Beanhead, and the Sandlot Kids
Growing up in “The Park City,” Bridgeport, Connecticut, in the 1970’s, it was surprisingly difficult to actually find a park in which to play baseball.
Sure, there were parks around. And if you wanted a hooker, drugs, or a gay encounter in a bath-house, Bridgeport’s many parks offered all of this, and more. If however, you were an eleven year old boy who just wanted to play some ball, well, good luck my friend.
Usually, the best we could do was an overgrown, abandoned field, or a lightly used parking lot. One lot in particular, however, became our most consistently available playground. We called it the Insurance Lot, effectively foreshadowing the dry, corporate major league ballpark names we would come to despise two decades later.
No one knew why we called it The Insurance Lot, and I’m quite sure none of us ten to twelve-year-old kids could even explain to you just what insurance was, but once applied, the name stuck.
The lot, directly behind my friend Tony’s house, was paved and shaded by a couple of huge elm trees. It was bordered by an eight foot high wooden fence in the back (home-plate and the backstop.) A long, copper-wire fence interspersed with high scrub-grass and bushes on the right side represented the right field line, and a 1940’s era two-story wooden building painted red in the front was center field.
The small, fenced in property of an old bald man we kids called “Beanhead,” due to the strange shape of his skull and his olive skin-tone, was left field. It was a very bad idea to hit the ball into left field.
A pitcher would stand a few feet from the middle of the lot and toss a hard, rubbery sphere on one hop towards home-plate. When a player hit the ball, he might smoke it down the driveway along the wire fence leading out to Clinton Avenue for at least a double.
Or if he hit a line-drive to straight away center, it would bounce off the red house, and you would often end up with only a single. If a kid hit it over the second floor windows, however, that was an automatic double. A roof shot was an automatic homer, but it could also mean the end of the game if the ball got stuck up there somewhere.
An extreme right-handed pull-hitter, though, always faced the danger of depositing the ball into Beanhead’s backyard.
Beanhead, of course, was always home, just waiting for an opportunity to shake his bony fist at us and confiscate yet another baseball. It was rumored that Beanhead had the largest collection of baseballs in all of southern New England.
We sometimes fantasized about kicking in his small basement window, dropping down into it with a few flashlights, and liberating a boatload of baseballs. No one, of course, ever had the courage to even climb his fence.
As a result of the ever-present threat posed by Beanhead, most of us kids who hit from the right side of the plate learned to shorten-up our swings, and to angle our body away from that dangerous left field corner.
If the New York Mets ever decide to try to break Jason Bay of his dead-pull hitting tendencies, they might consider the tried and true Beanhead School of Hitting so that Bay could learn to use the whole field.
Eat your heart out, Charlie Lau.
One fine summer afternoon, going on about supper time, my little brother hit a long drive that one-hopped itself up…and over…Beanhead’s four-foot metal fence. We all waited silently for the inevitable result.
Sure enough, Beanhead, spry old man that he was, came charging down his little back porch in his khaki pants and leather slippers, a gleam of triumph and a flash of anger battling for equal time on his pinched, green face.
In the late afternoon shadows, it seemed to me that his complexion appeared greener than usual, as if he was gradually morphing into an exotic vegetable.
Beanhead hesitated for a moment as he looked around at us, confident that we were all paying attention. Then he slowly reached down and picked up the ball. At that moment, my brother, already standing on first base, said something loud enough for all of us to hear.
“I hope he dies.”
Now, even by our de facto Lord of the Flies childhood philosophy of life, this qualified as one shocking statement.
I’m not sure that Beanhead heard it, but if he did, it was the last thing he ever heard any of us say.
We never saw Beanhead again.
About three weeks later, our friend Johnny’s dad told Johnny that Beanhead had died of cancer. When Johnny told us this during one of our final games of the season, we all looked directly at my little brother.
“Holy smokes,” someone said, “you wished him dead and now he’s dead.”
With that, we broke off the conversation and resumed our game, still not sure how safe it would actually be to hit a ball into Beanhead’s yard. Playing it safe, no one hit another ball into his yard for the remainder of the summer.
By the following summer, two of my friends had moved away to the suburbs, and our shrunken little group had suddenly outgrown the tiny little insurance lot. Venturing out now all the way to Tunxis Hill in Fairfield, a thirty minute walk along Kings Highway, we had discovered what the rich kids already knew. A couple of legitimate baseball diamonds existed, there for the taking.
We never again played in our old home ballpark, The Insurance Lot. Like Ebbett’s Field, it exists now only in our collective memories.
I imagine, though, that whoever inherited the task of emptying out Beanhead’s basement, attic and closets must have been puzzled by the presence of so many balls of varying color and condition.
But who Beanhead really was, and why he did what he did, are part of the dark mysteries of childhood, a time when the adult world often collides unpleasantly with the uncluttered truth of youth.
A time when the sandlot kids just want to play some damn baseball.