The No. 13 jersey once worn by Bill Gilbreth (’69) was anything but unlucky to the man who wore it.
Gilbreth, the only Wildcat to play MLB baseball, was feted at the ACU program’s second annual First Pitch Dinner in the Brown Club Level at Wildcat Stadium. Following the presentation, he held court on stage during an interview with Dr. Gary McCaleb (’64), spinning stories about growing up in Abilene and his days with the Detroit Tigers and Los Angeles Angels.
McCaleb described Gilbreth through Rudyard Kipling’s analogy in the 1943 poem If– about a man’s virtue of being able to walk with kings without losing the common touch.
“Bill Gilbreth walked with the kings of baseball” yet never lost his ability to befriend anyone who crossed his path, especially the players he instructed and mentored, McCaleb said. Many of his former student-athletes, especially from the 1991 team that played the first season in nearby Crutcher Scott Field, joined him for the evening.
Gilbreth never played high school baseball because Abilene Christian Schools, where he attended, didn’t field a team at the time. But he was a summer sandlot standout who 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 he struck out 18 batters in a game.
Gilbreth forged an enduring friendship with Nolan Ryan while the two Texans were teammates on the Angels. Years later at the apex of his Hall of Fame career, Ryan helped ACU raise money to restart its baseball program, establish scholarship endowments and build Crutcher Scott Field.
McCaleb referenced other uniform numbers retired by MLB clubs and how they have come to epitomize the character and identity of not only the player but the team and its city, such as Al Kaline’s No. 6 and Willie Horton’s No. 23 in Detroit, and Thurman Munson’s No. 15 in New York – teammates and opponents from Gilbreth’s era.
“At ACU, our No. 13 represents hard work and humility, a great combination. It represents loyalty and love. Bill Gilbreth represents family, friendship and faithfulness,” said McCaleb, vice president of the university who played baseball for the Wildcats in the 1960s. “Bill established an indelible identity” as the first and best ACU player to reach MLB and represent his alma mater.
For those at the dinner, Gilbreth recounted his first MLB game June 25, 1971, when he was called up to Detroit from the club’s Triple A affiliate, the Toledo (Ohio) Mud Hens. He drove the nearly 60 miles north to Motown, not knowing where Tiger Stadium was located, and admitted to feeling lost in more ways than one.
“I looked around the locker room at essentially the same team that won the World Series three years before, and thought to myself, ‘I’m 22 years old. What in the world am I doing here?’ ”
Before the last at-bat, Indians catcher Ray Fossee looked at Gilbreth and said, “Enjoy it kid, these things don’t happen often.”
Kaline and Horton homered in the win, and Kaline, a future MLB Hall of Fame inductee, was among the first to congratulate Gilbreth after the last out.
Exactly 45 years later – with the Tigers again hosting the Indians – Horton, Kaline and Gilbreth reminisced before a 2016 game in Comerica Park, where a commemorative brick with the former Wildcat’s name is found just inside the main gate.
The reunion that evening in Gilbreth’s baseball memory was surpassed only by his hometown celebration Saturday night.
The accolades, laughter and bear hugs were a testimony that No. 13 – a jersey worn by the standard by which all ACU pitchers are measured – is a blessed one after all, with no good luck required and no bad luck in sight.
Other Wildcat uniform numbers previously retired:
- 10 – Jim Lindsey (’71), football
- 11 – Danieal Manning (’07), football
- 14 – John Ray Godfrey (’68), men’s basketball
- 25 – Jennifer Clarkson (’96) Frazier, women’s basketball
- 28 – Wilbert Montgomery (’77), football
- 44 – Johnny Perkins (’76), football
Read more about Gilbreth’s career and celebratory return to Detroit for the 45th anniversary of his MLB debut in this 2017 feature story in ACU Today: