Cal Farley was born on December 25, 1895, at Saxton, Iowa. He and his twin sister, Zaida, were the youngest of six children of Frank and Jennie Farley, who later moved to a small farm near Elmore, Minnesota. The product of a loveless marriage which ultimately ended in separation, Cal learned early how to fend for himself. He found an escape in baseball and other sports and soon revealed a remarkable athletic prowess. At the age of sixteen he left home and began playing semiprofessional baseball. In 1917 he enlisted in the army and was sent to Europe for combat in World War I with Company C, Sixth Engineers, Third Army Division. During the postwar occupation, the American Expeditionary Forces and Inter-Allied Games athletic programs were held in Paris, France, where Farley was a member of the American team. In welterweight wrestling he defeated Walter O'Connor for the AEF championship and George Bridges of Australia for the Inter-Allied Games title. Farley continued in professional wrestling after the war. His relationship with Dutch Mantell, a wrestler from Luxembourg, remains a sports legend. He also played baseball in the minor leagues.
In 1923 Farley settled in Amarillo, Texas, where he acquired a defunct tire shop and built it into a $750,000-a-year business. He also pioneered department-store merchandising in Amarillo and for fifteen years broadcast a daily radio program. Mantell and comedian Cecil Hunter, known as "Stuttering Sam," were among the star performers in Farley's show. In 1924 Farley married Mabel (Mimi) Fincher. Their daughter and only child, Gene, born in 1926, was named after Farley's longtime friend, boxer Gene Tunney.
In January 1934 Farley, along with others, started the Maverick Club, an organized program of athletics designed to keep boys constructively occupied. By 1966 Kids Incorporated, an outgrowth of the Maverick Club, was helping over 10,000 boys aged six to sixteen years to become involved in athletics; the boys were supervised by more than 1,500 adult volunteers. Some boys, however, could not be helped by the Maverick Club because of their lack of supervision and encouragement at home. For these boys, which he called "the lower 10 percent of our nation's youth," Farley founded Cal Farley's Boys Ranch in 1939. His work became more widely known, and he received requests to take boys from all over the country. In 1947 he sold his business so that he and his wife could devote their lives to helping homeless and delinquent boys. The famous professional wrestler Dorrance (Dory) Funk was among those who served on Farley's staff. Jack Dempsey, J. Edgar Hoover, and Roy Rogers were among Farley's staunchest friends and supporters.
For his career as an athlete, businessman, and humanitarian, Farley was honored many times. He was a district governor of Rotary International and is in the Panhandle Sports Hall of Fame. For his work with boys he was named Outstanding Citizen of Texas and given the Veterans of Foreign Wars Silver Citizenship Medal, the Bronze Keystone Award of the Boys Clubs of America, an honorary doctor of humanities degree from Texas Technological College (now Texas Tech University) in 1963, and the Democracy in Action Award in 1966 by students at Long Beach, California. On February 19, 1967, he died suddenly while attending chapel services with the boys at the ranch. Mrs. Farley died on March 19, 1967, at Hermann Hospital in Houston. They were both buried at the Llano Cemetery in Amarillo.