Tag Archives: Jim Gilliam

Junior Gilliam Way: A Fitting Tribute

Today a ceremony will be held at First Tennessee Park, home of the Nashville Sounds, to rename Jackson St. “Junior Gilliam Way” in honor of the former Los Angeles Dodgers player. Gilliam was born in Nashville near Sulphur Dell which was in the vicinity of Nashville’s new ballpark, and Jackson Street leads to the home plate entrance of the park.Junior Gilliam Way

It is a fitting tribute for one of Nashville’s favorite sons from the baseball’s post-integration era. But who was this man, born James William Gilliam on October 17, 1928?

His first baseball glove was given to him by his mother, a housekeeper, when he was 14 years old. Sulphur Dell was near his home, and groundskeeper Willie White is credited with allowing young Gilliam into the ballpark so he could hone his skills.

“He was one of my lambs around Sulphur Dell, a bashful fellow,” White once recalled. “He was a member of the Sulphur Dell Giants and we played games when the Vols were on the road.

“He was a natural from the very start. He was fast and could do everything, so I changed him into an infielder quick.”

At the age of 17 he signed to play for the Nashville Black Vols, an affiliate of the Negro League Baltimore Elite Giants. Gilliam continued to blossom as a player, learning to become a switch-hitter, and was known for his determination, bat control, and smart approach to the game.

Moving to the parent Elites, his manager was George “Tubby” Scales, who gave him his nickname “Junior”.

The Brooklyn Dodgers acquired Gilliam for their minor league Montreal club for the 1952 season. It was the same team which Jackie Robinson was sent to when Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey signed him to integrate baseball. Gilliam was to play second base for the Royals, and at season’s end his batting average was .278 and he had driven in 73 runs.

GilliamHe was selected as the International League’s MVP and his statistics were impressive: a .303 batting average and 109 RBI. Promoted to the parent club for the 1953 season, he was made the second baseman on a team which had won the National League pennant the previous season.

When the Dodgers broke from spring training and made their exhibition trek towards Brooklyn to begin the season, one of the stop-overs was at Sulphur Dell in Nashville. The Dodgers defeated the Milwaukee Braves 3-1 on April 5, 1953 as 12,059 fans turned out to see their hero Jim “Junior” Gilliam.

Warren Spahn was the losing pitcher as the Braves mustered only one run on catcher Ebba St. Claire’s home run over the high right field wall. The Dodgers’ Dick Williams doubled off the left field wall and droves in two runs.

But it was their hometown favorite they came to see, and he did not disappoint. The African-American community turned out in great numbers for the game, mostly taking a seat on the rolling hills of Sulphur Dell’s outfield as Gilliam was 2-for-4 at the plate.

On December 23, 1953 was named National League Rookie of the year The Sporting News. Brooklyn had won the pennant again and Gilliam had contributed two home runs in the World Series in a losing cause to the New York Yankees.

Once again as the club headed north to start the 1954 season, Brooklyn made a visit to Nashville. On April 4, 1954 before 12,006 fans at Sulphur Dell, the Milwaukee Braves defeated Brooklyn 18-14. Nine ground-rule doubles were called on balls hit among those seated on the outfield hills.

Carl Furillo smacked a grand-slam, and George “Shotgun” Shuba, Duke Snider, and Ed Mathews each hit homers. Roy Campanella pinch-hit and works the last inning behind the plate as Junior Gilliam played third, batted lead-off, and had two doubles and scored three runs.

The Dodgers moved to Los Angeles before the 1958 season, and Gilliam moved with them. The versatile athlete would eventually play most outfield and infield positions in his career and would become a favorite of Dodgers manager Walt Alston (who was his manager at Montreal). When Gilliam’s major league career ended after 14 seasons as a player, Alston added him to the Dodgers coaching staff.

Alston retired after the 1976 campaign and two candidates were considered as a replacement, Gilliam and Tommy Lasorda. When named to the position, Lasorda immediately asked Gilliam to remain on the coaching staff.

On September 15, 1978 Gilliam suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. He passed away on October 8. He was 49. The National League title was won by the Dodgers the next day.

Gilliam’s tribute today not only calls attention to a great player but is a continuation of baseball’s capability to shorten the gap from the segregation and integration eras. There are others whose contributions to Nashville’s baseball history are honorable, too: Henry Kimbro, Hall of Famer Norman “Turkey” Stearnes, Sydney Bunch, Jim Zapp, Clinton “Butch” McCord, and others should be worthy mentions.

Mayor Karl Dean and Sounds owner Frank Ward will host the festivities beginning at 6:30 PM (Central) prior to Nashville’s game with the Iowa Cubs at 7:05. A special video message from longtime Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully will be played.

© 2015 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

Note: Much of this information came from Jeff Angus’ excellent article on Jim Gilliam published on SABR’s (Society for American Baseball Research) Baseball Biography Project and may be accessed here: Jim Gilliam. Thank you Jeff.

Additional sources include the Tennessean, Nashville Banner, and The Sporting News.

Should you wish to become a member of SABR (I highly recommend it as the resources are invaluable in researching) you may access more information here: Join SABR

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Bleachers in the Sun

There once was a tall marquee that called attention to Nashville’s famous ball field that had been home to amateur and professional teams since 1870. The sign stood over the entrance to Sulphur Dell and proclaimed it as “Baseball’s Most Historic Park”.bis3

The professional Americans, Blues, Tigers, Seraphs, and Vols were joined by the Negro League Elite Giants and a multitude of local amateur teams which claimed “the Dell” as their home field.

In the early days the park had faced the northeast toward the State Capitol. The park was reconfigured in the winter of 1926 so that the sun would no longer be in the eyes of batters during afternoon games, and Nashville was soon to have one of the finest steel and concrete stadiums in the South.

Although the old ballpark had seen its share of historic moments from seasons past, in 1927 the new stadium would soon add new chapters to its history of full crowds, exciting teams, outstanding players and gigantic home runs.

Located just north of the city, Sulphur Dell was situated in an area that was below the street level. It had an unusual contour that was prone to flooding as the banks of the nearby Cumberland River often overflowed during spring rains. One sports writer described the park as “looking like a drained-out bathtub.”

Major league teams scheduled exhibition games in southern cities as they broke training camp and made their way north to begin the regular season. Nashville was a popular stop, and the people of Nashville had grown to love the old ballpark that was dubbed “Suffer Hell” by players who had to navigate the outfield. Those who had never seen the park but had heard of the unique outfield configuration were often victims of its hills that made even the most routine fly ball an adventure.

Babe Ruth, always a fixture in right field for the New York Yankees, reportedly refused to play “the dump” and once moved to left field for an exhibition game in Nashville, saying, “I won’t play on anything a cow won’t graze on.” The bottom of the fence was 22 1/2 feet above the playing surface.

Often the second baseman would field a hard-hit ball that slapped against the bottom of the wooden fence, caroming back into the infield, as the right field fence was only 262 feet from home plate.

That was the Sulphur Dell beloved by Nashville baseball fans. The capacity of the ballpark was around 8,000, and as baseball boomed fans faithfully showed their loyalty by filling the parking lot and streets with their cars, traveling by trolley or bus, and walking the short distance from the city center or from the surrounding residential areas nearby.

As Nashville became a baseball town, the stands were usually buzzing with cheers of support whether on a chilly spring day in April in the 1920’s or a hot sunny afternoon in the 1950’s, but Nashvillians had an insatiable thirst for baseball and enjoyed cheering on their “Vols”. Sulphur Dell had actually become a major tourist attraction.

When lights were added in the late 1930’s, folks could spend an evening supporting the Vols. They did not have to leave work early, and since television was not yet on the horizon, they could turn their attention to the National Pastime that their grandfathers and fathers had enjoyed.

Even amateur teams playing at Sulphur Dell experienced rabid fans that supported them, as baseball was king in the city with the unusual ballpark outfield and short right field ‘porch’.

On Opening Day on April 12, 1932, Nashville’s largest crowd to see a game at Sulphur Dell according to Fred Russell, sports editor of the Nashville Banner. Along with sports writer George Leonard he published Vol Feats 1901-1950, a booklet that celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the Nashville baseball clubs participation in the Southern Association, documenting the first 50 years of Nashville’s professional team.

But something was missing.

Yes, Nashville had a beautiful park, even with its idiosyncrasies. Its clean grandstand shaded its patrons from the afternoon sun during day games. That’s why the stands had been reconfigured, with the setting sun no longer in the batters’ eyes and the fans could shielded from the heat with a cover that provided shade during the 4 or 4:30 PM starting time.

Fans would often arrive early for batting practice, filling the shaded rear seats until the sun began to move to the west. Then they would move closer to the field as the shadows stretched out into the lower seats.bis1

The Vols were supported by the Negro community, but they were limited to a segregated section of the park where they would watch the game. It was an unusual place to have to sit.  The Negro bleachers were located down the left-field line all the way out to the outfield fence.

In the sun.

Everyone loved to cheer for their favorite teams. Black fans had the Nashville Elite Giants to cheer for in the mid-1930’s, who played at Sulphur Dell in 1932 and 1933 until owner Tom Wilson built his own park in another part of town. Later another Black team came into existence, the Nashville Cubs which played in the Negro Southern League.

Satchel Page brought his barnstorming team to Sulphur Dell, and the fans poured into the park to see the future Hall-of-Famer. When Negro League teams came to town, supporters could sit in the stands, although there was always a section behind home plate that was reserved for whites. The same was not true when white teams were playing; Blacks were relegated to the Negro bleachers.

Those bleachers were located on the foul-territory hill, with a view of home plate that was partially blocked by the grandstand. The distance to the restrooms and concessions was as about as far away as one could get. And if a batter hit a home run over the center field or left field fence, one had to crane his neck to see it go over the fence.

All of the action was not in front of you and there certainly was no cover from the sun.

Then Jackie Robinson broke the major league’s color barrier. In 1947, Robinson took his place in immortality by starting for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and things began to change.

And something changed in Nashville, too. Although it was not an event that changed baseball, I believe it did change the hearts and minds of baseball fans in the mid-state area.bis2

On April 8, 1956 the Brooklyn Dodgers came to town to play the Milwaukee Braves. One of the Dodger players was Nashville’s own Jim (Junior) Gilliam, tutored at Sulphur Dell by Willie White. White was the long-time equipment manager for the Nashville Vols, and controlled who had use of the ballpark when the Vols were not using it. He also helped to develop Gilliam in his youth, and no doubt had a profound impact on the young player.

Along with white fans, the Black community came out in droves to support their hero. They filled the bleachers reserved for them, and the Nashville team owners allowed them to sit on the outfield hills, creating their own ‘bleachers in the sun’. Although there is no way to know the percentage of whites or blacks in attendance, the total crowd was announced as 11,933.

The Dodgers rolled to a 12-2 exhibition game victory, and Gilliam pleased the crowd by garnering three singles, a double, walking once, and scoring twice. He was finally retired in the eighth inning on a fly out to left. Gilliam had to have been pleased with his performance in his home town. Willie White must have been pleased, too.

In the mid-1950’s crowds had begun to dwindle as their attention turned to television and air conditioning. Perhaps the demise of the Southern Association in 1961 could be attributed to feelings about black ballplayers still not being able to play even though integration of baseball leagues across the country was ongoing. Major league clubs were no longer going to support segregated leagues.

bis4Southern attitudes had been slow to change. But the legacy of Sulphur Dell is not its odd shape, its high outfield hills, or its fine stadium seating. Its legacy is that through the dark shadows of segregation, baseball provided a way for people to enjoy the game that so many loved, and that everyone could cheer for a hero, no matter his skin color.

And when the park was gone, everyone was in the sun.

Author’s note: This article was presented at the 2006 Baseball in Literature and Culture Conference at Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, Tennessee. I am honored to be the morning keynote speaker at the 2014 Conference on April 4th. Contact Warren Tormey (warren.towmey@mtsu.edu) for more information

© 2014 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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Nashville’s Jim “Junior” Gilliam, 1953 Rookie of the Year

On this day in 1953, Nashville’s own Jim “Junior” Gilliam, second baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers, is announced as the winner of the National League Rookie of the Year, awarded by The Sporting News.

12,059 fans had  turned out to see the Brooklyn Dodgers defeat the Milwaukee Braves 3-1 on April 6th, but mostly to see home town favorite Jim Gilliam in his return to Nashville as a professional player.  Gilliams went 2-4 to lead the Dodgers. Warren Spahn is the losing pitcher as the Braves muster only one run on catcher Ebba St. Claire’s home run over the high right field wall. The Dodgers’ Dick Williams doubles off the left field wall and drives in two runs.

Jim_Gilliam_1A product of Pearl High School, Gilliam would lead the league with 17 triples, have 168 hits, 23 stolen bases, and a .278 average after taking over second base from Jackie Robinson who moved to third base and the outfield for the 1953 season.

On April 4, 1954 a sell-out crowd of 12,006 fans at Sulphur Dell watched the Milwaukee Braves defeat the Brooklyn Dodgers 18-14 with Gilliam anchoring third base.  Nine ground-rule doubles are called on balls hit among those seated on the outfield hills.  Carl Furillo smacked a grand-slam, and George “Shotgun” Shuba, Duke Snider, and Ed Mathews each hit homers. Roy Campanella pinch-hit and worked the last inning behind the plate and Jackie Robinson played first base.

A two-time All Star, Gilliam’s career lasted 14 years as he remained with the Dodgers during their move to Los Angeles and retired as an active player after the 1966 season.

One of the first African-American coaches in the major leagues as he continued with the Dodgers, Gilliam’s number 19 was retired prior to Game 1 of the 1978 World Series after he suffered a brain hemorrhage and passed away on September 17th.

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