Bill Gilbreth enjoyed the best memories of his major-league career in a 17-day span beginning with his major-league debut in June of 1971.
Gilbreth threw complete games in two of his first three starts, and after four appearances he was 2-0 with a 1.85 ERA in 24 and one-third innings. For the rest of his career, he was 0-1 with a 16.50 ERA in 12 innings.
The Tigers had taken Gilbreth out of Abilene Texas Christian University in the third round of the 1969 June amateur draft. After going a combined 22-15 in his first two professional seasons, Gilbreth began the 1971 season in the Class AAA International League with the Toledo Mud Hens. He was called up in late June when the Tigers shuffled their pitching staff and sent Tom Timmerman and Bill Zepp to Toledo for Gilbreth and Chuck Seelbach..
A little more than 24 hours later, he was on the mound at Tiger Stadium with nearly 25,000 paying customers on hand for a Friday night game against the Cleveland Indians. He made quite a first impression, although walking seven in nine innings was alarming.
Gilberth pitched a complete in a 6-1 victory, but it was not as easy as the score indicates. It was tied 1-1 going into the bottom of the seventh inning before the Tigers got to Indians starter Steve Dunning.
Gilbreth put the game away with only a two-out walk to Graig Nettles in the top of the ninth inning. He also was 2-for-4 at the plate.
“I really don’t know what to think,” he said after the game in the Detroit Free Press. “I’m too excited right now to realize. I’d like to start every four days up here, too, if they’ll let me. That’s what I was doing in Toledo, and that’s what I’m used to.”
Forty-six years later, he recalled that night for the Abilene Texas University Today magazine.
“There I was, 23 years old from what many considered a podunk town, with a team that had won the ’68 World Series,” he said. “I mostly kept my eyes and ears opened and my mouth shut.”
He made his next start six days later against the Boston Red Sox. He gave up three runs on seven hits and did not get out of the sixth inning at Tiger Stadium, but he did not figure in the decision.
One week later, Gilbreth threw the best game of his major-league career with a three-hitter against the New York Yankees. He walked just two after walking 11 in his first two starts. Thurman Munson hit a solo home run off Gilbreth in the fifth to account for the Yankees only run.
“I put it right above his knees,” Gilbreth said in the Free Press. “Right where (Norm) Cash told me not to put it.”
Well, he listened most of the time, at least according to Tigers manager Billy Martin.
“The big thing is that the kid listens and does what you tell him to do,” Martin said in The Sporting News.
Three days later, he was needed for an inning in relief against the Washington Senators, and he did not allow a run or a hit. A week later, the control problems surfaced as he walked four and did not get anyone out in the second inning. He allowed six runs in one inning, and after two more relief appearances, he was returned to Toledo.
Gilbreth came back in September and was hit hard in a start against Boston. He spent most of the 1972 season in the minors and pitched well. He had a 1.92 ERA with 14 saves for Toledo and came up to Detroit at the first of August and appeared in two games. He allowed nine earned runs in five innings and returned to Toledo.
The California Angels claimed Gilbreth on waivers in September of 1972, and he appeared in two games for them in 1974, and that was hit for his major-league career.
Gilbreth returned to his hometown of Abilene, where he did not play baseball in high school because the school did not field a team. After leaving Abilene Texas Christian University, the baseball program was discontinued, but Gilbreth resurrected it as its coach. He was inducted into the ACU Sports Hall of Fame in 1999 and was the first baseball player to have his number retired.
In July of 2020, Gilbreth died of complications after undergoing emergency heart surgery. He was 72.
“D: Tales: It was a Thursday afternoon in Toledo, and the Mud Hens did not have a game scheduled. Bill Gilbreth and his wife had the idea to make the one-hour drive to Detroit and watch the Tigers that night. As he prepared to call the Tigers and ask for some passes, the phone rang, and Tigers general manager Jim Campbell was on the other end. He told Gilbreth that he was being called up to the majors.
“When Mr. Campbell called Thursday afternoon, I didn’t believe it at first,” Gilbreth said in the Free Press. “A friend of mind had called before to say I was going up to the Tigers, and I figured it was somebody else fooling around. I was really surprised.”