If there had been such a thing as rookie card hype in the early 1950s, Jim Gilliam of the Brooklyn Dodgers would have been near the top of every collector’s hot list.
The National League Rookie of the Year in 1953, Gilliam was part of the first generation of black players to spend the majority of their prime years in the Major Leagues. Although he began his professional career with Baltimore Elite Giants of the Negro National League when he was just 17, Gilliam was in the Dodgers’ farm system by 1951 when he was 22.
Two years later, he joined color-line pioneers Jackie Robinson and NL MVP Roy Campanella in the Dodgers lineup as their starting second baseman –no mean feat considering that Robinson himself had manned the keystone in Ebbetts field since 1948.
Gilliam eventually banged out nearly 1900 hits and stole more than 200 bases in a 14-year career spent entirely with the Dodgers in both Brooklyn and LA.
And yet, you don’t hear much about him.
He was an unsung hero among the Bums and even his retirement was dwarfed by Sandy Koufax‘s decision to walk away from the game after the 1966 season.
But none of that mattered a whit to me when I somehow got my clammy little mitts on a worn copy of his 1957 Topps baseball card sometime around 1985.
It was the most beautiful card I’d ever seen, and I just couldn’t stop staring at it.
I was in cardboard love.
The card probably came along for the ride in some small lot my parents bought at an auction, or maybe it was part of a long forgotten collection owned by one of my junior high classmates. Most of them were moving on from childhood baubles by that point, which gave me plenty of opportunity to add to my stash.
However the Gilliam came to be mine, it soon dwarfed any of the other cards that came with it. For a time, it even dwarfed my other cards, including the stacks of Pete Rose pasteboards I’d worked for two or three years to build.
I knew the 1957 set was famed for its nearly full-bleed photos and minimal design elements, and I’d seen enough of them to be impressed. But the visuals of the Gilliam card were unbelievable.
Here was a young man in the (for me) mythical Brooklyn Dodgers cap, looking to the horizon of what he hoped would be a bright future, an eternity spent roaming baseball’s green cathedrals. All of it was washed in Dodger Blue and tinged with age just enough to lend an air of … sadness? Maybe, but a golden era lost to the ravages of modernization for sure.
About that same time, a dealer from Californa advertised a partial set of 1957 Topps baseball cards in Sports Collectors Digest. The cards, he said, were in fairly “loved” condition but intact, and there were 250 or so of them. They were nearly all commons with a few very minor stars here and there.
I don’t remember his exact asking price, but I knew it was way more than I could lay my hands on.
What I did have, however, was my own collection, which was by all accounts the best in my school and probably one of the best in the county.
I must have read that ad in SCD a hundred times over the next few days, always with my 1957 Topps Gilliam in one hand or resting on the page in front of me.
Wouldn’t it be great if I could get that “starter set” and add my Gilliam to it? I just knew that other cards from 1957 would be gorgeous, too.
Finally, I got up the nerve … to ask my mom to call the guy and see if he’d be interested in making a trade.
I was disappointed, sure, but it didn’t really matter. I might never be able to build a complete ’57 set (I haven’t), but I had plenty of other cards to keep me warm by the hot stove and under the summer sun.
And, most of all, I still had that beautiful 1957 Topps Jim Gilliam, still one of my all-time favorite baseball cards, and surely one of the very best from the 1950s.