Obituary: Bill Gilbreth (1947-2020)

RIP to Bill Gilbreth, who pitched in parts of three seasons in the major leagues and helped restore the baseball program to his school, Abilene Christian University. He died on July 12 after complications from emergency heart surgery. He was 72 years old. Gilbreth played for the Detroit Tigers (1971-72) and California Angels (1974).

In February 2020, Gilbreth was honored as part of the First Pitch Dinner, a celebration for ACU’s 2020 baseball season — which obviously never took place. At the dinner, Gilbreth’s No. 13 jersey was retired and was to be displayed on the outfield wall at Crutcher Scott Field. Gilbreth was the first ACU player to have his number retired, in recognition of his playing, his coaching, and his work in resurrecting a shuttered baseball program. Dozens of his former students and teammates attended the event.

“He exemplifies what we want a Wildcat Baseball player to be and we are so excited to see his number on the wall in left-center field. It will serve as a great reminder to our guys each day what the standard is both on and off the field here at Abilene Christian University,” said head coach Rick McCarty.

Bill Gilbreth poses with his retired ACU jersey in February 2020. Source: Abilene Christian University

William Freeman Gilbreth was born in Abilene, Texas, on September 3, 1947. His high school, Abilene Christian High, did not have a baseball program, so one would have thought he was at a disadvantage when he joined the baseball team at Abilene Christian University. Thanks to youth leagues and semi-pro ball, the young lefty had plenty of experience to hold his own in the college baseball ranks. In fact, he went on to become the only ACU graduate to play in the major leagues.

According to the Abilene Reporter News, Gilbreth had a 25-9 record over his four years of college with a 2.14 ERA and 445 strikeouts. He struck out 134 batters in 89 innings in 1969 to lead the NCAA. He also threw two no-hitters in 1967, against Dallas University and Texas Tech University.

The Detroit Tigers selected Gilbreth in the Third Round of the 1969 Amateur Draft. He joined the Rocky Mount Leafs of the Carolina League to start his pro career and won his first 5 decisions. He ended with an 8-4 record and fanned 103 batters in 94 innings. His fastball did most of the work, but he worked to improve his other pitches as well.

The 1970 season with the Montgomery Rebels of the Southern League in 1970 was an exercise in persistence for Gilbreth. He pitched much better than his 13-11 record would indicate, as evidenced by his 2.48 ERA and 192 strikeouts. He lost one game 1-0 after allowing 2 hits and fanning 10. He threw two 10-inning 3-hitters and ended up with a loss and a no-decision to show for it. His confidence took a beating, explained Montgomery Advertiser columnist Jack Doane, because he felt he wasn’t helping the team. But Gilbreth refused to stop. Even with manager Stubby Overmire gave him license to take a couple days off and go to the beach, he replied, “Nope, I’ll be here.” Eventually, his luck did turn around.

It makes you wonder if that wasn’t a lesson he taught his players when he became a coach: Don’t give up just because the breaks don’t go your way.

In 1971, Gilbreth moved up to the AAA Toledo Mud Hens. By late June, the Tigers decided to shake up their struggling pitching staff by demoting Tom Timmerman and Bill Zepp. Gilbreth was brought up to the majors, and within a day of his arrival, he was making his first major-league start on June 25 against Cleveland.

“I arrived at the ball park at about 5pm and when [manager Billy] Martin told me I was starting, that was the first I knew of it,” he said. Martin said he did it deliberately so the rookie wouldn’t have a chance to get too nervous about his debut.

Gilbreth threw a complete game 5-hitter, striking out 7 on the way to a 6-1 win. He walked 7 and loaded the bases in the first inning with a single, walk and a hit batter, but he settled down and pitched a great game. Willie Horton and Al Kaline homered to boost the Tiger offense, and Gilbreth helped his own cause with a couple of base hits, too. “I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t hit a thing in Toledo,” he said with a laugh after the game.

Source: Detroit Free Press, September 4, 1988.

Gilbreth won his second game with a 3-1 win over the Yankees on July 8. He allowed just 3 hits while striking out 3. A Thurman Munson solo homer in the sixth inning cost him a shutout. His other games weren’t as effective. All total, he appeared in 9 games for the Tigers in 1971, with 5 starts. He ended with a 2-1 record and a 4.80 ERA in 30 innings of work. He walked 21 while striking out 14, and he also hit 2 batters.

Gilbreth was converted to a reliever in 1972, and he was brilliant for Toledo. In 56 games, he had a 5-3 record with an ERA under 2 and 14 saves, with 72 strikeouts in 75 innings. He had a brief stay with the Tigers and gave up 9 runs in 5 innings across two games, for a 16.20 ERA.

Part of the reason Gilbreth didn’t get much of a chance in Detroit was that he ended up on the wrong side of manager Billy Martin. Gilbreth killed a trade that would have sent him to St. Louis in exchange for Matty Alou, and Martin hated him for it. He questioned the pitchers nerves, too. Gilbreth admitted his own issues with anxiety about pitching in the major leagues, but he later pointed to a specific moment in 1971 that broke the relationship between him and Martin. It came when he was brought in from the bullpen against the Angels.

“Martin came out to the mound and told me to hit Mike Epstein,” Gilbreth recalled. “And I told him I wasn’t going to do it. There was no point in it, we had already lost the game.” Martin stomped around the mound a bit before heading back to the dugout. After that, Martin didn’t have much use for Gilbreth anymore, and the feeling was more than mutual.

The Angels purchased Gilbreth from Detroit on September 7, 1972, with the idea that he would join the team in spring training the following season. Late in spring training, the Angels assigned Gilbreth to the minor leagues. The pitcher ultimately decided to go back to ACU as the director of the athletic fund. He returned to baseball in 1974 and joined the Angels AAA affiliate in Salt Lake City. The Angels brought him back to the major leagues on early May — he replaced Mike Epstein, the batter he refused to hit, on the roster. He pitched in 3 games and allowed 2 earned runs in 1-1/3 inning of work. His last MLB appearance came on May 12, 1974, when he was brought in from the bullpen to face John Mayberry of the Royals. He walked him, was replaced, and was charged with the run when Mayberry scored on a Frank White single.

After the season, the Angels traded Gilbreth to Cleveland for pitcher Charlie Hudson. Gilbreth never played for Cleveland. Over the previous year, his mother had been paralyzed with a broken neck, his grandmother had suffered a stroke, and his father had eye surgery. He left baseball to take care of his parents and raise his own family.

In parts of three seasons, Gilbreth appeared in 14 MLB games, including 5 starts. He had a 2-1 record and a 6.69 ERA. In 36-1/3 innings of work, he struck out 16 and walked 26.

Though Gilbreth’s time with the Angels was short, it was notable because of the friendship he started with another Texas pitcher, Nolan Ryan. The two raised funds to build a new ballpark, Crutcher Scott Field, and bring back the school’s baseball program, which had folded in 1979.

As early as 1988, Gilbreth and a group of former ACU ballplayers started raising money to restore the program. After struggling to raise funds, Gilbreth and Ryan established the Nolan Ryan Fund for Baseball at Abilene Christian University. Ryan had done something similar to get the Alvin Community College baseball program up and running.

Source: Abilene Christian University

“It’s rewarding to see a new program at Abilene start out,” Ryan said. “I’ve known Billy for a long time and I wanted to help him out.”

Gilbreth was inspired to build a new stadium while walking through a wheat field by the ACU campus. That wheat field eventually became the site of the Wildcats new ballfield. “I might have heard some of the alumni standing behind me saying, ‘If you build it…’ but Shoeless Joe didn’t come,” Gilbreth quipped.

Gilbreth was named the school’s baseball coach in April 1990. Coaching wasn’t part of his plan, but he led the team from 1991 until 1995 and won a conference title. The Reporter-News notes that he was inducted into the ACU Sports Hall of Fame in 1999 and the Big Country Athletic Hall of Fame in 2013.

“My story’s like a fairy tale,” Gilbreth said in a 1990 article. “I told some of our [ACU] kids that I’m living proof that you don’t have to go to a big school to get drafted. If you’re good, you will be drafted. The scouts will find you, no matter where you are.”

For more information: Abilene Reporter News

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