Jim Gilliam, Brooklyn-Los Angeles Dodgers, 1953-78; San Juan Senators, 1973-74 (Part II)

Walter Alston—manager of the 1953 Montreal Royals, International League—was proud of Jim “Junior” Gilliam for earning 1953 National League (NL) Rookie-of-the-Year (RoY) laurels, with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Gilliam was 1952 International League MVP, playing 120 games at 2B for Alston, and 36 in the OF. Part I on Gilliam highlighted his magnificent February 20-25, 1953 Caribbean Series for Santurce, in Havana, Cuba, with a .545 AVG (12-for-22, two HR), and his two-year Caribbean Series (1951 and 1953) composite figures, .383 AVG and .596 SLG, in Table I. Gilliam’s SABR bio, by Jeff Angus, is at https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/3c15c318.

1953 NL ROY  

Roy Campanella, Pete Zorrilla (owner of Santurce BBC), Don Zimmer and Junior Gilliam.

Gilliam was a 24-year old NL rookie in 1953 for 105-49 Brooklyn, who won the pennant by 13 games over 92-62 Milwaukee. Brooklyn fell short to the 99-52 New York Yankees in the Fall Classic, four games-to-two. Per Angus, Brooklyn’s front office wanted to strengthen the team. For GM Buzzie Bavasi and manager Chuck Dressen, that meant inserting a real leadoff hitter. The team’s best on-base and running threat was Jackie Robinson, but the team needed his power in the No. 3 or 4 slot. Brooklyn’s 1952 lineup had featured only one left-handed hitter, CF Duke Snider. With a line-up that featured seven right-handed batters, the Dodgers had only seen lefties in 16 percent of their plate appearances, as opposed to the 1952 league average of 27 percent.

Dressen moved Jackie Robinson to 3B and LF, from 2B. Billy Cox played less at 3B. Gilliam’s .383 OBP in 1953 was superb. Gilliam started and batted lead-off in Brooklyn’s first 24 games and got on base in all of them, slapping the ball and taking walks, with a .456 OBP and scoring 19 runs. He had a 39-game on-base-while-starting streak from July 5 through August 26, per Angus. Gilliam started 146 games; got on base in 130; scored 125 runs; had a .278/.383/.415 slash line, and .798 OPS. He led the NL in triples (17) and plate appearances (710). His 100 walks broke the NL rookie record set by Eddie Stanky. It tied him with Ralph Kiner for second behind Stan Musial’s 105. Gilliam stole 21, but was caught stealing a league-leading 14 times.

Junior Gilliam and Pee Wee Reese

The 1953 Yankees had won their fifth straight pennant and World Series. Gilliam impressed Casey Stengel after hitting two HR and posting a .630 SLG, in a losing effort. Gilliam was eight-for-27 (.296 AVG), and the only Dodger with two HR; Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin (.500 AVG), and Gil McDougald hit a pair for the Yankees. Gilliam cracked the first HR of this series, Game One, September 30, at Yankee Stadium, off Allie Reynolds, fifth inning. (Yogi Berra hit the first HR for NY, home fifth.) Pre-game, Cy Young threw the first pitch, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his pitching in the (first) 1903 World Series. Gilliam cracked three doubles in Brooklyn’s 7-3 win, in Game Four. He homered off Reynolds in the home ninth at Ebbets Field, Game Five, October 4. Eleven Cooperstown Hall of Famers participated in this series—manager Stengel, Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Johnny Mize, and Phil Rizzuto for New York; Roy Campanella, PeeWee Reese, Robinson, Duke Snider, and Dick Williams, with Brooklyn. The Baseball Writers’ Association named Gilliam the NL RoY (11 of 24 first-place votes), over Harvey Haddix, Ray Jablonski, Rip Repulski, and Bill Bruton. Coincidentally, Haddix and Jablonski played for the 1952-53 San Juan Senators; Bruton was Gilliam’s Santurce teammate.

 Gilliam versus 10 other RoY 2B (AL and NL)

Eleven RoY in both leagues won this award playing 2B, starting with Gilliam, 1953. Jackie Robinson played 1B when he was 1947 RoY. Only one RoY prize was awarded per position, 1947 and 1948; 1949-2019, both leagues. Since 1987, MLB has named RoY laurels the Jackie Robinson Award. Table II compares Gilliam’s 1953 NL RoY stats with 10 other RoY winners, who were second basemen their rookie season. Eleven 2B RoY/144 total RoY = 7.6 percent.

Table II: RoY Stats for 11 2B, 1953 (Junior Gilliam) to 2007 (Dustin Pedroia)

Player Team-Year AB Runs Hits AVG OBP SLG OPS+ BB
Jim Gilliam Dodgers 1953 605 125 168 .278 .383 .415 105 100
Ken Hubbs Cubs 1962 661 90 172 .260 .299 .346 70 35
Pete Rose Reds 1963 623 101 170 .273 .334 .371 101 55
Jim Lefebvre Dodgers1965 544 69 136 .250 .337 .369 106 71
Tommy Helms Reds 1966 542 72 154 .284 .315 .380 85 24
Rod Carew Twins 1967 514 66 150 .292 .341 .409 113 37
Ted Sizemore Dodgers 1969 590 69 160 .271 .328 .342 94 45
Lou Whitaker Tigers 1978 484 71 138 .285 .361 .357 101 61
Steve Sax Dodgers 1982 638 88 180 .282 .335 .359 97 49
Chuck Knoblach Twins 1991 565 78 159 .281 .351 .350 91 59
Dustin Pedroia Red Sox 2007 520 86 165 .317 .380 .442 112 47

Note: OPS is the sum of OBP and SLG. OPS+ is an index, with 100 the norm. OPS+ takes a player’s on-base plus slugging percentage and normalizes the number across the entire league. It accounts for external factors like ballparks. It then adjusts so a score of 100 is league average.   Gilliam’s 105 OPS+ was five percent above 1953 NL average. Rose’s 101 OPS+ was one percent above 1963 NL average. Rose moved to the OF in 1966, to make room for Helms at 2B.

Carew is the only Cooperstown Hall of Famer on this list. His 113 OPS+ was 13 percent above the 1967 AL average. Gilliam, Rose, and Lefebvre were switch-hitters. Pedroia’s .317 AVG and .442 SLG were best on this list. Gilliam’s .383 OBP bested Pedroia’s .380 OBP; his .415 SLG was second to Pedroia. Significantly, Gilliam’s 125 runs and 100 BB were both #1 on this list.

Brooklyn (1954-57)

Buzzie Bavasi hired Walter Alston, one-year contract, to manage the 1954 Dodgers. Alston was coming off a win in the 1953 Junior World Series, when his Montreal Royals bested the Kansas City Blues—top New York Yankee farm club—of the American Association, four games-to-one. Alston’s association with Gilliam lasted through near the end of the 1976 season, when Alston retired after 23 one-year contracts. Houston Mitchell, Assistant Sports Editor, Los Angeles Times, on February 12, 2018, noted that Alston once said the following about Gilliam:

He gets on base. He can punch the ball on the hit and run. He steals and never throws to the wrong base. He knows how to get a walk. He has all the little things that go to make up a good ballclub…I don’t think he’s ever been late a day in his life. He doesn’t make any mistakes…he gives you 100 percent, day in and day out. He never moans. He’s a good team man. If I had eight like him, I wouldn’t have to give a single sign.   

From 1954-to-1957, Gilliam averaged 149 games and 102 runs scored per season. He was a 1956 NL All-Star, with a .300 AVG, 108 OPS+, and 95 walks to 39 strikeouts. He played a key role in the Dodgers First World Series title. In Game Seven, Alston moved Gilliam from LF to 2B, in the sixth. Don Zimmer left the game, and Sandy Amorós took over in LF. Per Gilliam’s SABR bio, the move paid off immediately. Amorós—playing towards CF against the pull-hitting lefty Yogi Berra—ranged all the way to the LF foul line to make a catch. Amorós spun and hit Reese at cut-off, and they doubled-off the runner. At the time, this catch was considered one of the all-time greatest World Series defensive gems. Gilliam later noted: “I’m glad I wasn’t out there when Berra hit that ball.” He suggested that Amoros’s left-handed throwing arm/glove on his right hand gave Sandy a couple of feet of advantage. Amorós may have been quicker in the OF?

Gilliam’s slash line in the 1955 World Series versus New York was .292/.469/.333, with an .802 OPS. He drew eight walks in seven games, effectively forcing Yankee hurlers to throw extra pitches. His production in the 1956 Fall Classic was two hits/24 AB, .083 AVG, as New York took that series, four games-to-three. Ironically, Don Larsen’s Game Five perfect game took place October 8, 1956, exactly 22 years before Gilliam passed away at his California home.

Los Angeles (1958-to-1966)

Number 19 (Gilliam’s number) was a fixture at the Los Angeles Coliseum, 1958-1961, seating capacity 92,572; and, at Dodger Stadium, 1962-66. The first game played on the West Coast was on April 15, 1958, when the Dodgers faced San Francisco at Seals Stadium. Gilliam was on the bench that Opening Day—he had to earn a starting position just about every spring training under Alston. It must have been strange for Gilliam to view Rubén Gómez, Giants starter, and five other ex-or-current-future Santurce players (catcher Valmy Thomas, 1B Orlando Cepeda, SS Daryl Spencer, RF Willie Kirkland, and CF Willie Mays), in San Francisco’s line-up. Gilliam walked, in his pinch-hit AB against Gómez, as the Giants won, 8-0. “Junior was a wonderful teammate [with Santurce],” said Gómez to the author (1992). “I took him fishing a few times.”

Gilliam’s home games at the Coliseum were from April 18, 1958, through September 20, 1961. He won a second ring in 1959, and was an All-Star for the second time. His 96 walks led the NL. Most impressive was 25 walks in 655 plate appearances! The 1959 World Series featured Larry Sherry’s fine relief efforts. Gilliam went six-for-25 (.240 AVG) with two walks, as the Dodgers bested the White Sox in six games. Fans got to see Maury Wills and Luis Aparicio play at SS.

Gilliam told a Los Angeles Times writer, 1961, “lots of times, there are pitches I could swing at, but I see Maury out of the corner of my eye and take the pitch if I think he’s going to take the base.” This know-how and unselfishness by Gilliam, the No. 2 hitter in the Dodgers’ line-up much of the time, second-half of 1959 through 1965, helped Wills steal 104 bases in 1962, to break Ty Cobb’s (Detroit Tigers, 1915) standard of 96 SB. The level of pitching in the NL, 1962-to-1966, with Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale…made scoring runs a premium. Superb pitching, speed, and defense were hallmarks of the Dodgers, early-to-mid 1960s. This Ron Quote appeared in Gilliam’s SABR bio:

Gilliam had a tremendous feel for playing the hitters. Knowing the pitcher, knowing what the pitcher might throw and then positioning himself defensively accordingly. Like some other middle infielders, Gilliam made a point wherever possible to read the catcher’s signs to give himself an edge in positioning. But he went above and beyond what most second basemen do and positioned his first baseman (a position from which the fielder cannot read the catcher’s sign), more like a coach than a player.

Fairly opined that Gilliam was tremendous at positioning, adding (per Gilliam’s SABR bio):

            He also did one other thing. When there was a left-handed hitter up at the plate and the

pitch was called to be a change-up or a curve ball…he could see the signs, he’d let me

know that an off-speed pitch was coming. Just as the pitcher would come to his set or

start his delivery, Jimmy would give me a code word. I could hear him and that told me,

‘Here comes an off-speed pitch.’ There’s no way the opposing team can relay that to the

hitter in time… He would let me know all the time when an off-speed pitch was coming. It

helped me, made me a lot more alert, knowing that in that situation, there’s a better

chance the ball’s going to be hit down that way.

A Bill James Baseball IQ stat called “Player Performance Index” combines specific batting, running and defensive statistics designed to pull out “percentage players.” Gilliam ranks third all-time for 2B on this, per his SABR bio, behind only Joe Morgan and Max Bishop. Dick Tracewski, Gilliam’s teammate with Dodgers, 1962-to-1965, told the author Gilliam was the most intelligent teammate he ever played with. Ron Perranoski, who went 16-3 for the 1963 World Champion Dodgers, also complimented Gilliam for his “baseball acumen” during a conversation with the author prior to a 1993 spring training game in Vero Beach. Frank Howard alluded to Gilliam’s attention to detail, when he answered questions on his (Howard’s) 1960-61 and 1961-62 seasons with the Caguas Criollos. Pete Richert was another (1963) Dodger who pitched for Caguas. (Sandy Koufax pitched for Caguas, 1956-57.) Héctor Valle, the first catcher from Puerto Rico to play in a MLB game—1965 Dodgers—caught for Caguas through 1964-65. There was a Caguas-Dodgers connection, per Valle. Los Angeles scout Monchile Concepción coached and briefly managed Caguas, early 1960s, when Howard, Perranoski, and Richert were with the Criollos. Monchile was a Santurce coach when Gilliam starred for Santurce, 1950-53.

Gilliam had a 121 OPS+ in 1963, prior to the Dodgers four-game sweep of the Yankees in the Fall Classic. He made the best defensive play of the 1965 World Series, against Minnesota, Game Seven, when he grabbed a hard grounder down the third-base line from Zoilo Versalles’ bat, in the home fifth with runners on first and second. Gilliam touched 3B, to eliminate Rich Rollins, who had doubled, and preserve Koufax’s 2-0 lead, and eventual SHO. Earlier that season (May 31, 1965), Gilliam (3B), Wills (SS), rookie Jim Lefebvre (2B), and Wes Parker (1B) formed the first switch-hitting IF in MLB history, in a home game versus Cincinnati. Tracewski and John Kennedy played a lot of 3B through May 1965, but Gilliam was re-activated as a player, after starting that season as a coach. (He was a player-coach in 1965 and 1966.) Gilliam had a .386/.491/.568 slash line in the first 12 games he started at 3B, after Alston inserted him in the No. 2 slot, in 1965. Gilliam’s four World Series rings were well-deserved.

The 1966 Dodgers won their seventh NL pennant in 14 seasons (1953-to-1966), prior to being swept by Baltimore in the World Series. Gilliam went 0-for-two in that World Series. In 39 World Series games, he went 31-for-147, a .211 AVG, but had 23 walks, nine strikeouts, and a .326 OBP. He scored 15 runs; drove in 12, with two HR; with four SB. Pete Rose, in six World Series, played in 34 games; went 35-for-130, a .269 AVG, with 16 walks, 12 strikeouts, and a .356 OBP. Rose scored 12 times; drove in nine, with two HR; and had one SB. Gilliam’s complete major league stats are at https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/g/gilliji01.shtml.

Gilliam coached first-base for the Dodgers, 1967-78, and was a candidate to replace Alston with four games left in 1976. Tom Lasorda was named manager. Gilliam’s only managing experience came with the 1973-74 San Juan Senators, in Puerto Rico.

San Juan Senators, 1973-74

Julio Navarro was a veteran reliever with San Juan in Gilliam’s only managerial stint. The Senators finished third, of six teams, with a 36-34 record, and lost to Caguas—Navarro’s ex-team in the 1960s-early 1970s—in the semi-finals. Navarro, 4-4, 1.79 ERA, in 50 relief innings for Gilliam, was originally signed for the New York Giants organization (for $500) by scout Pedrín Zorrilla, Santurce’s owner in Gilliam’s three seasons with the Crabbers. Navarro felt that Gilliam could have been the first African-American manager in the majors. “Gilliam was a ‘caballero’ (gentleman) who let us do our jobs,” affirmed Navarro. “José Pagán, our (1973-74) DH, learned a lot about managing from Gilliam. José led us (Bayamón Cowboys) to 1974-75 and 1975-76 titles, plus a 1975 Caribbean Series title. José and I had no doubt that Gilliam could manage in the majors.” (The author interviewed Navarro in his Bayamón home, municipality where Van Hyning’s parents are buried—Island’s National Military Cemetery, in Hato Tejas.)

Tom Hilgendorf (9-5, 2.57 ERA for Gilliam) played golf with his skipper and Dodgers broadcasters Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett at the El Conquistador Resort, when the latter two visited Puerto Rico. Hilgendorf was a 31-year old veteran who had played in Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. His Nicaragua Cinco Estrellas team trainer was shot in the leg, by a fan, after going out to retrieve a ball. In Puerto Rico, he had time for golf, swimming, and tennis. He also golfed with Chi Chi Rodríguez at the Dorado Beach Hotel. Hilgendorf returned to Puerto Rico, 1974-75, when San Juan’s team moved to Bayamón, and won the 1975 Caribbean Series.

Chris Chambliss had gotten married at the end of the 1973 AL season; his stint in Puerto Rico served as his honeymoon. Chambliss knew Hilgendorf, CF Rusty Torres, and LF Charlie Spikes, his 1973-74 San Juan teammates, since they were also 1973 Cleveland Indians teammates.  Chambliss (.3627 AVG) produced for Gilliam, losing the batting title by .0005 to Santurce’s George Hendrick (.3632 AVG). The author interviewed Chambliss in Moosic, Pennsylvania, before a Richmond Braves-Red Barons Class AAA game. Chambliss went to high school in Oceanside, California; played collegiately at a junior college (two years), and for the 1969 UCLA Bruins, where Jackie Robinson played baseball in 1940. Chambliss enjoyed playing for Gilliam. The New York Yankees traded for Chambliss early in the 1974 major-league season.

Balor Moore—who pitched the only nine-inning perfect game in Puerto Rico Winter League history, November 25, 1973—and Tom “T-Bone” Walker (10-4, 3.06 ERA), both spoke highly of Gilliam, their San Juan manager. Moore was quite ill the night before Game One of the Sunday twin-bill. “I was throwing up,” said Moore. “Gilliam told me ‘you horrible.’” But Moore convinced Gilliam he would be “OK, one inning at a time.” He struck out nine Ponce Lions, and got hitting support from Spikes (two RBIs); Pagán (one RBI); Raúl “Boogie” Colón (one RBI); and Sergio “Cuchito” Ferrer (one RBI). Moore fanned nine Lions in his 5-0 gem.

San Juan and Santurce (34-37) split their 14-game City Champ Series. The author attended a Thursday night, December 20, 1973 game at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, site of Moore’s perfect game. Frank Robinson, Santurce’s manager, summoned 46-year old Rubén Gómez, to start. It seemed like a pleasant dream to the author, a Santurce fan, when Gómez’s tantalizing screwballs got the best of Chambliss, Pagán, and Torres. Mickey Rivers gave Gómez the only run he needed with a first-inning HR off 40-year old Orlando “El Guajiro” Peña. Rivers got three more hits in the 8-0 win, in front of 4,135 paid fans. The crowd roared when Ferrer struck out on a change-up. The chant “Ese es tu Papá” (he is your daddy) reverberated throughout Bithorn. There was a standing ovation after Gómez got his 51st career regular season win (17th SHO) versus San Juan.

In March 1974, the author was in Daytona Beach, Florida (spring break). He saw the Dodgers play Balor Moore’s Montreal Expos. Pre-game, the author visited with Ron “The Penguin” Cey, Santurce’s 3B, 1972-73; SS Iván de Jesús, Sr., traded to Santurce a few years later; and, Henry Cruz, an OF from St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. Jimmy Wynn, ex-San Juan OF, was a Dodger. Gilliam was coaching at 1B. The last time the author saw Gilliam was in a St. Louis-Los Angeles contest at Dodger Stadium, June 10, 1974. Orlando Peña won it, in relief, for St. Louis, and Pete Richert got the save, in a 4-2 victory, in 11 innings. José “Cheo” Cruz and Luis “Torito” Meléndez played for St. Louis; Cey, Wynn, and Willie Crawford—Santurce OF, 1972-73—played for Los Angeles.

Gilliam passed away on October 8, 1978, in his California home. The Dodgers had just won the NL pennant the day before, with a 4-3 (10-inning) win over the Phillies, in Los Angeles. Gilliam was 49. His #19 was retired by the Dodgers. Gilliam is the only Dodger with his uniform number retired, not inducted in Cooperstown.

With thanks and appreciation to Chris Chambliss, Rubén Gómez, Tom Hilgendorf, Balor Moore, Julio Navarro, Ron Perranoski, Dick Tracewski, Héctor Valle, Tom “T-Bone” Walker, and Jorge Colón Delgado.

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