Ceremonial first pitches at major league baseball games tend to be more flop than fantastic, like the errant and globally ridiculed attempt in late May by an artist more experienced at rapping than throwing. But if the designated catcher assigned to receive another such pitch before the June 9 game between the Texas Rangers and Cleveland Indians isn’t paying attention, he could be in for a different surprise.
That’s the night more than 700 Abilene Christian University alumni and friends will be on hand for the annual ACU at the Ballpark event at Globe Life Ballpark in Arlington. They’ll have an opportunity in the All You Can Eat Porch to cheer one of their own before the game when Bill Gilbreth (’69) throws the ceremonial first pitch.
And while it’s been more than 40 years since Gilbreth has thrown from a mound in a major league baseball park, don’t be fooled. The left-handed accountant for Abilene Diagnostic Clinic can still throw awfully hard. At age 66, he will be the first to tell you he may not be able to see home plate as well, but he still knows how and can deliver a baseball to a destination, and quickly.
Gilbreth is still the standard by which all Wildcat pitchers are measured. He never played high school baseball because Abilene Christian Schools, where he attended, didn’t field a team. But he was a summer sandlot standout and dominated competition while playing at ACU and earning all-Southland Conference honors. He led the NCAA in strikeouts in 1968, and compiled a four-year (1966-69) record of 25-9 with 445 strikeouts, a 2.15 ERA and two no-hitters. Four times Gilbreth struck out 18 batters in a game.
He was selected by the Detroit Tigers in the third round of baseball’s 1969 amateur draft, and compiled a 34-32 record and 3.22 ERA during parts of five seasons in the minor leagues (Class A Rocky Mount Leafs in the Carolina League, Class AA Montgomery Rebels in the Southern League, and Class AAA Toledo Mud Hens in the International League) .
Gilbreth made his major league debut June 25, 1971, in a 5-1 win over the Cleveland Indians in Tiger Stadium. He pitched in nine games his rookie year, earning a 2-1 record. He played two years (1971-72) for the organization, and again in 1974 for the California Angels before retiring. He befriended teammate and fellow Texan Nolan Ryan while in Anaheim, and when ACU decided to bring back intercollegiate baseball on campus, the two played important roles in the plan.
Ryan lent his name to the university for two major fundraising events in his honor in Arlington and Abilene, helping raise the funds necessary to build Crutcher Scott Field and begin to endow scholarships for student-athletes. When the Wildcats fielded a team in 1991 for the first time in 11 years, Gilbreth was the head coach who led them. He served in that role five seasons.
He was inducted to the ACU Sports Hall of Fame in 1999 and the Big Country Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008.