Family Stories: Playing Baseball on the Grounds of the VA Hospital

Playing Baseball on the Grounds of the VA Hospital

… as told by my husband Steve

The Veterans Hospital in West Haven, Connecticut

The Veterans’ Administration Hospital in West Haven first opened in 1918 as a tuberculosis center… later in World War I to become an Army hospital. On August 9, 1921 Congress created the Veterans Bureau, and later in 1930 President Hoover consolidated the Veterans’ Bureau with the World War I Veterans programs, and the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers & Pension Bureau… re-designing it as the Veterans’ Administration. They closed it for a period of time in the 1940’s, before reopening in the 1950’s as a VA Hospital. Possibly after reopening… would have been when the recreation areas were added.

“I have many memories of the VA from a child, and often played on the grounds there. They actually had a baseball field and many tennis courts there for the veterans… I always wondered why, as most of the men I saw walking around were usually disabled back then; they never played baseball or tennis or even were able to. What most sticks in my mind is the fire pits we found where they burned trash… I remember seeing needles laying there in the burned ashes, and many laying around looked unused. It wasn’t a clean kept area like today. But I still see problems, and all the issues they show on TV at some of the VA’s around the country… doesn’t give me a good feeling… especially now that I have to go there. I have a few uncles that died there and my father died also there in 2000. Those are memories that will never leave my mind.”

“In the many times my best friend Louie (Camputaro) and I walked by the VA Hospital, we always took notice of empty tennis courts… and as we never saw anyone using them, we soon began playing tennis there; it was hard to get a court at Painter Park on Kelsey Avenue. We kept our secret place to ourselves… and for the most part, no one ever kicked us out.”

This is the only photo I’ve found showing tennis courts on the side of the Veterans Hospital… even though it’s listed as the William Wirt Winchester Hospital. The VA Hospital In West Haven was formerly called The William Wirt Winchester Hospital… so named in memory William Wirt who died of tuberculosis. It was funded by the William Wirt Winchester Fund in 1909 by his wife, Sara Winchester. Land was purchased on Campbell Avenue in West Haven, at what is now the campus of the Veterans Administration Medical Center. Construction first began in 1916, dedicated in 1918, but prior to its completion, the United States government leased the building for use as a military hospital until 1927. The Winchester Hospital later operated as the Tuberculosis Division of New Haven from 1928 to 1940. After the final sale of the buildings and property to the government in 1948, it became a Veterans Hospital with the dedication in 1953.

“It was my uncle, Gene Cavallaro, who first showed me a shortcut one day behind Marshall’s Garage on Campbell Avenue, in which I discovered the ballfield; it was a shortcut in accessing a faster route home to Sawmill Road… and it was faster using this back road behind the VA. On that day of discovering the ball field, with the fenced in area complete with two dugouts and viewing stands… looking exactly like a real baseball field; I knew I’d be back with my friends. Even though there were fences around the ball field, there were no locks on the gates.”

“Being a young boy of around ten… I was in awe… and excited… and wanted to play there! The baseball field was set back from where I often walked by on Spring St… hidden from view behind the front tennis and basketball courts… actually facing the side of the hospital. A tall back fence stood behind home plate, with outside fencing separating it from the grounds of the VA hospital. The ball field reminded me of the one at Painters Park on Kelsey Ave., where the Babe Ruth, Twilight League, and West Haven High School team played.”

“I never understood why those courts and ball-field were there for the veterans, as no one actually lived at the VA hospital unless they were totally disabled. Uncle Frankie told me that there was also a bowling alley and a restaurant on a top floor; he heard that while doing some remodeling work there. Uncle Johnny always said that the men living there were too disabled to actually use the fields, but having it on the property looked good on paper… he never minced his words! I guess that’s why I never saw any men using it. It wasn’t until much later, in understanding why these things were really there… only a visual for all to see what was provided.”

“There were also basketball courts between the tennis courts and the ball field. All the land on the side of the hospital, back to the maintenance buildings in the back, was all for recreation. No one ever used the grounds, but yet the fields there were kept picture perfect. The groundskeeper lived in the lower brick building at the bottom of the back hill facing Campbell Avenue… it was set back behind the front brick wall. The grounds were always kept immaculate… as they still are today. There wasn’t any need for parking at that time, like today… and those very fields today are now all parking lots.”

“Once discovering the ball field, our gang of boys began playing baseball there… before only playing in an open field near my house on Sawmill Road. Here we had a “real” ball-field, with bases laid out in regulation style. There was even a real life dug-out… dug about half down, making it cool while you waited for your turn to bat.”

“Who knows… maybe we entertained some of those Veterans watching us play ball from the top floors!”

“There were about fourteen of us when we played ball there on the fields of the VA. We had enough to completely fill out the field, but often never enough to have extras waiting in the dugouts there. When we played in the open field near my house… the outfield wasn’t even big enough for more than one catcher in the field. Playing in this field was like being on a regulation size field. Only once in awhile, someone would come tell us, “you can’t be here.” We never argued, we just left with no grumbling or talking back like kids would do today. We always came back another day, and they usually never said anything… they let us play. We never destroyed anything… we just enjoyed the field.”

This is what the VA looked like when I grew up… we always entered through those doors to find the coveted Coca Cola machine.

“My friends and I sometimes went inside on hot days to cool off. Even in the late 50’s, it still had a 1940’s look to it, somewhat dark and gloomy with torn ragged carpet… but it was the Coca Cola machine that we were interested in. If I had a dime, I could buy a Coke or quench my thirst from the cold water fountain just inside the door. We usually only ventured in if we were extremely hot and thirsty from playing ball, or just walking by. We were always respectful… and they never asked us to leave.”

“We all stopped playing around 1964 when I turned 16 and got a job… everything in my life soon changed. I didn’t even want to play hockey anymore… I wanted to work, make money, and buy a car!”

“The ball fields were still there when I left for the Air Force in 1968… but everything changed after I left… and by the time I came back home for the first time, most of the recreation areas were gone… it was the beginning of expansion… and what wasn’t used… was gone.. All that I had grown up with as a ten year old boy, was now only a memory. The tennis courts in the front were still there in 1971 when I married, but I believe the baseball field and basketball courts were gone… but at that time in my life, I wasn’t paying attention to those things any longer.”

I don’t remember ever seeing anyone sitting around inside, or even walking around outside like you see today. Most Veteran’s that lived there at that time were ones missing limbs or had mental issues. I do remember that when one would escape, they’d sound a siren…. and it usually happened at least once a year.

“The VA Hospital was never crowded like it is now… just to find a parking space today, you need to arrive almost an hour before your appointment. There was once even parking meters on Spring Street when I walked up that long hill as a boy… and still there during the 50’s as I can remember. In thinking back, I’m not sure exactly when they were removed, but about twenty-five years ago there was actually a big push to bring them back. I couldn’t believe what I was reading when I saw that article on the front page of the New Haven Register. After that story ran in the paper, you never heard about it again… as there was strong outcry over it in wanting veterans to pay for parking. It was bad enough you had to spend hours just looking for a space… leaving many who couldn’t walk the distance, even after they found parking. The parking meter fiasco would have been after the Gulf War, as that was the time when the VA was becoming more used than in the past.”

“I’ll never forget Sergeant Foster, my recruiting officer, telling us… “after leaving the Air Force, you’ll have free medical for the rest of your lives.” That didn’t seem to be quite the truth when I tried to sign up. I never needed their medical until I was forced with retirement at age 60 from New Haven Body Building… the final of many lay-offs through the years. It wasn’t easy either, as they first denied me until my wife mentioned that I had spent time in a hospital in Vietnam (Cam Ron Bay) while en-route home from Thailand. That suddenly changed everything! It seemed as now they viewed me as a Vietnam Veteran; supposedly you had to have spent time on Vietnam soil to qualify. I should have listened to my Uncle Frankie… as he had told me that the first thing I should do upon discharge from the Air Force was sign up at the VA. I didn’t understand why at that time, as I had a good job, with good medical benefits, and didn’t need to use them… but he was right!”


© 2021, copyright Jeanne Bryan Insalaco; all rights reserved

More of Hubby’s Family Stories can be read HERE.


About Jeanne Bryan Insalaco

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