Throughout the highs and lows on the diamond for the Dodgers over the decades, the franchise has dealt with its share of tragedy off the field. Preeminent is the 1958 car accident that left Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella paralyzed for life. A boating accident in 1993 claimed the life of relief pitcher and former Dodger Tim Crews. Brooklyn outfielder Len Koenecke’s drunken, ignominious demise in 1935 was even referenced in an episode of Archer.
A Rough Stretch for Baseball
In October 1978, the Los Angeles Dodgers endured on-field glory and off-field loss in rapid succession. On October 7, the victory on the diamond was as spectacular as can be. With two outs in the bottom of the 10th of the fourth NLCS game, shortstop Bill Russell laced a walk-off hit off Philadelphia’s Tug McGraw to score Ron Cey and clinch their second consecutive pennant. But the very next day, tragedy struck: Coach Jim Gilliam, who had suffered a brain hemorrhage several weeks before, died aged only 49.
The Dodgers had not only lost a beloved coach; they were also saying goodbye to an invaluable player from both the late Brooklyn and early Los Angeles days. An infielder for 13 years, Gilliam’s playing career spanned from his 1953 N.L Rookie of the Year season in Brooklyn through the 1966 World Series in Los Angeles. This span included the team’s move west, and during all of it, Gilliam was a fixture for their championship apexes in both Brooklyn and Los Angeles.
Similar to Wally Moon, Gilliam was a Dodger player who, while not universally known like Robinson or Koufax, was just as pivotal to their perennial success. A native of Nashville, TN, “Junior” excelled in the Negro Leagues enough to join the Brooklyn Dodgers as an amateur free agent. After rapidly advancing through the minors, he made his MLB debut on April 14, 1953, with the unenviable task of replacing Jackie Robinson at second base. (Robinson was being shifted to third and the outfield.) He quickly established himself as a brilliant player in all aspects of the game, winning N.L. Rookie of the Year and often ranking at the top or near in stolen bases and walks. Even in 1957, a season where his offensive numbers plummeted, he made up for it by leading the N.L. in putouts and fielding percentage.
Gilliam was also a reliable catalyst in the World Series, playing in seven total Fall Classics. In game three of the 1955 Series against the Yankees, he drew a bases-loaded walk that gave them the lead for good in game three, followed by driving in Brooklyn’s first run in game four. These proved decisive in Dodgers’ cathartic seven-game victory, the long-sought first title in franchise history. When the action shifted to the West Coast, he assisted the first three championships in Los Angeles in 1959, 1963 and 1965. He scored crucial runs in games three and four of the 1963 contest against the Yankees, sealing a shocking sweep for Los Angeles. Upon retirement, he had a staggering total of four championships to his name.
Immediately after retiring as a player in 1966, Gilliam shifted to coaching the very next year. In 12 seasons, he aided Walter Alston’s 1974 pennant winners and Tommy Lasorda’s consecutive
N.L. champions in 1977 and 1978. Sadly, he wasn’t present for the 1978 celebration against Philadelphia, as he had suffered his brain hemorrhage at his home on September 15 and lapsed into a coma. He died in Inglewood just nine days short of his 50th birthday and was interred at the Inglewood Park Cemetery.
The loss, even on the heels of an ecstatic pennant win, was painful and immediately felt. Alston, usually a reticent figure, wept openly while praising him. “Jim was the kind of man who’d make you a good neighbor,” said Alston. “Gilliam never made too many headlines. He was always underrated and didn’t get the credit he deserved.” First baseman Steve Garvey added, “I’ve known Jim since I was six years old when I was a bat boy. We’re not just dedicating the playoffs and World Series to him…we’re playing it in his spirit.” Before game one of the World Series against the Yankees commenced, the team officially retired his number 19. Sadly, the Dodgers came up short of Garvey’s stated mission, falling to their October rivals in six games.
His Final Resting Place
While Los Angeles, unfortunately, didn’t claim a championship to honor Gilliam (curse Reggie Jackson’s hip!), their decision to immediately retire his number remains one of the franchise’s most noble actions. To this day, his #19 rests untouched between Duke Snider’s #4 and Don Sutton’s #20, the only retired number perched in left field not in the Baseball Hall of Fame. The city of Los Angeles followed suit by dedicating a public park to him on La Brea Avenue in 1984. His hometown of Nashville also honored his legacy in 2015, naming part of a street outside First Tennessee Park “Junior Gilliam Way.” Vin Scully himself joined up with the Nashville Sounds to commemorate the sign’s unveiling.