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.
Please excuse the tardiness of this blog post. In my effort to assemble a team to play in the Satchel Paige Division (age 11 – 12) of the RBI (Reviving Baseball in the Inter-City) program run by the Kansas City Boys and Girls Club, I allowed April 15th to slip by me. But that is still not a good excuse, considering how important that day is not just in Major League baseball but because of its significance in both African American and 20th Century American history.
On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African American since before the turn of the century to play Major League baseball. Wearing Number 42 for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson played first base and batted second in the team’s home opener at Ebbet’s Field against the Boston Braves. In three at bats, he reached base on an error and scored a run in the Dodgers’ 5 – 3 win.
To celebrate the day of Robinson’s debut, last Friday was designated by Major League Baseball; “Jackie Robinson Day”. All Major League players wore number “42”, Jackie’s number, on their uniforms during games that day and other activities were also held at Major League ballparks to honor Robinson.
Growing up in a home where my father and two older brothers were baseball fans, I was made aware at an early age of Jackie Robinson. However; his mark in history, both African American and Twentieth Century American, continues to grow in significance sixty-nine years after that Brooklyn spring day in 1947. A mark that he made through his excellence on the baseball diamond whose impact goes well beyond the sport itself.
Robinson hit .297 in 1947 and led the National League in stolen bases. Although many sportswriters doubted he would be successful, the National Sportswriters Association named him 1947 National League Rookie of the Year. In 1949, he led the National League in hitting (.342), stolen bases, and drove in 124 runs. For his efforts Robinson won the National League Most Valuable Player Award. He hit over .300 six in his 10 Major League seasons, and over .290 two others. A six-time National League All-Star, Robinson helped the Dodgers win six National League pennants (finishing second four times) and one World Series championship (1955).
But I missed his playing career! When I made my entrance into the world in August 1951, Robinson and the Dodgers were in the process of blowing a 14 1/2 lead against the second place New York Giants to lose the National League pennant. There was no ESPN, CNN Sports, Fox Sports Net, or MLB Network in the 1950s. I am sure Jackie would have made the ESPN Top Ten Plays of the Day highlights numerous times. He retired after the 1956 season as I was in the kindergarten class of Miss Williams at Kealing Elementary. That is why I love seeing the black and white films showing him in action like in the documentary showed last week on PBS; “Jackie Robinson: A Film by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMaHon”. The daring way he ran the bases, especially stealing home, is still exciting today.
Truthfully Jackie Robinson was not the best player in Negro League baseball when Dodger Vice-President and General Manager Branch Rickey signed him in 1945. But he was named the 1946 International League’s Most Valuable Player while with the Dodgers top minor league team in Montreal. Bob Feller, the star pitcher for the Cleveland Indians said Robinson would never be good enough as a hitter to make it in the Major Leagues. How ironic was it that they were inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame together in 1962. Jackie Robinson accepted the hopes and expectations for success of his race as he faced the expectations and predictions of his failure from those opposed to him. Despite this pressure from all sides, he proved his skeptics wrong and opened the door for other African American and dark-skinned Latino ball players. Jackie Robinson was an extra-ordinary man God equipped for a super extra-ordinary task!