My basement is filled with baseball stuff: bats, balls, bubblegum cards, bobbleheads and whatever else I’ve picked up at ballparks and antique stores over the years. There is even a salmon can filled with pebbles to cheer on the Anchorage Bucs during a cool night game and an Alaskan League baseball from Fairbanks’ northernmost stadium in the world.
A light blue, number 3 seat from imploded Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium — that a hard-hatted worker slipped to me for some rolled-up bills — and old wooden seats out of Historic Engel Stadium in Chattanooga hold well-worn gloves of yesteryear, rusted catcher’s gear and caps from minor league teams.
And evidence of my firm belief that Mr. Henry Louis Aaron is the true reigning home run king abounds.
But today my cozy little baseball haven got something better than biographies, board games and buckets of batting practice homers. A former major leaguer, Coot Veal, stopped by for a visit.
Before coming to my house, Coot and I met over lunch arranged by our mutual friend Loyd Landrum, minister of music emeritus at Macon, Georgia’s Vineville Baptist Church and a pretty good catcher in his day. Coot is an active member of Haddock Baptist Church, north of Macon, where Loyd once served an interim.
As Loyd and I quizzed him, Coot talked about old ballparks, life in the minor and major leagues during the ‘50s, and players and managers he had encountered. He graciously shared that the greatest hitter he ever witnessed was one he played against in his very first game with the Detroit Tigers when coming up to “the Show” in midseason 1958: Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox.
Herb Score, whose career was cut short by injury, is the most dominant pitcher he named. Coot’s only major league homer came off the impressive Billy Pierce (no relation to me — unless there’s an inheritance out there).
Coot, who has lived in or around Macon, Ga., most of his life, played two years of basketball (with Vince Dooley as his teammate) and baseball at Auburn before getting married and giving in to the appeals of a Detroit Tigers scout.
He played 246 games over four seasons with, first, the Tigers — where he built friendships with outfielders Harvey Kuenn and Al Kaline — and then the Washington Senators. (He played one game with the Pittsburg Pirates.)
His slick fielding was well appreciated. However, he made a costly error once in a game that the Tigers lost to the Baltimore Orioles. But redemption came quickly.
Here’s how my friend Ed Grisamore, in an April column about Coot in the Macon Telegraph, told it: “After he redeemed himself the following day with some sparkling defense, the catchy newspaper headline on the sports page read: ‘No Beef With Veal Today.’”
Looking around my basement, Coot said I had a lot more baseball stuff than he. But he has better stuff — including two baseballs with good histories.
Nursing an injury during a series with the Yankees, Coot hung out in the Senators’ bullpen beyond the outfield fence. There he snagged both the 44th homer of the season by Mickey Mantle and the 45th by Roger Maris.
The year was 1961, which baseball fan know was the season in which Mantle finished with 54 home runs and his teammate Maris with 61 — breaking the record set by Babe Ruth.
After baseball, Coot came back to central Georgia and worked in the industrial supply business. In retirement, Coot helps his son a bit who coaches at Jones County High School in Gray, Ga., and works on skills with his grandsons.
Otherwise, he pays little attention to the game that once meant so much to him.
About 15 years ago or so, at an old-timers game in Chattanooga to benefit Special Olympics, Coot realized why he has moved on from baseball to recreational golf. After fielding a grounder hit to him at short, he said he threw his shoulder out rather than the runner.
Today he watches baseball sporadically but is impressed by a couple of current Atlanta Braves who get less attention than many of their teammates: Omar Infante and Martin Prado — both heading to their first MLB All-Star Game next week.
It was so nice of Coot to stop by for a visit today — this being his 78th birthday. But it sure seems like I’m the one who got the gift.
[PHOTOS: Inman “Coot” Veal, holding my 1963 Topps card of him. Two young baseball fans — raised to love the game by their father — with the former major league shortstop.]
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.