ABILENE, Texas — Please count me among those who were shocked Sunday night to find out about the sudden death of Bill Gilbreth. The former major league pitcher for the Detroit Tigers and California Angels played a pivotal role in the resurgence of baseball in the late ’80s and early ’90s in Abilene.
At the time, I was the Sports Director at KTAB-TV. I saw firsthand what Gilbreth did for helping Cooper win back-to-back state baseball championships, and then re-establish the baseball program at his alma mater, Abilene Christian University.
Bill would probably disapprove of me writing this article for BigCountryHomepage, but that was Bill.
Not only did he love baseball, but he was also a humble man. A very humble man.
He downplayed any role he had, but I wanted to give him a final, in current vernacular, “shout-out” for what he did locally.
His role in helping Cooper in 1987 and 1988 was recalled by former Cougar player Jay Estes on Facebook the night of Bill’s death.
What few realized was that Bill pitched batting practice to those great Cougar teams.
I did a story about Bill, showing him in a tattered t-shirt, sweating profusely, pitching batting practice to the Cougars at the time. Here was a former MLB pitcher volunteering, after an 8-hour workday, on his own time, helping those players.
Not only was he still “bringing it” to the plate, but also giving tips and suggestions to the Coogs on what he saw their tendencies were. He was telling them what pitchers looked for, and how those players could improve.
Estes on Facebook recalled that Cooper faced five quality lefthanders in their run to the state championship in 1987, but they were ready for each and every one of them thanks to what Bill had prepared them for in those late afternoon practices.
I remember that image of Bill on the mound that afternoon working with players getting insight from a former big league pitcher…..insight they would’ve never gotten from anybody else.
I also remember Bill in Austin at the state tournament encouraging one of the Cooper pitchers in a critical game, instilling confidence in a young man that he could perform at this level. The pitcher got the “w” after settling down after visiting with Bill.
That one season Bill pitched with the California Angels, he struck up a friendship with another fellow Texan by the name of Nolan Ryan, who was also on the roster that season.
That friendship paid huge dividends when ACU decided to bring baseball back, partially to ride the surge of local enthusiasm for the sport sparked by Cooper’s back-to-back state titles. The school picked Bill to be its head coach.
Bill, along with ACU Vice President Dr. Gary McCaleb, were able to convince Ryan, another humble man, to help with fundraising to bring baseball back to the Hill.
There were two banquets honoring Ryan, one here in Abilene and another in Arlington, that played to packed houses. Those two events generated enough cash for the foundation of ACU baseball and the building of what is now Crutcher Scott Field.
Bill served as the head coach at ACU to get the program established, and then he returned to private life to be with his family. He also left MLB after his 3-year career so he could be with his family.
So, to his wife and his daughters, and grandchildren, thanks for sharing Bill with us during the late ’80s and early ’90s.
I remember the legacy he left, and wanted to show my appreciation for what a humble man did for the great sport of baseball in his hometown.
He deserves a standing ovation from the crowd like a great pitcher would get at the ballpark after a memorable performance.
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