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Give the Devil his due, Junior Gilliam is a Lord of the Ravine

1963 Topps
1963 Topps

TBLA Member Gen3Blue makes his case.

    When I took on the case for Junior Gilliam, I knew that it would take more than a statistical case to win him a spot in Vin’s "Lords of the Ravine" but I still thought it could be made. The key is that this is a Dodger team collection and that Junior was the consummate Dodger and team player. I figured I was one of a handful of people around here long in the tooth enough to bring some(though limited) personal experience to a plea for Junior. And when I thought about it, I’ve seen a lot of Dodger teams and players and very few just radiate "Dodger" to me in the way Jim Gilliam does. His 14 year run is a long stretch for a Dodger, especially compared to the duration players stay with a team in recent times. Then Humma raised the bar in general and Phil upped the ante for a second basemen--infielder(Lopes-10 year run!). All I can do is try and do what Jim Gilliam always did---dig in and try and do something good for the team, something that may help us win.  And in his case it very often worked, and as uncomfortable as it can make me, I have to say "clutch" here.

 As a rookie at twenty-four in 1953 Jim’s OPS+ was 105 and if he had followed a normal progression through a peak at about 28 I might have all the stats I needed to make a case on them alone. However I think his game was already quite mature from four to six years in Negro leagues and a few years in the minors at Montreal. Nevertheless, his rookie season was quite amazing and he won Rookie of the Year after an amazing 710 plate appearances, leading the league in triples with 17. Of course he was in the post season--we always were and always lost to the "Yanks". Foreshadowing his strange ability to get things done, he homered twice in the world series, though not known for power. Throughout his career he got on base at a .360 clip. This made him an outstanding lead-off man in the fifties, and absorbs the late years in LA when he batted second behind Maury Wills and always seemed to give himself up to get Wills a base. He was always good at getting a BB and his OBP peaked in 1956 at .399, not too shabby for a guy without much power.( Ask Pierre).

Personally, I was too young  in 1955 (four) to appreciate his play through the middle fifties, but I was in a family setting where it was impossible not to notice that some world changing event happened in that year. And I actually remember from the fifties  remarks from uncles and aunts along the lines of "I wish he hit it to Junior" and even "I wish Junior was up! By the time I actually saw him live against the Mets in the sixties several times he was the role player, batting behind Maury Wills. But I was coming into that time when a boy goes through perhaps his most intense time as a baseball fan. On the ride to and from New York, I would endlessly discuss each player with family members, and at the game appreciate each time Gilliam did something good with an at bat or a fielding chance, which seemed to be most of the time.

 Of course not everything was an intangible. In his long Dodger career Jim Gilliam

  •     Won NL Rookie of the Year and Sporting News Rookie of the Year 1953
  •     Led the league in triples and scored 125 runs that same year
  •     scored over 100 runs in each of his first 4 years
  •     batted .300 and made the All-Star team in 1956
  •     led the NL in putouts and fielding percentage in 1957
  •     led the NL in walks and again was an All-Star in that year
  •     And in the post season he really seemed to do even more for the team, for example--
  •     in game 3 of the 1955  world series he drew a bases loaded walk In the second, giving the team the lead for good
  •     also in ‘55, he drove in the first run of the game 4 victory
  •     in game 6 in 1956, he walked with one out in the tenth and scored on a Jackie Robinson single for a series tying 1-0 victory
  •     in the 1963 series he scored the lone run of game 3 in the first inning  by walking and moving up on a wild pitch
  •     in the next game(4) he got all the way to third on a Joe Pepitone error in the seventh. He then scored on a sac. Fly for a 2-1 victory and  the four game series sweep

I’ll get to a few more of his many World Series moments, but he had some more accomplishments and was part of some interesting team subsets. For instance

  •    Gilliam was one of the 1955 "Boys of Summer". This team ended a  terrible era for the Dodgers, similar to one the Red Sox recently ended and one the Cubs still suffer
  •    Gilliam and Pee Wee Reese were a formidable double play combo.
  •    Junior was part of the first all switch hitting infield in Major League history, with Wills, Wes Parker, and Jim Lefebvre.
  •    hit behind Maury Wills when he launched the modern stolen base era with 104 in 1962.( known for helping young players, Gilliam  taught Jim Lefebvre how to bat behind a base stealer, as Lefebvre did       behind Lou Brock in 1974, when he stole118)!
  •    played in seven World Series.
  •    Is one of two Dodgers with four World Series rings

A January 26 article at True Blue LA by Eric Stephen is titled "The All-time LA Dodger Lineup: The Second Spot". I like Phils argument for Junior--

Phil's Pick

I'll go with Eric's original pick of Junior Gilliam as a 2nd baseman.  During his stint as the number two behind Wills he was the ideal number two hitter. 3 Dog's .312 OBP is not endearing and the goal is to build the best lineup with players who batted in the lineup. Gilliam was an ideal number two as explained by  teammate Jeff Torborg

What a great team player he was. He'd hit behind Maury, take pitch after pitch after pitch. And when Maury got to second, he'd give himself up by hitting the ball to the right side, even with two strikes, which most hitters won't do.

And a community of fans I feel to be very knowledgeable(yes --TrueBlue) voted Gilliam the man who- is the best #2 hitter in LA Dodger history?

44% 2B/3B - Jim Gilliam 130 votes
6% LF - Bill Buckner 20 votes
0% CF - Ken Landreaux 1 votes
4% 2B - Mark Grudzielanek 12 votes
12% LF - Manny Mota 38 votes
30% CF - Willie Davis 91 votes
1%Other (please write your choice in the comments)

There are some other considerations. Gilliam played the last part of his career in one of the most challenging offensive environments ever, Dodger Stadium in the 1960’s. If he moved Maury Wills into scoring position once or twice a game, that very often was the ball game. And while Gilliam was quiet and almost invisible when the media was around, I could tell how his teammates and the adult fans I knew treasured him. He also helped make the clubhouse a great place, and quiet as he was, he was known to have a wicked sense of humor, which may have led to his nickname---"Devil".

Finally, at the beginning of his career, Jim Gilliam won the Rookie of the Year, and in his first World Series he homered from both sides of the plate. Near the end of his career when he had retired to coach but had resumed playing to fill a team need, I remember a moment in the 1965 World Series. ( I’ve also read about it somewhere, which is why I remember some details). In the seventh game against the Twins, Koufax was ahead late in the game 2-0. With men on first and second Zoilo Versailles hit a smash over third base and it looked like the lead could very well be gone in one stroke. Somehow, Gilliam made a diving backhand stop, got control of the ball, and got to third base for the force. Game over, as the Twins never got another threat going. In between, Junior did about everything possible to help the Dodgers win, playing mostly second, third and left field, leading off, batting second, getting timely hits, making heady fielding plays, and taking young players under his wing. But to me, there is a simple test as to how important Gilliam was as a Dodger. Was it all good luck and coincidence that placed Junior in 7 World Series? I don’t think so.

1964 Topps


1974 Topps