Glancing Back, and Remembering Jim Gilliam
Jim Gilliam was one of the pioneers of baseball’s move toward integration in the 1950s. He was the infielder who replaced Jackie Robinson at second base, was a prolific lead-off batter for Brooklyn’s championship teams, made the transition with the Dodgers to the West Coast, and was part of baseball’s only switch-hitting infield.
He played the game with grace and class. He created runs and collected outs with equal skill, and earned a level of respect among teammates and opponents for his knowledge of the game as well as his talent, a knowledge that served him well as a major league coach after his playing days.
Gilliam was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951, and spent his entire 14-year major league career with that team. A switch hitter with sting in his bat and speed on the base paths, Gilliam broke in with the Dodgers in 1953 and hit .278 with six home runs and 63 RBIs while scoring 125 runs and leading the National League with 17 triples – all good enough to earn him the NL Rookie of the Year award.
Over the next seven seasons, Gilliam was the prototypical lead-off hitter for a power-laden Dodger team. He averaged 101 runs per season, hitting .272 throughout the 1950s and averaging 24 doubles per season.
In the 1960s, Gilliam moved to third base and moved to the second hole in the batting order to make room for shortstop Maury Wills as the Dodgers’ lead-off batter. Gilliam was the ideal second hitter behind Wills just as he had excelled as the team’s lead-off hitter in Brooklyn. He was patient at the plate and rarely struck out, giving Wills ample opportunities to steal bases and advance on contact. Wills’ opportunity to break Ty Cobb‘s single-season stolen base record in 1962 owes much to Gilliam’s bat behind him, in much the same way that Mickey Mantle‘s presence in the New York Yankees’ 1961 batting order contributed mightily to Roger Maris and his opportunity to break Babe Ruth‘s home run record.
Gilliam hit .270 in 1962 and .282 in 1963, when he struck out only 28 times in 525 official at-bats. He finished sixth in the Most Valuable Player balloting that season.
Gilliam retired after the 1966 season with 1,889 hits and a career batting average of .265. He was named twice to the National League All-Star team.