Editor’s note – This article originally appeared on AstrosConnection.com.
Fans attend University of Texas home baseball games at Disch-Falk Field in Austin just across the interstate highway adjacent to the school’s campus. Long-time followers of UT baseball recognize the two names as legendary coaches on the Forty Acres. William J. (“Uncle Billy”) Disch coached the Longhorns to 21 Southwest Conference championships from 1911-39, with a record of 465 wins and 115 losses as a college coach. Bibb Falk, his successor, continued UT’s winning tradition by leading the school to 20 more SWC championships from 1940-67 and back-to-back national championships in 1949-50. Falk accomplished much more in baseball than becoming a successful college coach, however, and even many loyal orangebloods do not know his impressive history in the game. Not merely a championship coach and one of the best players of his era, Falk was one of the most unique personalities ever to appear on the sports landscape in the State of Texas.
Bibb Augustus Falk was born in Austin, Texas, on January 27, 1899, one of four brothers who loved baseball. An outstanding schoolboy athlete, he graduated from Stephen F. Austin High School in 1916 but intended to go to work rather than college. Fate then intervened in the person of Billy Disch. Mr. Disch, as everyone referred to him, had seen Falk play in high school and offered him help in going to college if he would play baseball at UT. Thus began an association between Disch and Falk and the University of Texas that will continue as long as the school exists.
Falk was a star in two sports as a collegian. All-Southwest Conference as a tackle on the 1919 UT football team, Falk achieved even greater success as a baseball player. He threw and batted from the left side, and he was undefeated as a pitcher from 1918-20 during his three varsity seasons. His skill as an outfielder and his prowess as a hitter attracted attention from professional baseball scouts. He batted over .400 in each of his varsity seasons at UT, and he signed with the Chicago White Sox in the summer of 1920. He declined the club’s offer to send him to the minor leagues where he could play regularly, choosing instead to be with the big club for the balance of the 1920 season. Despite the inexplicable loss in the 1919 World Series, most people considered the White Sox to be the strongest team in baseball.
Falk went directly from the University of Texas campus to the Chisox dugout, but he did not play until news of the Black Sox scandal became public in September of 1920. He replaced Shoeless Joe Jackson in left field after Jackson was suspended and later banned for life, and Falk made the most of his unexpected opportunity by hitting .294 for the last few games of the 1920 season. Beginning in 1921, Falk was a regular in the outfield for the White Sox. Traded to Cleveland following the 1928 season, he was with the Indians through the 1931 season, his last as a major league player. His career spanned twelve years, all in the American League, and during this time, he became one of the finest all-around players in the league. His brother Chet also was in the American League from 1925-27, but his career consisted of three undistinguished seasons with the St. Louis Browns.
Bibb Falk’s most outstanding statistical year was 1926 as a member of the White Sox. With a batting average of .345, he had 195 hits, including 43 doubles, a .415 on base percentage, and 108 runs batted in. He drove in 99 runs in 1924 and again in 1925, hitting .352 and .301 those seasons, and his .352 batting average in 1924 was his career best. In 1929, he drove in 93 runs for Cleveland and batted .312 in only 125 games. His batting average was over .300 for eight of his twelve seasons in the major leagues, and he was in the .290s three other years.
As his career wound down in 1930 and 1931, he became a part-time player, but he was the most productive pinch-hitter in the league. He had batting averages of .325 and .304 those final seasons. After leaving the Indians following the 1931 season, Falk was player-manager for the Toledo Mud Hens of the American Association in 1932. He returned to the American League as a coach for the Indians in 1933 and the Red Sox in 1934. He began scouting for the Red Sox in 1935.
Playing from 1920-31, during what some call the Golden Age of major league baseball, Falk developed a reputation as one of the top hitters in the American League, although he had little home run power. His best home run year was 1929 when he hit 13 for Cleveland, and his only other double digit total was 12 home runs for Chicago in 1922. During his career, he was a teammate or an opponent of some of the greatest players of all time: Ruth, Gehrig, Cobb, Speaker, Johnson, Collins, Heilman, Cronin, Grove, Cochrane, Sisler, Foxx, Gehringer, and Simmons, to name just a few. Despite spending no time in the minor leagues in an era when few college players made the major leagues, Bibb Falk did quite well for a college boy.
For his career, Falk had 1,463 hits and batted .314, with a .372 on base percentage. A contact hitter, he struck out just 279 times in his twelve years in the big leagues, and in 1925, he struck out only 25 times in 602 at bats. His .352 batting average in 1924 was third in the American League, and in 1926, his .992 fielding percentage led all American League outfielders. He was an outstanding fielder, with a .967 career fielding percentage, and in 1926, he made but three errors in 357 chances. Falk was a complete ballplayer, and he excelled in competition with the legendary greats of the game.
In 1935, Falk returned to Austin, where he made his off-season home, and he spent the next few years scouting for the Boston Red Sox. Fate once again intervened in the person of Billy Disch. Mr. Disch became ill during the 1940 season and asked Falk to do the on-field coaching of the Longhorns. Falk was tired of the vagabond life that scouting required, so he began his coaching career to help his college coach and mentor. Over the next 27 years (he spent the 1943-45 seasons in the Air Force), Falk added his name to that of Billy Disch in the annals of University of Texas baseball. His Texas teams won 478 games and lost 176 in all games, which included exhibition games against major and minor league teams; against other college teams, his teams won 453 games while losing only 152.
Falk’s Longhorns were a fixture in the NCAA playoffs, which began in 1947. Of his 16 teams that qualified for the playoffs, 10 reached the national tournament that is now called the College World Series. Under his tutelage in 1949 and 1950, Texas became the first school to win consecutive national championships, his 1953 team was runner-up in the tournament, and his 1947, 1962 and 1963 teams finished third. At the age of 68, after 25 seasons and 20 championships, Falk retired following the 1967 season.
National and regional honors celebrated Falk’s achievements. He was elected to the Longhorn Hall of Honor in 1962, the Helms Athletic Foundation College Hall of Fame in 1966, the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1968, the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988, and the College Baseball Hall of Fame in 2007. Only induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame eluded him, but he told anyone who mentioned it that he did not deserve that honor. In 1975, the University named its new baseball stadium Disch-Falk Field in honor of the two men who together represented 54 years of Texas Longhorn baseball.
Those who played for Coach Falk say unanimously that he was a big leaguer all the way. He often admonished his men, “You might not be big leaguers, but you can sure act like you are.” A world class cusser, his most contemptuous epithet was “bush league,” and he would not tolerate anyone in a Texas uniform acting like a “busher.” He treated his players like professional ballplayers, and he expected them to act like they were big leaguers on the field.
His workouts rarely lasted three hours and consisted mainly of batting and fielding practice. Pitchers threw batting practice on a regular schedule every third day; on “off” days, pitchers played catch, threw in the bullpen, shagged flies, hit fungoes to position players, did their running and then went on their merry ways after spending a respectable time looking busy. Position players hit and fielded fungoes for individual work during batting practice, and they took part in a full-team infield practice under the direction of Coach Falk whenever he thought the team needed organized full-team practice. Falk was a master of the art of the fungo bat, and he often ran his pitchers, or others who “needed” exercise, by having them race back and forth across the outfield to catch flies that he hit just inches beyond their reach.
There were few intra-squad games, although there might be an occasional scrimmage against the freshman team. In those bygone days, freshmen were not eligible for the varsity, and baseball in the Southwest Conference was a spring-only activity, with no fall practice and a maximum of 24 games to a season. Spring practice could not begin before mid-February. Falk railed against these restrictions that he correctly believed created a competitive disadvantage for SWC teams in tournament play against other warm weather schools. Texas and Texas A&M campaigned for relaxation of these restrictions, but the SWC’s small schools opposed them and voted against change. Late in his tenure at Texas, Falk’s influence helped to get a few more spring practice days added and the scheduled expanded, but only to 30 games.
With no fall practice, SWC teams had just a couple of weeks in February to get ready for the coming season. Falk used a professional baseball approach to spring training. In the early spring, he drilled the team on pickoff plays, pitchers’ fielding practice, cutoff plays, and double steals, and then the team rarely worked on these situational fundamentals again. Coach Falk expected his players to know fundamental baseball and to execute the plays properly when the specific situations arose. After the season started, Falk’s practices stressed individual work on the skills of hitting and fielding and placed less emphasis on team drills or game situations. As professional managers do, he insisted that his players learn and retain the lessons taught in spring training without constant drilling on game situations during the season.
Falk also treated his players like professional ballplayers on road trips. As the bus rolled into town, he passed out meal money for the trip and announced what time the bus would leave the next day for the ballpark. From that moment until the bus left for the game, the players were left to their own devices. There were no team meetings, no team meals, and no bed checks. Falk did not inquire about his players’ activities on the road, and he did not appear to care. What he did care about was performance in games, however, and the players had better deliver when he called upon them to perform, whether or not they had enjoyed themselves the night before. If they did not play well when called upon, it might be a long season on the bench.
Because of the SWC’s strict limit on the numbers of games, Falk’s usual pitching staff consisted of two starters and one reliever and a lot of guys who wanted a chance to become one of the three. Typically, a relief pitcher would get one opportunity to succeed. If he did well, he won the third spot on the staff, but if he did not do well, he went to the back of the line as the auditions for the relief pitcher role continued. A pitcher who failed in his first audition might never pitch again in a meaningful situation the rest of the season. Falk coached the pitchers by necessity-he had no assistant coach other than an occasional graduate student-but his forte was as a hitting instructor.
During batting practice, Falk took up residence behind the batting cage and offered up a seemingly endless stream of criticisms and tips to the hitter and to anyone else close enough to hear his monologue. Nothing escaped his eye or his attention, and he made comments or suggestions after every pitch. Young players often tend to disregard constant advice from a coach, but if his pupils considered that this coach had been a .314 career hitter in the major leagues during the time of Ruth, Gehrig, Cobb and Speaker, perhaps his words took on extra significance. Certainly they should have.
Falk advocated hitting the ball where it was pitched and using the entire field. Not surprisingly, that is the way he hit, and he had no use for the “big donkey” who had an all-or-nothing swing for the long ball and who struck out often. He would be extremely frustrated with today’s hitters. He knew hitting and hitters as well as anyone then or now, and he had no patience with the player who did not listen or who did not work hard to correct his mistakes.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Bibb Falk, the hitting coach, was his ability to demonstrate what he was telling his charges to do. One day each spring he would grab a bat, get in the batting cage against one of the team’s pitchers, and show the young whippersnappers how it was done. He took a turn in the cage each season until he retired, and it was an astonishing demonstration to watch. Falk would warm up by spraying line drives to all fields and then would begin to call his shots. He would say “left field line,” “right center field,” “right field,” “hole between first and second,” “hit and run, shortstop covering,” and the like, and he would hit the ball to the place he said he would hit it. Then, he would hit the ball over the right field fence and get out of the cage. That he was ever able to have this kind of bat control would be noteworthy, but he accomplished this remarkable exhibition well into his 60s against 18-21 year old pitchers who were not at all interested in making an old man look good.
In 1966, when Coach Falk was 67 years old, he entered the cage to hit against Gary Moore, who that year received All-Southwest Conference honors for the second consecutive year. Moore also started at safety for the football Longhorns and was a left-handed pitcher-outfielder. He had a live fastball and a great overhand curve. Moore got a cup of coffee with the Dodgers as an outfielder, and he was the best pitcher in the Southwest Conference. Cocky and devil-may-care in his demeanor, Moore was in no mood that day to allow Bibb Falk to hit him at will.
After a few desultory batting practice speed pitches, Moore began to throw to Falk as though the College World Series title were at stake. He mixed fast balls and curves without telling the Coach what was coming, and he went for the strikeout on every pitch. Falk was unfazed by Moore’s efforts. He continued to make solid contact, and, at the same time, he taunted Moore for his inability to get the ball past him. Coach Falk obviously was enjoying the competition with a stud pitcher who was more than 45 years younger, and using the salty vocabulary that was his trademark, he told Moore who the better man was after each hard hit ball.
Finally, Gary Moore had enough of Falk’s taunting. He threw a riding fastball up and in and knocked the Coach down. Falk went down hard on his back, his bat and cap went flying, and his feet went up in the air. Getting slowly to his feet, Falk did not say a word. He brushed himself off, replaced his cap, grabbed his bat, got back in the box, and motioned for Moore to throw the next pitch. Moore did, and Falk rifled a blistering line drive between the pitcher’s legs into center field, very nearly performing a vasectomy by horsehide. On that note, the hitting exhibition for 1966 ended, and a chastened Gary Moore was left to contemplate what might have been had Falk’s aim been just a bit off.
Former players described Falk as “intense,” “demanding,” “tough,” “intimidating,” “ornery,” and “cantankerous,” but to a man they respected him and valued greatly the experience of playing for him. His players referred to him as “The Old Man,” but never to his face. Tough and unyielding, Falk called every player “Lefty” or “Mullet,” and he never expressed any satisfaction with his players’ efforts or abilities. Praise from him did not happen, and criticism was the daily norm. Maybe his never-satisfied attitude was his motivational style because his players tried their hardest to prove him wrong and to make him see that they were better than he thought they were. His players gave extra effort just to show The Old Man that they could play, no matter what he said or thought. Maybe this is one reason why they won so often.
Falk’s crustiness, his sharp tongue, and his acerbic, sarcastic wit were renowned. His nickname as a player was “Jockey,” for bench jockey, and he demonstrated to many of his players that the name was perfect for him. Stories concerning the Falk wit are legion and, unlike many baseball stories, are true. A few follow.
– To the hitter who hit a grand slam in a regional tournament in Denver:
“That ball sure carries in this light air.”
– To his All-American slugger who had just hit a game-winning home run to the opposite field:
“Are you ever going to learn to pull that pitch?”
– To the soft-tossing pitcher who was getting hit hard and asked Falk if he should start brushing the hitters back:
“Hell, they’d just catch it and throw it back to you.”
– To a player criticizing draft laws that took college students by saying that the country’s most intelligent men should be last on the draft list:
“I don’t see that makes any difference. You’d be the first to go anyway.”
– To the infielder who missed a pickoff sign and offered an “I thought” excuse:
“Every time you think, they score three runs.”
– To the hitter who had barely missed getting a hit on a line drive that was inches foul:
“That’s all right-as bad as you are, you may never get another hit anyhow.”
– To the relief pitcher who escaped a bases loaded, no out situation Falk put him in by striking out the side, the last strikeout on a high, hanging breaking ball that the hitter somehow missed:
“How long do you expect to get away with that shit?”
– To the relief pitcher who was making an emergency start in the season’s biggest game, which also was Falk’s final home game:
“Go as hard as you can for as long as you can, but don’t embarrass anybody out there.”
– To a starting outfielder who had come to Falk’s office to apologize for his poor play on the field and his even worse academic performance:
“That’s the life of a .200 hitter.”
– To a pitcher who took an early shower after being removed during the opponent’s ninth inning rally:
“You could have stayed out there long enough to see how we got out of the mess you got us into.”
– To a sportswriter who asked for an evaluation of how a player’s development was progressing:
“You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit.”
– To a sportswriter who asked before a crucial series if he had made reservations in Omaha for the NCAA tournament:
“I won’t need anything but a single room for myself because there is no way these mullets and goons can make it up there.” (They did, though, and finished runner-up in the NCAA tournament. The team gave Falk a gift inscribed “To the Big Leaguer from the Mullets and Goons.”)
– To successor Cliff Gustafson who was attempting to console him after a heartbreaking ninth inning loss in his last game deprived him of a final trip to the College World Series:
“Hell, I didn’t want to take those mullets to Omaha anyway.”
Crusty and tough on the outside, Falk had the proverbial heart of gold, but he allowed few to see that side of him. He was old-school and grew up during an era in which athletes were expected and required to be tough and hard-nosed. Falk presented the gruff, sarcastic, and often profane Old Man to the world, but anyone who spent much time with him soon learned that there was a softer side. Although he never married, he strongly believed in the virtues of family, and he took care of his parents and his sister until their deaths. He counseled his players on the value and necessity of education, and he reminded them that baseball is only temporary. He was concerned about his players’ academic performance for reasons other than their eligibility.
Falk would talk baseball or life for hours with anyone who took the time to visit with him in his office in old Gregory Gym. His tutorials on hitting were classics, and he was never without a bat close by so that he could demonstrate hitting techniques for his listener. Often the listener would find the bat placed in his hands so that the Coach could assess what his pupil had learned, illustrate a point, or determine what needed to be corrected. He never forgot his former players’ names, and he had an uncanny ability to remember personal characteristics of each. His family and close friends described him as kind and sweet, but he did not let the world see that side of him.
Perhaps ahead of his time as a student of the science of baseball, Falk charted pitches and had an encyclopedic memory for the individual characteristics and tendencies of hitters. He was an expert on the rule book and a superb strategist during games. Most important, he was willing to share his immense knowledge of the game with anyone who would sit next to him and listen, which could be a painful experience. He had the habit of punctuating each point by a punch with his elbow to the ribs of his listener, and he had a lot to say on each pitch. Sitting next to him at a game was fascinating and instructive, but the listener needed rib pads to survive.
After his retirement, Coach Falk continued his daily routine of a swim in chilly Barton Springs and a trip or call to a stockbroker’s office to keep track of his many successful investments. He was a regular for coffee and conversation at Rooster Andrews’ sporting goods store. Afternoons invariably found him at the ballpark, and he never missed UT home games. He was proud of Cliff Gustafson, his successor, an uncommonly successful high school coach who had been a reserve infielder at UT in the ’50s. Falk acted as friend and mentor for Gustafson as Disch had for him.
Coach Gustafson’s methods, style and practice routines were as different from Coach Falk’s as night is from day, and this transition was not easy for those of Falk’s players who were still on the team during Gustafson’s initial years. Practices under Coach Gus often lasted from immediately after lunch to sundown, and each daily three-hour drill on fundamentals and game situations was followed by an equally long intra-squad game. On road trips, the team ate together, had meetings, dressed in coats and ties, and was subject to bed checks. Predictably, the players who had been admonished by Falk to act like “big leaguers” chafed at these restrictions, which they characterized as “high school.”
It is unlikely that any of the players who were struggling with Gustafson’s regimentation approached Falk with their grievances because he would not have been sympathetic, and he remained the program’s and Gustafson’s staunchest supporter during his retirement years. Attrition of Falk’s players, through graduation or decisions to pursue interests other than baseball, and the influx of Gustafson’s recruits soon eliminated the issue of the contrast between the two coaches’ methods. Winning helped, too, and Cliff Gustafson enhanced the championship tradition passed to him from Disch and Falk by winning more games than any other college baseball coach in NCAA Division I history.
Coach Falk retained his remarkable vitality until the very end of his life. Daily exercise and an indomitable spirit kept at bay the normal ravages of nearly a century of living. Walking with a cane was his only concession to the years rolling by, and retirement and advancing age did not dull his wit or soften his tongue. While they were watching the Texas Rangers work out for an exhibition game in Austin, Gustafson remarked to Falk how different the modern game was from the game he played in the ’20s and ’30s because of changes such as night baseball, harder travel, and relief pitchers who throw 100 mph. Falk agreed that the game had changed some, so Gustafson asked him what he thought he would hit in the modern major leagues. When Falk said “maybe .275 or .280,” Gustafson expressed surprise that he thought he would be affected that much. Falk explained, “Hell, I’m 75 years old.”
A short time before his brief final illness, Falk encountered a former relief pitcher at a UT game against the University of Houston. The Coach greeted him with “Lefty, how’s your curve ball?” The former player said that he was pitching against 10-year-olds on a Little League team he coached and that he was getting them out pretty consistently. Falk replied, “Well, you’re finally in the right league.” The two shook hands before going their separate ways, and the former player smiled at the pleasant reminder that although some things, or people, may change, Bibb Falk never would.
Bibb Augustus Falk died at 90 years of age on June 8, 1989, in Austin, Texas, the last surviving member of the 1920 Chicago White Sox. His memory and his influence on the University of Texas and on the men who played for him will live forever. The Game may never see the likes of him again.