RIP to Coot Veal, a top defensive shortstop on several teams in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. He died on March 14 at the age of 88 after a long battle with neuropathy. He had lived in Macon, Ga., for many years following his baseball career. Veal played for the Detroit Tigers (1958-60, 1963), Washington Senators (1961) and Pittsburgh Pirates (1962).
Orville Inman Veal was born on July 9, 1932. Baseball Reference lists his birthplace as Sandersville, Ga., but his family-placed obituary has him born 10 miles away in Deepstep (population 132 according to the 2010 census). His father Forrest had briefly played ball himself before hurting his arm, but he passed down his love of the game to his sons. Veal played American Legion ball with the Macon Buddies and was the team’s third baseman on the days when he wasn’t pitching. Also a baseball and basketball player for Lanier High School in Macon, Veal was called “one of the most versatile athletes in the state” by the Atlanta Constitution in 1949. He also picked up his famous nickname around this time, thanks to his high school baseball coach. A barnstorming team came through Macon, and the team’s third baseman was named “Kook,” The coach started calling Veal “Kook,” as well, but when Veal got to college, his teammates mispronounced it as “Coot.” That’s the version that stuck.
Veal had a 45-game hitting streak in his high school baseball career — accumulated over three years’ worth of games. He concluded his high school athletic career by starring a Georgia Lighthouse for the Blind All-Star game at Ponce de Leon Park in Atlanta on June 18, 1950. Playing for the All-Stars from South Georgia (the Rebels), he picked up 3 of the team’s 6 hits in a 5-4 losing effort to North Georgia (the Yanks). He hit a home run, started the game’s only double play and handled 10 chances in the field flawlessly, He also cut down a runner trying to score on a double steal and won the game’s MVP Award. Just days earlier, he had accepted an athletic scholarship from Auburn University.
Veal was a guard on the 1951 Auburn basketball team that was nicknamed the “Swish Kids,” due to the fact that there were four sophomores in the starting lineup. Despite their youth, the Kids shook up the traditional powerhouses of the Southeastern Conference. He was named to Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp’s All-Opponents team. He was also named the utility man on the all-SEC baseball team. In June of 1952, the Detroit Tigers invited Veal to a workout. After putting him through his paces, the team signed him to a contract. Farm director Harold “Muddy” Ruel said Veal exhibited “sensitive hands, good legs and better than average speed,” adding that he seemed to be “a reasonable hitter.” Veal was given two weeks off to get married before reporting to the minors. He remained married to his high school sweetheart, Mary, for 69 years until his death. They went on to have four children.
Veal didn’t have much time left in the 1952 season, but he still managed to play on three different teams in the Tigers’ low minors before the season ended. After dominating the Class-D PONY League with the Jamestown (N.Y.) Falcons with a .418 average, he played in Durham and Williamsport as well. All total, he hit .283 in 41 games. In the offseason, he attended Mercer University in Macon and played basketball, too.
Veal spent a few more seasons in the low minors. His hitting was fair, and he didn’t show a lot of power, but his fielding steadily improved until he was a first-class defensive shortstop. By 1957, he began shuttling between AA and AAA ball. While his batting average tended to top out in the .240s, he made so many spectacular plays at shortstop that the Tigers gave him a look in the major leagues in 1958.
Detroit needed to improve its infield defense and moved Billy Martin to third base, bringing Veal up from Birmingham to be the starting shortstop. At the time of his promotion, Veal was sitting in a movie theater in Little Rock, Ark., when the movie stopped and the loudspeaker instructed him to report to his hotel immediately. He sprinted to the hotel, thinking the worst, only to find Birmingham manager Cal Ermer waiting for him. “Slow down, kid!” he said. “You’re going to the big leagues. You gotta get out of here right now for Detroit.”
Dave Diles of the Lansing State Journal called it a desperation move for the Tigers, adding “the only certain thing about it is that Veal will not hit big league pitching.” Veal made it to Detroit, was immediately inserted into the starting lineup on July 30 and cracked a single off Boston’s Ike Delock in his first major-league at-bat. He scored on a single by new third baseman Martin, making it a 1-0 game. Detroit won 2-1, and Veal was 2-for-3 in the game.
The good-field, no-hit shortstop got hits in each of his first seven games, and he kept up the hitting through most of the season. He had a 13-game hitting streak in late August to raise his batting average to .330. Even he didn’t have an explanation for it. “They’re just falling in for me,” he told The Birmingham News in August. “I haven’t changed my stance, or my swing, or anything. Maybe I’m lucky.”
Veal slowed down in September and ended the year with a .256/.304/.324 slash line. He also had a .981 fielding percentage, well above the league average of .964. He became a favorite of Tigers broadcaster Mel Ott, who had a lot of fun with Veal’s name in his newspaper column. When Veal swung down on a ball and bounced it in front of the plate? That was a Veal Chop. Or when he checked his swing on a pitch? Veal Cutlet. And what if the Tigers met the Milwaukee Braves in the World Series, and Frank Torre hit a line drive to shortstop that Veal caught? That would be a Veal Catchatorre, of course.
Veal never had the chance to repeat his success. Detroit acquired All-Star shortstop Ricky Bridges for the 1959 season, and Veal was relegated to a reserve role. Bridges started out great, leaving Veal with few chances to play. He got his first two hits of the season on May 20, leaving him with a .667 average. He went almost a month before he got another at-bat. In limited chances to play, Veal continued to defy the odds and hit well, but when Bridges started to falter, Veal played more and hit less. He hit his only career home run off White Sox ace Billy Pierce on August 11, but his hitting fell to .202 by the end of the year.
(Detroit actually had another shortstop in training camp in 1959, who they had on loan from the Dodgers. However, the team didn’t want to pay Los Angeles the $35,000 that it would have cost to keep him, and so Maury Wills went back to the Dodgers to become an All-Star and stolen base king.)
Veal didn’t join the Tigers in 1960 until August 1, spending most of the season on two different AAA teams. He got into 27 games with Detroit and hit a career-best .297, with a .400 on-base percentage and .406 slugging percentage — the latter thanks to 5 doubles and a triple. While Detroit was sure that he just wasn’t a hitter, the newly created Washington Senators liked him enough that he was taken by them in the winter expansion draft that welcomed the Senators and Los Angeles Angels into the American League.
Veal was glad for the change of venue and felt like the Senators would do well for an expansion team. “I’ve noticed that a lot of the younger guys who are getting their first real chance to play in the big leagues are playing the best ball they ever have. It’s almost like being reborn,” he said. The Senators lost 100 games, but Veal was a part of several team firsts.
The Senators hosted the White Sox in their first game on April 10, 1961, and Veal was Washington’s leadoff hitter and shortstop. In the top of the first inning, he caught a line drive by Minnie Minoso with Luis Aparicio on second base. He flipped the ball to second baseman Danny O’Connell to double up Aparicio and turn the first double play in team history. In the bottom of the frame, he got the Senators’ first hit — a bleeder to third base that he beat out — and scored the team’s first run after Gene Woodling hit a 2-run triple. He got 2 hits off Sox starter Early Wynn that day and played regularly through the end of June. He then lost playing time to Bob Johnson and Jim Mahoney and ended the season back as a defensive replacement and pinch-hitter, with a .202 average.
On November 21, 1961, Veal’s contract was sold to the Pittsburgh Pirates. His career with the Bucs amounted to one big-league at-bat on April 17, 1962 — he struck out as a pinch-hitter. He was demoted to AAA Buffalo, where he barely played before being traded to the Denver Bears on June 30. It was a homecoming for Veal, as the Bears were the AAA affiliate for the Detroit Tigers.
Veal was a surprise pick to make the Tigers’ 1963 Opening Day roster — it was a surprise to him as well, as he figured the Tigers would do with him what they always did, which is give him a look in spring training and send him down. Instead, he made a few early-season starts and drove in 3 runs with a sacrifice fly and 2-run single in a 4-0 shutout of the Minnesota Twins on April 28. After a few hitless games, Veal was sent to the minor leagues again, and this time he did not return. He spent 1964 in AAA for a couple of different organizations, and he retired after failing to make the New York Mets in 1965.
Veal played in parts of 6 seasons in the major leagues and had a slash line of .231/.298/.288. He had 141 hits that included 26 doubles, 3 triples and the 1 home run. He drove in 51 runs and scored 75 times. He placed 7th in the American League in 1961 with 10 sacrifice hits and 7th in caught stealing with 8. His lifetime fielding percentage at shortstop was .976, and the league average over the same time was just .960. Veal also played 11 seasons in the minor leagues and batted .243 with 17 home runs.
Coot Veal was never really forgotten in baseball circles. It was a great name, and he was frequently mentioned alongside Cot Deal, a pitcher who preceded Veal by a few years. Unfortunately, we never had the chance for a Veal-Deal confrontation. Columnists who missed the Golden Age of 1950s and ’60s baseball frequently asked, “Whatever happened to Coot Veal?” The answer was that Veal went back to Macon and raised his family. His four children were all athletically inclined themselves. Sons Barry and Brennan are part of the Macon Sports Hall of Fame, alongside their father. Veal served as vice president of Macon Mine and Mill for 43 years until his retirement.
For more information: Legacy.com