By Rick Cleveland
Sixty-year-old Terry “Harmonica” Bean is known around the world – and especially in Europe – for his down-home Mississippi blues music. In his hometown of Pontotoc, they know he plays the blues, but he is much more famous and beloved for his once-remarkable baseball skills.
Terry Bean, you say? His baseball feats in this small, hill country town are legendary.
“Oh yeah, Terry pitched both right-handed and left-handed, and that rascal was unhittable from either side,” says Bean’s former Pontotoc coach Tommy Wood. “I’ve always believed, had he stayed healthy, he would have pitched in the Major Leagues. He was that talented, that good. And he could hit the ball a country mile.”
Wood points to a building high on a steep hill, at least 40 steps behind the “345 feet” sign on the right field fence at the Pontotoc baseball field known as The Hollow.
“Terry once hit one off that house,” Wood says. “Not many human beings can do that. He did it back in 1980.”
Ah, the spring of 1980, 41 years ago, when Terry Bean and teammate Nikki White pitched and helped hit Pontotoc to its first-ever state championship. When Nikki pitched, Terry played first base. When Terry pitched, Nikki played first base. Nikki had the only first baseman’s mitt, and he was left-handed. So Terry played first base left-handed. He hit left-handed, too.
White remembers a game against Mooreville that season.
“Terry was pitching and I was playing first,” White says. “Their leadoff hitter blooped one just out of my reach, barely in the outfield grass, for a cheap hit to start the game. Well, you could tell it made Terry angry. So he just proceeded to strike out the next 23 batters. Twenty-three straight! They couldn’t touch him. We won 1-0 in eight innings. That was the only hit they got.”
Wood keeps well-preserved newspaper clippings to authenticate the legend of Terry Bean, clippings from the Pontotoc Progress and Tupelo Journal. Photos show Bean pitching both right-handed and left-handed and document him throwing no-hitters and one-hitters and slugging grand slam home runs.
Wood remembers that no matter whether Bean pitched right-handed or left-handed, he used his right-hander’s glove. “He threw a lot harder right-handed, probably in the low 90s,” Wood says. “Left-handed, he was probably mid-80s but he had a lot more movement on the ball from the left side. He mainly pitched right-handed for us. I remember one time we were playing Okolona and had a big district game coming up, so he pitched right-handed for three innings and then left-handed for the next four. Didn’t matter; they couldn’t hit him either way.”
Pontotoc finished 26-4. Bean’s pitching record was 9-1 and he averaged more than two strikeouts per inning.
Wood first heard of Bean when Bean, as a young teen, was pitching for a semi-pro team, the Algoma Sluggers of the nearby Algoma community. “People were telling me about this little, skinny boy who threw from either side and was striking out grown-up men in a pretty good semi-pro league,” Wood says. “When Terry got to the tenth grade, I found him in the hallway and told him he needed to come play for us on the high school team, and thankfully he did.”
So, it’s about time we hear from the blues and baseball man himself, Terry Bean, and you should know on the front end that you will not meet a more upbeat, ebullient human being. Even when he talks about hardship, he says it with a smile. At 60, he retains an athletic build and looks like he could still go a few innings.
“I was born in 1961, and I never knew my mama until I was 12,” Bean says. “She left when I was a baby, and my daddy, Eddie Bean, raised me by himself. I didn’t meet my mama until I was 12 and she came back for the funeral of one of my brothers.”
That would be one of his 18 brothers. He also has six sisters. There are 24 Bean siblings in all. Terry Bean says he has 14 full siblings and 10 more by either his father or mother.
“My daddy was a full-time blues player,” Terry Bean says. “He played guitar and sang. He was also a big gambler. When I was little, he was always taking me to juke joints where he played. Back then, people brought their families to the jukes. My daddy, sometimes he’d gamble until he lost all his money, then go back out and play some more blues to make some money so he could go back and roll the dice. My daddy was a man of many talents…”
Terry pauses, as if to make his point, and then continues with a smile, “And he made a lot of children, too.”
Sometimes, Eddie Bean would bring his son up on stage with him and Terry would play along. “I remember,” Terry says, smiling, “the first time somebody tipped me a whole dollar. Thought I was rich.”
So you, as I did, might wonder: When did the baseball come in?
“I used to play ball by myself,” Terry says. “I’d throw the ball off this old smokehouse building behind the house. It had a hole in the wall and sometimes I’d try to throw it through the hole. It had to be just right to get through that hole, but I kept throwing until I could get it through that hole.”
And then, when he became bored, he started throwing it with his left arm.
“There was this one spot on that old smokehouse that was hard enough that when you hit it, the ball would come right back to you,” Terry says. “That’s how I learned to field. The harder I threw it, the harder it would come back. But Daddy got mad when I started knocking some of the planks off.”
Terry built the house where he lives on the same site where his daddy once lived. In the yard are several older pickup trucks, riding lawn mowers and a van. A self-taught mechanic, he works on those and says he can fix the older models when nobody else can. Behind his house is a one-room cottage that Terry built to store some of his things.
“You want to see it?” he says, and then searches for the right key on his ring, trying two or three before one works.
Terry opens the door and says, “My life is in this place.”
Turns out, it is a one-room museum with posters of events he has played all over the world, a drum set, photos of him pitching both left-handed and right-handed, baseball trophies, at least 20 harmonicas, souvenir baseballs of no-hitters he threw, photos of the many blues icons he has played with and a big poster of one of his heroes, Muhammad Ali.
He shows visitors posters from festivals he has played all over Europe, Australia, the Middle East and Africa. He shows us photos from when he played at the Great Pyramids in Egypt.
The pandemic has curtailed his globe-trotting for the last 14 months, so he has had to make his money locally. He does blues gigs around the state. He works some shifts at a lumber factory. He mows yards. He stays busy while he waits for the world to open back up.
Where, he is asked, does he like best of all the world-trotting music gigs?
Bean flashes that big grin of his, “I am always most happy when I get back home.”
So, you ask, what happened to Terry Bean’s baseball career? The answer: lots. Before the state championship series, his senior season, Bean was riding on the back of a motorcycle with a cousin. The cycle skidded and crashed, Bean flew off and landed on his head. He suffered a bad concussion and apparently more.
He played – but could not pitch much – in the championship series. Says Nikki White, his teammate, “The California Angels had shown a lot of interest. We were sure they were going to draft him, but they backed off after the motorcycle accident.”
Bean suffered excruciating headaches for the next few months. Finally, on the advice of a friend, he went to see a chiropractor who told him he had suffered a pinched nerve in his neck and that he could fix it.
“He did and I never had another one of those headaches,” Terry says. “It was like magic.”
He pitched one season at Northwest Community College in Senatobia, where he compiled a 6-0 record for legendary Northwest coach Jim Miles, for whom the NWCC baseball stadium is named.
“Terry was phenomenal,” says Miles. “He threw hard and he threw strikes, and he had a curveball that just sort of fell off the table. And what a great guy he was, always so positive. He came from a poor background and I used to loan him five dollars for gas every time he had to go back home, which was most every Friday. On Monday morning, he’d come back by my office and try to hand me a five-dollar bill. I never had another player do that.”
Bean once again caught the interest of Major League scouts before he suffered a bad knee injury in a fall scrimmage against Ole Miss later in 1981. That ended his playing days at Northwest and the interest of the professional scouts for the time being.
A few years later, when Bean was back pitching semi-pro ball – throwing shutouts and striking out everybody in sight – people kept telling him he should be pitching professionally. He headed to Greenville for a Major League tryout camp. He never got there. He was headed west. A car heading east swerved into his lane. He jerked the steering wheel, swerved right off the road, flipped three times and suffered injuries that ended his baseball playing days.
So, if you are keeping score: Head and neck injuries from a motorcycle wreck were strike one. A mangled knee from an off-season baseball injury was strike two. The horrific car accident was strike three. As far as baseball was concerned, Terry Bean was out.
But he always remembers what his daddy told him once when they were discussing his career choices: baseball or music. Says Bean, “Daddy looked at me right in the eyes and he said, ‘You can play ball and you can play the blues. But just remember, in the long run, the blues will do something for you. The blues can take you somewhere.'”
If anybody has a story that would make one sing the blues, Terry Bean surely does. “To this day, I miss playing,” Bean says. “I miss ball, I miss competing, but, really, I don’t let it bother me. The blues have taken me all over the world. Yeah, I miss ball but I have my music.”
Noted blues historian Scott Barretta, writer and researcher for the Mississippi Blues Trail, calls Bean a friend and a man “who has certainly made his mark” among the many Mississippi blues legends. Barrett has traveled with Bean to Italy and to the Chicago Blues Festival and says he admires how “Terry has forged his musical career doing it his way.”
“Terry doesn’t have a manager or an agent and never has,” Barretta says. “He’s his own man. He does things his way. He doesn’t have to reach out to festivals or venues. They reach out to him. They find him.
“Terry doesn’t drink or smoke, he’s never done drugs,” Barretta says. “He’s incredibly entrepreneurial. Anything he produces, record-wise, he’s gonna sell it. He doesn’t travel with his own band, and he doesn’t mind playing gigs with pick-up bands, but they are going to do it his way. Terry’s like Chuck Berry in that way. He just shows up, on time, and plays.”
An interviewer asks Bean: Couldn’t you make more money and wouldn’t it make it easier for you if you had an agent?
“That’s what people tell me,” Bean responds. “But I am my own man. I like to be me. I do it my way. Several agents have talked to me but I like to make decisions for myself. I want to be in control of what I do. Sometimes, I’ll make 10 or 20 thousand dollars on a gig overseas and somebody’ll say, well, that’s not really that much money. You could make a lot of money if you got an agent. Well, that’s a lot of money for me.
“Maybe I’m not rich, but I am rich in spirit,” he says. “I am happy being me.”