Abilene Christian University baseball icon William Freeman “Bill” Gilbreth (’69) died July 12, 2020, in Abilene, Texas, following complications with emergency heart surgery at age 72.
A memorial service will be held Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020, at 11 a.m. CST at the University Church of Christ (733 E.N. 16th St., Abilene, Texas 79601).
Gilbreth was born Sept. 3, 1947, in Abilene, Texas. He was an Eagle Scout who graduated from Abilene Christian High School in 1965, and from ACU in 1969 with a bachelor’s degree in business.
The first former ACU Wildcat player on a MLB roster, Gilbreth was one of the rare major leaguers in modern history who never played high school ball. He was, however, a star of Abilene sandlot baseball each spring, including a highly successful amateur team coached by local restaurateur Toby Christian that traveled each summer.
Bill played basketball for the Wildcats but was truly a standout for them on the baseball field, earning first-team All-Southland Conference honors. The hard-throwing left-hander 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.
“Every kid in Abilene who grew up playing baseball in the 1960s wanted to be the next Bill Gilbreth,” said Texas Rep. Stan Lambert (’75), an ACU pitcher in the 1970s and former director of athletics. “Not only did Bill set the standard for how to pitch, but he was a humble person with a deep passion for his family. I always looked up to him like a ‘big brother’ and I will immensely miss the bond we shared.”
Gilbreth was a 1969 third-round draft pick of Detroit who won 32 games in the minors and was named to two all-star teams before making his major league debut in 1971. He played for the Tigers and the California Angels, and was named his alma mater’s baseball coach in 1991. He coached five seasons, leading the Wildcats to a Lone Star Conference title in 1993, and was inducted into the ACU Sports Hall of Fame in 1999.
He forged an enduring friendship with legendary pitcher 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 funds to restart its baseball program, establish scholarship endowments and build Crutcher Scott Field. Bill was head coach of the first Wildcat team to play at the venue named for the father of his close friend, Al Scott.
“Bill was truly committed to bring baseball back to ACU,” said Ryan. “I believe if he wasn’t so passionate about seeing that happen, we wouldn’t have baseball at ACU today.”
He retired from MLB in 1974, returning home to care for his aging parents. He was a longtime accountant for Abilene Diagnostic Clinic who enjoyed cattle ranching and volunteering as a pitching tutor in his spare time. Hundreds of Abilene ballplayers received instruction in pitching from Gilbreth, who was credited widely for helping many achieve amateur and professional success in the sport.
With hundreds of Wildcat fans watching in Globe Life Park in June 2014, Gilbreth threw the ceremonial first pitch before a Texas Rangers game with Cleveland.
Gilbreth was recognized by the Tigers at a Detroit-Cleveland game in June 2016 on the 45th anniversary of his MLB debut, and at an annual meeting of the Mayo Smith Society, the team’s international fan club. Commemorative bricks at two Detroit baseball stadiums, including Comerica Park, recognize Gilbreth. He was the last current or former Detroit player to stand on the mound at the site of old Tiger Stadium before its demolition was completed to make way for a youth sports complex honoring his former teammate, All-Star outfielder Willie Horton.
In February 2020, ACU made Gilbreth the first Wildcat baseball player to have his jersey number (13) retired, and only the seventh former student-athlete in any sport so honored in the university’s 114-year history.
At the jersey retirement ceremony, ACU vice president Dr. Gary McCaleb (’64) described Gilbreth through Rudyard Kipling’s analogy in the 1943 poem If – about a virtuous man walking among nobility 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,” said McCaleb, a Wildcat infielder in the 1960s. “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.”
He was preceded in death by his parents, Penn and Orbie (Grimsley ’28) Gilbreth, and a grandchild, Chase McMillan. Among survivors are Phyllis (Collier ’69), his wife of 52 years; daughter Melanie (Gilbreth ’92) Offutt and her husband, Brian (’93); daughter Tiffanie Gilbreth McMillan (’93) and her husband, Bryan; grandchildren Nathan Offutt (’18) and his wife, Kelsey (Odum ’17), Noah Offutt (’20) and Hannah Offutt; and grandchildren Mason McMillan and Morgan McMillan.
Memorials may be made to the ACU Baseball Excellence Fund (ACU Box 29132, Abilene, Texas 79699-9132, acu.edu/giveonline).
— Ron Hadfield
July 15, 2020