By KEVIN COYNE - March 18,2007
Baseball Stole His Eyes, but Not His Passion
THE names come back easily to Ed Lucas across half a century, the lineup cards of the two teams that shaped his life so deeply.
“Sister Gregory, she was the principal, Sister Anthony Marie, Sister Rose Magdalene. ...” he said, remembering the nuns, eight in all, at St. Joseph’s School for the Blind who helped him learn to negotiate a world that went dark when he was just 12.
“Monte Irvin, Bobby Thomson, Alvin Dark. ...” he said, starting down the long list of players he met on the June day in 1952 when Leo Durocher, the New York Giants manager, invited him into the Polo Grounds clubhouse and showed him that losing his sight didn’t mean he had to lose baseball, too.
Mr. Lucas is 68 now, and is celebrating two important milestones this month: the dedication on Monday of a sprawling new home for St. Joseph’s that replaces the cramped old building near Journal Square he attended as a boy; and the first anniversary of his wedding at home plate in Yankee Stadium.
“Mr. Steinbrenner has been wonderful,” Mr. Lucas said, referring to the New York Yankees’ principal owner. “He picked up the whole tab.”
“Wonderful” is an essential word in Mr. Lucas’s vocabulary, applied to ballplayers, donors to the school, where he now works as a fund-raiser — to just about anybody or anything, in fact, that crosses his path — with a frequency and earnestness that make people who can still see the seductive green of a baseball diamond, as he cannot, wonder why they don’t use it more often themselves.
“Baseball took my sight away, but it gave me a life,” he said, sitting in an office at St. Joseph’s so new that his prized wall of baseball photos had not yet been hung.
Mr. Lucas grew up in the Lafayette Gardens housing project here, and on Oct. 3, 1951, he came home from P.S. 22 to find his father, rosary beads in hand, sitting nervously before a Philco 12-inch television, watching their beloved Giants trying to cap an improbable comeback season with a playoff win over the Brooklyn Dodgers. He celebrated Bobby Thomson’s pennant-winning home run by racing out to the project’s paved playground for a pickup game.
His eyes were already weak, his retina cells damaged by the oxygen he was given as a premature infant. He took off his glasses to pitch. The line drive that hit him between the eyes left him stunned, not blind. He was able to watch the World Series, which the Giants lost to the Yankees.
“The last thing I saw as far as baseball goes was the last play of the ’51 Series, when Hank Bauer made a shoestring catch off the bat of Sal Yvars,” he said.
Soon after, the world began to lose form, disintegrating into random flashes of light and color. His retinas were detached. He spent the two weeks before Christmas in the hospital, where his parents asked if they could each give him one of their own eyes, but there was nothing left to do. To cheer him up, his mother wrote the letter that got him the invitation from Leo Durocher, and she took him to meet Phil Rizzuto, the Yankee shortstop, who was working at a Newark men’s store in the off-season.
“We’re friends 55 years now,” Mr. Lucas said of Mr. Rizzuto, who is host to an annual celebrity golf tournament for St. Joseph’s, which relies on donations for about a quarter of its $8 million annual budget.
Mr. Lucas spent seventh and eighth grades at St. Joseph’s, attended a high school for the blind in the Bronx and went on to graduate from Seton Hall University. He sold life insurance, married and had two sons, worked for 25 years as the information director for Meadowview Hospital in Secaucus and covered baseball as a stringer for an assortment of small radio stations and magazines.
“The stadium was our baby sitter,” said Chris Lucas, 37. “It’s Babe Ruth’s house, but my brother and I, it’s our house as well.” His mother left when he and his brother were young, and his father fought a long court battle to gain custody of them. They stood beside him as best men at home plate last year when he married Allison Pheifle, 52, whose retinas were similarly damaged as a premature infant but who can still see shapes and colors sufficiently to work as a florist.
Mr. Lucas returned in 1994 to work at St. Joseph’s, where his office was on the sixth floor, beyond the reach of the elevator. “It was nine steps, then a landing, then 14 more,” he said, feeling along the wide corridors of the school’s new home with the cane he hadn’t used in years. “I knew my way around there.”
He turned the corner toward the pool in the building where he is still learning his way, and although he has never seen it — just as he has never seen the faces of his wife, his children or his grandchildren, just as he has never seen Derek Jeter turn a double play or Mariano Rivera unleash a cutter — he knew what it must be like.