading 18 HR, apiece, for Santurce. John Ford Smith (13 wins for Santurce) and Red Lynn (13 for Ponce) were the two best pitchers he faced; Lynn-Pacific Coast League, and Ford Smith-Monarchs. Gilliam had 44 hits in 161 AB, 15 doubles, one triple, one HR, and 15 RBIs. His .273 AVG was respectable; he scored 29 runs; drove in 20; and, stole one base.

Santurce Crabbers (1950-52)

George Scales became Santurce’s manager for two seasons, 1950-51, and 1951-52. Scales was well known in Puerto Rico, leading Ponce to five league crowns in the 1940s. A 1997 interview the author had with Guigo Otero Suro—owner Pedrín Zorrilla’s right-hand man —indicated Scales wanted Gilliam signed. Zorrilla already signed Willard Brown, Bob Thurman, Buster Clarkson, and John Ford Smith. (William Powell later replaced the departed Ford Smith.) Island teams were allowed five imports. Gilliam, almost 22, would be a valuable addition.

Santurce (48-30) finished second to Caguas (57-20). Caguas won the most regular season games in league history, under player-manager Luis R. Olmo. Santurce’s 48 wins were the second-most in team history, eclipsed by a 49-20 season, in 1968-69, under rookie manager Frank Robinson. Circling back to 1950-51, Rogers Hornsby managed Ponce to a third-place (43-35) finish. San Juan (34-44) was fourth, followed by Aguadilla (25-51) and Mayagüez (24-51).

The Caguas club, per the author’s 1991 interview with Víctor Pellot (Vic Power), was the “best one he had ever played on in his career with the Criollos, with Jim Rivera, Tetelo Vargas, and Olmo in the OF; George Crowe, league batting champ (.375 AVG), at 1B; Gene Markland (2B) and Stan Breard (SS); himself at 3B; GuiGui Lucas, catching; plus three outstanding starters—Mike Clark (14-6), Manolo Cáceres (12-1), Roberto Vargas (10-1)—along with Royce Lint (4-0) and Cecil Kaiser (5-5). By comparison, Santurce had Rubén Gómez (13-6), Powell (9-4), Thurman (6-5), Domingo Sevilla (6-5), Rafaelito Ortiz (5-1), and Luis Raúl Cabrera, aka “Cabrerita” (2-3), the team’s star pitcher the prior decade. Cabrerita was a voodoo sympathizer, and this came into play, February 17, 1951, in game seven of the finals, versus Caguas.

Santurce bested Ponce, four games-to-one, in the semi-finals; and, Caguas swept San Juan. Mike Clark won the first game of the finals, 5-4, with relief help from Vargas. Gómez evened the score the next night, with a 15-8 win. These two games were held at Sixto Escobar, home of the Crabbers and San Juan Senators. Games three-four-five took place at Solá Morales Stadium, home of the Criollos. Cabrerita won Game Three, 12-5, with four plus innings of scoreless relief of Sevilla. Caguas tied the series, with a 6-4 game four win. Gilliam’s key two-run single, in game five, gave Thurman a 2-1 victory over Clark, but Caguas took game six, 3-1.

At midnight, post-game six, Cabrerita knocked on the door of the Santurce Stop 16 headquarters, near the Stop 16 bus stop in downtown Santurce. Guigo let Cabrerita in, and was told he must find a Doña Lala in Ponce, for her to put a hex on Caguas. Guigo told Cabrerita, originally from Ponce, to “stay put,” and phoned legendary Francisco “Pancho” Coímbre in Ponce. (Coímbre was Hornsby’s 19501-51 hitting coach with Ponce; someone who Roberto Clemente claimed, “was a better player than myself.”) Guigo instructed Coímbre to have Doña Lala put in a cab the next day (February 17, 1951), for the trip from downtown Ponce to Sixto Escobar.

Per Guigo: “Our [Santurce] equipment manager believed in ‘black magic,’ and he reserved two seats near the clubhouse. Doña Lala arrived in the third inning and placed some objects inside the clubhouse. Cabrerita went in there in the home third and after that, he pitched very well.”

Markland hit a third-inning HR off Cabrerita, before he went to the clubhouse, and Gilliam responded with a triple in Santurce’s half; he scored on Clarkson’s fielder’s choice. Clarkson homered in the home sixth, but Caguas tied it, 2-2, on a Jim Rivera’s fielder’s choice, eighth inning. Santurce won the game, 3-2, on a walk-off HR by José St. Claire, aka Pepe Lucas. His HR became known as the “Pepelucazo,” and later compared to Bobby Thomson’s home run shot “heard around the world” for the New York Giants versus Brooklyn, October 3, 1951. 

Gilliam was Santurce’s best hitter in the finals—nine for 26, .346 AVG, six runs, a double, a HR, and five RBIs. Only Clarkson (seven runs, 12 RBIs) outpaced him for Santurce. Jim Rivera (.414 AVG) had the best average; Breard’s .344 was third, behind Gilliam. In the semi-finals, Gilliam went five-for-21 (.238), with five runs, versus Ponce. His regular season stats were: .234 AVG, with 68 hits in 291 AB, including 14 doubles, three triples, and 26 RBIs. He scored 75 times, second to Jim Rivera’s 76; and, stole 20 bases, second to Carlos Bernier’s 28 with Mayagüez.

Scales led Santurce to five wins in six games, to claim the Caribbean Series crown in Caracas, Venezuela. Their only loss was to the Havana Reds, 4-3, in their fourth game. Gilliam went six for 25 (.240), but drew five walks, for a .367 OBP. Santurce reinforced itself with six Caguas players (Olmo, Crowe, Breard, Lucas, Clark, and Vargas), plus José “Pantalones” Santiago from Ponce. Olmo was series MVP, with three HR and nine RBIs. Breard was an All-Star at SS; and Santiago (2-0) surfaced on the All-Star Team with Gómez (2-0). Hoyt Wilhelm (Havana) and Clem Labine (Magallanes) were two top pitching prospects. Chico Carrasquel, Johnny Davis, and Vidal López were a trio of big name players for Magallanes. Final standings were: Santurce (5-1), Havana (4-2), Magallanes (2-4), and Spur Cola (1-5).

When the 1951-52 Puerto Rico season began, October 16, 1951, Pedrín Zorrilla received three trophies: City Champ, due to Santurce besting San Juan, eight games-to-seven, in head-to-head play, 1950-51; League Title, for defeating Caguas; and a third for winning the 1951 Caribbean Series. Santurce won 16 of their final 20 games to finish third, at 41-31, two games behind 43-29 San Juan, and one behind 42-30 Caguas. Gilliam finished second to Carlos Bernier in “circling the bases” sprint, prior to the All-Star Game. Bernier did this in 13.5 seconds, with Gilliam close behind, and Canena Márquez third. Santurce swept Caguas, three games to none, in the semis, but were defeated by San Juan, four games-to-two, in the finals. Gilliam went 82-for-272 (.301 AVG), in the regular season, 15 doubles, five triples, three HR, and 32 RBIs. He scored 63 runs to pace the league, one more than Márquez’s 62. Gilliam’s 14 SB were second to Bernier’s 19.

Record of Junior Gilliam in Puerto Rico, Negro Leagues, Minor League and Major League https://beisbol101.com/jim-junior-gilliam/

Montreal Royals (1951 and 1952)                     

The Brooklyn Dodgers had a strong farm system and top-notch managers in the early1950s such as Walter Alston, who managed Gilliam at Montreal, 1951 and 1952. Montreal (95-59) easily won the 1951 Class AAA International League pennant by 11 games over Rochester (83-69); semi-finals, four games-to-none, over Buffalo; and, finals, four games-to-one, versus Syracuse. They faced the Milwaukee Brewers—winners of the American Association—in the 1951 Junior World Series, but lost this series, four games-to-two, when Luis R. Olmo hit a bases-loaded triple off Tom Lasorda, to win Game Six, 13-10. Gilliam impressed Dodgers executives with a league-leading 117 runs and selection as the International League All-Star 2B.

Teammates Héctor Rodríguez (3B) and Bobby Morgan (SS) were All-Stars. Gilliam showed versatility with 92 games at 2B; 64 in the OF. He walked 117 times in posting a .413 OBP. His 162 hits in 565 AB gave him a .287 AVG. He drove in 73 runs. Bert Thiel, who faced Gilliam in the 1951 Junior World Series, and in Puerto Rico (1951-52), opined “Gilliam was already a major-league quality player by 1951,” adding “He did the little things for his team…knew how to play the game.”

In 1952, Gilliam went 169-for-561, to match his .301 AVG with Santurce (1951-52). Gilliam scored a league-leading 111 runs for the 1952 Royals; drove in 112, one less than Ed Stevens’ 113 RBIs for Toronto. Gilliam walked 100 times with 18 strikeouts! He had 18 SB, 39 doubles, nine triples, and nine HR. The 95-56 Royals edged Toronto (four games-to-three) in the semis, but lost to Rochester, four games-to-two, in the finals. Gilliam’s 1951 and 1952 minor league regular season totals were: 303 games, 1,126 AB, 228 runs, 331 hits, 61 doubles, 18 triples, 16 HR, 185 RBIs, 33 SB, 217 walks, 65 strikeouts, a .294/.412/.423 slash line, and .834 OPS.

Santurce Crabbers (1952-53)

Brooklyn allowed Gilliam to join the 1952-53 Crabbers. Billy Hunter, a Dodgers prospect, was Santurce’s SS until mid-December 1952. Billy Bruton played CF for Santurce through the regular season, before departing. Brown, Thurman, and Johnny Davis patrolled the OF with Bruton. Brown was activated (again) for the stretch run, with Davis inactivated. Clarkson was player-manager for the 42-30 Crabbers, three games behind first-place San Juan (45-27). But Santurce beat their “cousins” in the finals, four games-to-two, after sweeping Ponce, managed by Joe Buzas, three games-to-none in the semis. Bobo Holloman (15-5) and Rubén Gómez (13-9) were Santurce’s top pitchers, along with Bob Thurman (6-3) and Dick Hoover.

“The Dodgers were loaded back then,” recalled Hunter. “Gilliam was ready to play for them, when we were [Santurce] double play partners. The St. Louis Browns acquired me in a trade when I was making $1,200/month with Santurce. [Bill] Veeck gave me an extra $1,000 to leave Puerto Rico early, plus a $1,000 raise in my 1953 salary.”

Junior Gilliam and rookie Roberto Clemente

Brooklyn let Gilliam play the whole 1952-53 regular season/post-season. He finished fourth in the batting chase (.312 AVG) and hits (81). His 16 SB were third to Bernier (26) and Márquez (23). Gilliam’s 55 runs topped Márquez’s 53 and Bernier’s 49. Gilliam had 13 doubles, five triples, and 31 RBIs. On December 21, 1952, his third-inning single drove in Billy Bruton with the only run in Johnny Davis’ 1-0 blanking of Caguas. On January 13, 1953, he walked, stole second, took third on a WP, and scored on Johnny Davis’ SF, to help Gómez win, 1-0, versus Mayagüez. His Puerto Rico regular season career totals were: 275 hits/984 AB, 222 runs, .279 AVG, 57 doubles, 14 triples, four HR, 109 RBIs, plus 51 SB.

Jackie Robinson and Junior Gilliam (1953)

Tom Lasorda, the 1952-53 Mayagüez LHP, recalled that “Gilliam was a sparkplug for that [1952-53] Santurce team,” when he spoke to the author in 1993. “Junior was outstanding with [1951 and 1952] Montreal; [Roberto] Clemente was just a kid with Santurce then…”, Gilliam met Jackie Robinson on February 14, 1953, when Robinson attended Game Five, San Juan-Santurce finals. Gilliam’s two singles, a double, and a HR, helped Gómez win it, 15-5. Don Liddle, the losing pitcher, alerted the author that earlier that season—after defeating Gómez—he was surrounded by San Juan fans, post-game, and something was put in his uniform back pocket. Three $100 bills he received were due to heavy betting! Harvey Haddix, LHP for San Juan, left Puerto Rico in early December 1952, but was impressed by Willard Brown’s hitting; Gilliam’s all-round play. Santurce fans called Gilliam the “Black Sea”—since he covered so much ground.

Roster moves prior to Santurce’s trip to Havana, Cuba, for the 1953 Caribbean Series, were adding Cot Deal, Joe Montalvo and Márquez from San Juan; Power and Vargas from Caguas; plus, Ponce’s Pantalones Santiago. (Power replaced 18-year old Clemente on the roster.) Santurce went 6-0 to disappoint Cuba’s rabid fans. They beat the Chesterfield Smokers, 15-6, and Caracas, 7-4, before a 6-5 come-from-behind win over Havana, February 22, 1953. Deal, who relieved in the eighth inning, was Santurce’s last hope with two outs in the ninth, losing 5-3.

Cuban fans joked about no pinch-hitter for Deal, 1952-53 Puerto Rico League MVP. Deal doubled and scored on Márquez’s single. Gilliam singled, and Power’s RBI hit scored Márquez. Gómez, who entered the game as a pinch-runner for Willard Brown, drove in Gilliam with the winning run! “This was the highlight of my pro baseball career,” said Gómez. “It meant more to me than winning Game Three of the 1954 World Series!” Per Deal, “The Cuban fans got all over him [Gómez], listed as a pitcher on our roster. They [Cuban fans] got quiet all of a sudden.”

Willard Brown’s four HR and 13 RBIs earned him Series MVP laurels, and Havana’s Pedro Formental had 14 hits/25 AB, for a .560 AVG. The underrated Gilliam had 12 hits/22 AB, for a .545 AVG, with two HR and three RBIs, and Series All-Star selection. This gave him a .383 career AVG in two Caribbean Series—18 hits/47 AB, three doubles and one triple, two HR, and seven RBIs. Gilliam had a higher AVG. and SLG. than Cooperstown Hall of Famers Clemente and Cepeda and deserves to be inducted in the Caribbean Series Hall of Fame, in the future!

Table I: Highest AVG, Caribbean Series, Phase I, 45+ AB, 1949-to-1960

# Thurman is considered the AVG leader, Phase I, for playing in three events, with 56+ AB.

Note: 3.1 AB times (x) 18 games = 56 AB. Thus, Thurman and Fields are one-two, 56+ AB.

Lou Limmer, in two Caribbean Series (Caguas-1956, Valencia-1958), had a .366 AVG and .805 SLG in 41 AB. Limmer had 15 hits, including five HR and 13 RBIs. He scored nine runs.

With special thanks and appreciation to Rodrigo (Guigo) Otero Suro, Joe Buzas, Cot Deal, Rubén Gómez, Harvey Haddix, Billy Hunter, Tom Lasorda, Don Liddle, Vic Power, and Bert Thiel. Thanks to Jorge Colón Delgado for providing Gilliam’s complete regular season stats in Puerto Rico.  

Photo Junior Gilliam with the Elite Giants from The Negro Baseball Leagues by Phil Dixon and Patrick Hannigan.

All other photos from Jorge Colón Delgado collection.

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