October 24, 2020

Going Nine: The Power Of Two

(This story was originally published in Gotham Baseball Magazine)

Eddie Lucas was a baseball fan, born into a baseball loving family.

Just hours after watching Bobby Thomspon hit is historic home run against the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951, Lucas was hit with a baseball in his face. The accident robbed him of his eyesight at the young age of 12. Though he had born with eye disease, he could still see. Now, he no longer would.

“My parents were heartbroken,” Lucas remembered,” They each offered to donate one of their eyes so I could see, but the doctor said that it wouldn’t work.”

Yet, while filled with fear, this was a lad with an iron will, who was determined to overcome this daunting obstacle that fate had cast before him.

He also had a little help along the way.

A chance meeting with a Yankee, Phil “The Scooter” Rizzuto, helped strengthen that will, and soon was enrolled in St. Joseph’s School for the Blind.

Thanks, in part to a special nun named Sr. Anthony Marie, who told Lucas, “We’re all in this together”, the scared little boy learned to use his other senses, learn Braille and other critical skills that would help him to not dependent on others to take care of him for the rest of his life.

As he became more and more adept at his newfound abilities, he also discovered that his love for the game of baseball could endure, and channeled his efforts in become a sports journalist.

Armed with a reel-to-reel to record interviews for radio broadcasts, the young boy was taken under the wing of the Yankee PR department, and a career was born.

“The Yankees, and especially (then-Assistant PR Director) Jackie Farrell, were very kind to me,” Lucas said. “I’d call them up and say ‘I’d like to go to the game today’, and Jackie would take care of it.”
Years later, Lucas – armed with a Degree in Communications from Seton Hall – continued his historic (and too often overlooked) career as a sports writer. Over the years his work as appeared in Baseball Digest, the Hudson Dispatch and the Jersey Journal.

Now, and as he’s done for decades, Lucas has thanked the legendary St. Joseph staff by tireless fundraising efforts.

Those efforts inspired writer Aris Sakellaridis and illustrator John Pennisi to donate half of the proceeds of their book “Yankees Retired Numbers” to help raise the money needed to build a new facility for St. Joseph’s.

With a foreword by Rizzuto, who helped Lucas raise million for the school, the book is an amazing tribute – and a memorabilia collector’s dream – to the Yankee greats of years past.

He may have never worn the uniform, but to witness how Reggie Jackson, Yogi Berra and others interact with Lucas, you’d never know it.

For Lucas, the generosity, respect and admiration shown to him by Yankees owner George Steinbrenner is something that “means a great deal” to him.

“Mr Steinbrenner has always gone out of his way to acknowledge me,” said Lucas. “When others would simply ignore me — thinking I was blind, so I wouldn’t know if they were there (I always could) – he always would say hello and ask me if there was anything he could do.”

The Boss not only said it, he meant it. Because when Lucas requested to be married at home plate at Yankee Stadium – the only person ever such honored – Steinbrenner not only gave the word, he picked up the tab.

“Mr. Steinbrenner’s been so great to me,” Lucas said. “I can’t praise him enough.”

***

For Ray Negron, a chance “meeting” with Steinbrenner changed the course of his life as well.

The encounter, he says “saved my life.” In return, he’s now trying to help others believe that anything is possible.

Born and bred in the Bronx, the then-17 Negron’s vandalism of the House That Ruth Built – he was spray painting a “NY” logo on a wall at Yankee Stadium — was interrupted by none other than the Boss himself, who instead of calling the cops, gave the troubled kid a job, and as it turns out, an incredible opportunity.

“Yes, baseball saved me,” said Negron, “The day Mr. Steinbrenner found me, I was with two cousins and two brothers. The two cousins are both dead from drugs and my two brothers have been in and out of prisons most of their lives.”

Given a job as a Yankee bat boy, Negron was embraced by the Yankees – much like Lucas – and people like Steinbrenner, Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson made a lasting impression on him that “lasts to this day”.

“The three of them had such an effect on me,” Negron said. “Billy was such a good man, a religious man, and he used to tell me ‘Ray, you can do whatever you want to do.’

“He was right.”

Soon after, Negron embarked on an amazing journey that took him to places like being Willie Randolph’s minor league double play partner, acting in Francis Ford Coppola’s Cotton Club and later, working as a player agent and confidant to people like Roberto Alomar, Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden.

Now, though, Negron’s journey has taken him to “The Boy of Steel”.

For years, Negron made dozens of charities and causes that help children with cancer a priority in his life. But with his book, “The Boy of Steel”, he’s making history.

“Going to all the different hospitals through the years, and seeing what I’ve seen and experienced what I’ve experienced, people were always telling me, ‘do a book, do a book, (you’ll make money).” said Negron, who is donating all of the proceeds of the book’s sales to charity. “(But) I could never make money off the death of a child.”

The book tells the story of a cancer patient, Michael Steel, who gets to meet Gehrig and other famous Yankee legends like Babe Ruth and DiMaggio, when he is given the role of Yankees’ bat boy for one day.

“We’re here for a very short time, and what you do with that time is important,” Negron said. “Especially when you have kids, you have to do what you do for the betterment of mankind.

“It’s not like I’m a rich guy or anything like that, said Negron. “I came in with nothing, and I’m going to leave with nothing.

“I want to know when I’m nearing the end, that I can have peace with myself, so when I meet my Maker, I can half at least half-way decent standing with him, know what I mean?”

Many prominent figures have praised the book, including radio icon Don Imus, country star Tim McGraw, “Sopranos” star James Gandolfini and Ron Shelton, producer of the baseball movie “Bull Durham.”
Even the President of the United States sent a personal letter to Negron, congratulating him on the book. Negron was deeply touched by the note, but a correspondence from Steinbrenner was one that Negron says “meant the most to him.”

Considering their history, it makes perfect sense.

“He wrote “I’m proud of you,” Negron said. “I cannot tell you you how much that means to me.”

Also moving, Negron says, has been the response from those who have read the book and shared it with others.

“I had to come up with something that the kids and their mothers and fathers dads could share together,” Negron said. “I can’t tell you how much I enjoy hearing that dads enjoy reading it as much as the kids do.

“I was sitting in the stands one day with Richard Gere, and watching one of the greatest actors of our generation read the book to his son…Well, that was something.”

Ironically, Negron and Lucas had never really met before this year. When Lucas was married at Yankee Stadium, Negron – visibly touched by the event – introduced himself, and a warm freindship was forged.

“When I feel bad, or something is bothering me, I know I can talk to Eddie, and feel better,” smiled Negron. “He may be blind, but he sees more than all of us.”

Inspiration, meet inspiration. Sounds catching. Let’s hope so.

“Yankees Retired Numbers”, written by Aris Sakellaridis, and Illustrated by John Pennisi, is published by by Retired Press. Fifty percent of all sales will be donated to the St. Joseph’s School for the Blind (N.J.).

The “Boy of Steel”, written by Ray Negron, with illustrations by Laura Seeley, is published by Judith Regan of HarperCollins and is already a children’s book best-seller on several lists and has garnered rave reviews. All sales from the “The Boy of Steel” will be directed to various cancer-research centers and charities, including four that Negron has worked with: The Hewlett House (L.I.), Manhattan’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering, Hackensack (N.J.) Medical Center and the Tomorrow’s Children Fund.