If you’d asked Ty Cobb, he’d have said longtime teammate Bobby Veach was too nice to be a great ballplayer. Yet in spite of a disposition that as a tad too rosy for Cobb’s liking, Veach was one of the best sluggers of his era and a great player in his own right.
During the 1910s, the Detroit Tigers had an embarrassment of riches. Right to left in the outer reaches they had Sam Crawford, Cobb, and in left field, Veach. The trio played together for six seasons until “Wahoo Sam” took his heavy stick to the west coast to play in the Pacific Coast League. Subsequently, right fielder Harry Heilmann joined Cobb and Veach in the outfield. All of those fly chasers are in the Baseball Hall of Fame, except for Veach, who batted cleanup for the Tigers in that era, consistently leading the league in several categories.
Compared to Cobb and Crawford, Veach was average in stature, at just over 5’10 and 160 pounds. But his size belied his strength. At the fresh age of 12 years old, Bobby worked in the mines with his father and brothers in Kentucky. As a result, Veach was rock solid from the waist up. He hit cleanup most of his career, directly behind Cobb and Crawford. Predictably, batting after the two future Hall of Famers helped Veach at the plate. He had plenty of opportunities to plate runners, leading the American League in RBI three times and driving in more runs than any player in baseball from 1915-1922.
The left-handed hitting Veach was part of what one sportwriter dubbed “The $100,000 Outfield” with Cobb and Crawford. That trio is considered by many to be the greatest outfield ever to play the game.
In contrast to Cobb and Crawford, who each utilized what was called “inside baseball” techniques in the deadball era, Veach swung from his heels. He held the bat at the end of the nob, something he felt more comfortable doing. He rarely was asked to perform the hit-and-run, something Cobb, Crawford, and leadoff man Donie Bush were adept at. Veach led the AL in doubles, triples, and was frequently among league leaders in total bases and slugging.
Cobb didn’t particularly like Veach’s approach to the game, and not just his technique. Veach was much too friendly for his liking. The Tiger left fielder made friends throughout the league, and in two other cities: Chicago and St. Louis, Veach was honored with special days later in his career, as a thank you for being such a swell guy.
In 1921, Veach lost his closest ally and supporter on the club when manager Hughey Jennings was let go. It didn’t make it easier when Cobb was named the new skipper. Quickly, Cobb set out to mold Veach in his own fashion. He was determined to make Veach compete on the diamond as he did – as if it was life and death. The new Tiger manager employed young Heilmann to assist in his efforts. He instructed Heilmann to holler insults at Veach throughout the season, to toughen him up. Veach responded by having one of his finest seasons, setting career highs in runs (110), hits (207), and RBI (128) while batting .338 for the Tigers. Unfortunately, the tactic forever wrinkled the relationship between Veach and Heilmann, and the two rarely spoke to each other after that season.
Veach had another great season in 1922, but by 1923 his days were numbered in Detroit. Cobb continually tried to trade his outfield mate, and was finally successful after the 1923 campaign, exiling Bobby to Boston. Despite batting in a miserable Red Sox lineup, Veach drove in 99 runs for Boston in 1924. In Game Six of the 1925 World Series for the Washington Senators, he grounded out to second base as a pinch-hitter in what was his final major league appearance.
He owned a .310 career average on the strength of more than 2,000 hits. In 14 seasons he averaged 35 doubles, 13 triples, six homers, and 104 RBI per season. But even though he wasn’t under contract in the majors, Veach was far from done playing baseball. Veach spent four seasons playing for the Toledo Mud Hens in the International Association from 1926-1929. At the age of 40 in 1928 he led the league in batting with a .382 mark. He may have not had a big league job, but Veach was still a fine hitter. He retired and purchased a coal company in the 1930s. He died in Southfield, Michigan, in 1945.
Just two players have ever led the American League in hits, doubles, triples, and runs batted in as a Tiger. One of them is Cobb, the other is Veach, the man who was just a little too amiable for “The Georgia Peach.” But even though Cobb had difficulty understanding Veach’s approach to the game, he touched home plate hundreds of times upon being driven in by his teammate, the forgotten Tiger star.