Baseball cards of the early 1970s are known for many attributes, not the least of which is the appearance of the dreaded windbreaker, or the warm-up jacket. During spring training, players of that era often wore windbreakers, in particular to deal with the early days of camp, when the weather tended to be cooler and windier. Some players would wear the windbreaker under their jerseys, an unusual look that became quite a trendsetting fashion in the early ’70s. That little trick might have also been a way to sweat off a few extra pounds that had gathered on a player’s physique during the winter months.
In this memorable 1972 card, Bob Veale is not wearing the dark greenish windbreaker that became popular with most of the Pirates (for a good example, see Dock Ellis’ 1972 card), but is instead wearing the Bucs’ older style black-and-white warm-up jacket, with its distinctively large yellow “P.” It’s a decidedly gaudy jacket, with the brightly white sleeves contrasting against the dark black of the torso. But it’s also a hip look that is emblematic of the 1970s; it’s the kind of jacket that grade school boys of that era would have loved to have, perhaps giving up their left arm in return.
Intimidating in his look and pose, Veale is putting his left arm to good use in this photograph, as he finishes off the kind of simulated throwing motion that became a trademark of Topps cards. We know that Veale wasn’t throwing an actual ball on that overcast day in Bradenton, Fla. With steely eyes squinting behind those outsized tinted glasses and his mouth clenched shut, Veale is doing his serious best to imitate the act of pitching, but his tensed fist is a dead giveaway that his pitching motion is staged and not genuine.
The card also has a bit of a surreal quality, thanks to the large steel cage in the background. Is that a batting cage or a storm shelter? If it is indeed a batting cage, it is a behemoth, one that looks like it might be better suited for a fight between two combatants from a Road Warrior sequel.
At the time this memorable card was created, Veale had won 114 games in a career that began in 1962. He had pitched only for the Pirates and almost exclusively as a starting pitcher. In his early years, his blazing fastball had drawn comparisons to that of Dodgers ace Sandy Koufax, who was generally acknowledged as the hardest thrower of the 1960s. Any comparison that puts a pitcher in the same neighborhood as Koufax indicates just how terrifying Veale must have been at his peak.
The statistics support the image of the 6-foot-6 Veale as a monster on the mound. In 1964, he struck out 250 batters, leading the league, including the great Koufax. The following year, he pumped up his total to 276. In 1969, he would post his final 200-strikeout season. Though radar gun readings were not commonly used in the 1960s, it’s a safe bet that Veale, at his peak, threw his regulation fastball upwards of 95 miles per hour.
Veale’s level of intimidation was enhanced by his wildness. Four times in his career, he led the National League in walks. Three of those times, he topped the 100-mark. He was “Wild Thing” long before the movie came out.
When reporters ask hitters from the 1960s to name the left-handed pitchers they most feared facing, Veale’s name usually comes up, along with Koufax and Sudden Sam McDowell. Some hitters, like Lou Brock and Willie McCovey, have claimed that Veale sometimes took off his glasses while pitching, as a way of furthering the notion that he didn’t know where the ball was going.
By 1971, a bad back and the onset of age had taken several miles per hour away from Veale’s repertoire and now mandated a move to the bullpen. The transition brought with it a series of questions. Would Veale’s lapses in control discourage manager Danny Murtaugh from using him in critical late-inning situations? Would Veale’s arm be able to hold up to pitching three to four times a week, instead of the one to two starts a rotation pitcher would make? And what effect would Veale’s lack of conditioning have on his effectiveness. Veale had reported to spring training at 242 pounds, the heaviest weight of his career. The increase prompted the bluntest of headlines in the Pittsburgh Press: “Pirate Fat Man Battles Weight.”
An even larger question shadowed Veale in the spring of 1971. Would he start the season in a Pirates uniform? The large left hander’s name repeatedly popped up in spring training trade rumors. One round of speculation had the Tigers inquiring about Veale, perhaps in a deal involving slick-fielding shortstop Eddie Brinkman (the subject of an earlier “Card Corner” in this space). With veteran shortstop Gene Alley hurt and young Jackie Hernandez considered a borderline major leaguer at best, the slick-fielding Brinkman seemed like a perfect fit for the Pirates. Nonetheless, Pirates general manager Joe Brown denied that any discussions with Detroit took place.
As it turned out, Veale remained in Pittsburgh for the entire season, pitching primarily in long and mop-up relief. He recovered from a bad first impression by losing a dozen pounds during the spring, dropping to a more svelte 230 pounds. Perhaps wearing the warm-up jacket aided the cause. Looking leaner as February faded into March, Veale pitched well in frequent relief appearances during the exhibition season. By the end of spring training, Veale survived his own weight problems, the spring training trade rumors, and a simmering contract dispute with Joe Brown to make the Pirates’ Opening Day roster.
By maintaining a spot on the Pirates’ roster throughout the season, Veale earned the first and only world championship ring of his career. After winning the National League East, Veale’s Pirates upended the hard-hitting Giants in the Championship Series before stunning the favored Orioles in a classic seven-game World Series.
The 1971 season also provided Veale with an opportunity to take part in an unusual episode of baseball history. On Sept. 1, the Pirates became the first team in major league history to field an all-black lineup. Veale pitched out of the bullpen that day, one of three Pirates relievers to take his turn in place of an ineffective Dock Ellis.
Veale did not pitch particularly well for the ‘71 Pirates. In fact, it was the worst season of his career. He struggled through some brutal relief outings, which ballooned his ERA to nearly the 7.00 mark. After the season, several Pittsburgh writers predicted that Veale would draw his unconditional release.
To the surprise of many, the Pirates retained Veale and his 6.99 ERA on their 40-man roster. His spot secured, Topps printed a 1972 card for Veale. The card, numbered at 729, did not come out until later in the season. In fact, by the time the card hit candy and dime stores, Veale was no longer a Pirate. In his first five appearances in 1972, Veale had pitched brutally, giving up seven walks and 10 hits in nine innings. The Pirates responded by placing him on waivers. When no other major league team claimed him, Veale agreed to report to the Bucs’ Triple-A affiliate at Charleston.
Veale remained an International League pitcher until Sept. 2. Opting not to bring Veale up for the stretch run as they made their way to another division title, the Pirates instead sold him to the Red Sox, who were contending for a title of their own in the American League East.
Veale found AL batters to his liking. He pitched extremely well in six games for Boston, hurling eight scoreless innings of relief, while picking up two wins and two saves. Unfortunately, Veale’s pitching wasn’t enough to help the Red Sox overtake the Tigers in the pennant race, but his impressive showing convinced the front office to bring him back for the 1973 season.
Appearing in a Boston uniform (and with a windbreaker underneath the jersey) on his 1973 Topps card, Veale pitched so well for the Red Sox that he became their second-best reliever, behind only Bobby Bolin, who was having a career year. But suddenly, Veale’s performance fell off in 1974, Dogged by injuries, he pitched only 13 innings in 18 appearances, saw his ERA balloon above five and a half, and watched his 13-year major league career wind down to its finish.
Veale was not done with baseball, however. He wanted to coach, even though very few black men held managing or coaching positions at the time. Yes, Frank Robinson had just become the Indians’ skipper, making him the first African-American manager in big league history, but outside of Cleveland, very few blacks held any coaching jobs. Veale had to sit out the 1975 season, but the following year, he signed on with the Braves, who made him one of their minor league pitching instructors.
In 1983, he landed in Utica, N.Y., the hometown of his former Pirates teammate Dave Cash. The Utica Blue Sox, an independent minor league team owned by writer Roger Kahn, hired Veale as pitching coach. Kahn’s ownership of the team was something of a sham, a publicity stunt designed to generate a plot for his next book. But the Sox became a success under Kahn. Stocked with minor league veterans, the Blue Sox ended up winning the New York-Penn League championship that summer.
I started working in Utica in 1987, missing Veale by four years. Veale is long since retired from coaching, but baseball diehards in Utica still remember him. Quotable and outgoing, Veale seemed to be well-liked by everybody, not an easy feat in a Blue Sox organization that had its share of disharmony and dysfunction. On a team where the entire front office and coaching staff seemed to be at odds with one another, Veale remained calm and above the fray. In other words, he acted very differently from the image portrayed on his baseball card. He looked a bit frightening in his pose for Topps, but Bob Veale is not so monstrous after all.