Reared by his grandmother after his father died when he was only six months old, the youngster began playing softball at age seven and was playing on a sandlot baseball team named the Crawfords at age fourteen. He quit during his last year of school to sign with Paul Jones's Nashville Black Vols for $150 per month.
After a year with the Nashville Black Vols in the Negro Southern League, Gilliam broke in with the black major leagues in 1946 at age seventeen, as a reserve infielder. He was given his nickname by manager George Scales in 1947, when he was trying out at Sulphur Dell in Nashville. Gilliam was having trouble hitting right-handers and Scales yelled, "Hey, Junior, get over on the other side of the plate," and both the advice and the nickname stuck. The youngster's arm was not considered strong enough for him to play third base, and he was moved to second base. Both changes paid dividends and, in 1947, he succeeded Sammy T. Hughes as theBaltimore Elite Giants' second baseman and formed an excellent double-play combination with Pee Wee Butts during the closing years of the existence of the Negro Leagues.
The youngster was still growing when he debuted in the Negro National League and, although small, he was quick and had good speed, making him an accomplished base stealer and a good fielder, albeit with only an average arm. The infielder was a smart player with great desire and had a good eye at the plate, hitting .253 in his first full season with the Elite Giants. The next year he improved to .302 before dropping back to .265 in 1950. His efforts ended him selection to the East All Star squad during his last three years in the league, 1948-1950.
After the inevitable breakup of the Negro Leagues, the young prospect signed with the Dodger organization and was assigned to Montreal, hitting .287 and .301 in 1951-1952 before earning a promotion to the parent club in 1953, where the twenty-four-year-old led the league with 17 triples, received 100 bases on balls, batted .278, and was voted the National League's Rookie of the Year. Initially joining the Dodgers as a second baseman, he played the latter part of his fourteen-year major-league career at third base, finishing with a lifetime major-league batting average of .265.
Back in Time: December 23 During a career that spanned two great Dodger eras, Brooklyn's "Boys of Summer" of the 1950s and Los Angeles's Koufax Dodgers of the 1960s. the speedster stole more than 200 bases. The switch-hitter's best year at the plate in the major leagues was in 1956, when he hit an even .300. He had his best World Series in 1955, when he hit .292 as the Dodgers won their only world championship while based in Brooklyn. Altogether he played in seven World Series, batting .211 in Series action. After retiring as an active player, the popular longtime Dodger became a coach for the team, a position he held until his death in 1978, only one week short of his fiftieth birthday.