In 1953, eight former Negro League players made their Major League Baseball debut. Only in 1951 did as many from Negro League baseball go through the door into the big leagues Jackie Robinson had broken down in 1947. Gene Baker, Ernie Banks, Jim “Junior” Gilliam, Dave Hoskins, Connie Johnson, Jim Pendleton, Al Smith, and Bob Trice all were former Negro League players who were Major League rookies in 1953. Banks went on to have a nineteen year Hall of Fame career with the Chicago Cubs. But it was Gilliam who the Baseball Writers Association of America (BWAA) named 1953 National League “Rookie of the Year” on that December 23.
Five of the first six previous winners of the National League Rookie of the Year award had been former Negro League players. Jackie Robinson (Kansas City Monarchs) in 1947, Don Newcombe (Newark Eagles) in 1949, and Joe Black (Baltimore Elite Giants) in 1952 all won playing with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Sam Jethroe (Cleveland Buckeyes) won the award with the Boston Braves in 1950 and Willie Mays (Birmingham Black Barons) won it playing for the New York Giants in 1951. Gilliam was the sixth and last one from the Negro Leagues to win the award.
Born in Nashville, Tennessee; Jim Gilliam began playing with the Baltimore Elite Giants in 1946 as a seventeen year old second baseman. With the Giants, he became a switch hitter and got the nickname “Junior” because of his age. Gilliam appeared in three Negro League East West All Star games and was signed in 1951 by the Brooklyn Dodgers. In his rookie year, he hit .278 with 63 RBIs and a league leading 12 triples. He also scored 125 runs. Walter Alston, the Dodgers’ manager, loved Gilliam’s ability to play second base, third base, or left field. Gilliam hit .296 with two home runs in that year’s World Series as the Dodgers lost to the New York Yankees 4 games to 2. He hit .292 in the 1955 World Series win against the Yankees; the Dodgers only World Series Championship while in Brooklyn.
When the team moved to Los Angeles in 1958, Gilliam played on three more Dodgers World Series Champion teams (1959, 1963, and 1965). He played in a total of seven World Series (39 games) with the Dodgers. The “Dodger blue” was the only uniform Gilliam wore in his 14 year (1953 – 1966) Major League career.