By Paul Post
Ed Lucas clearly remembers seeing the large No. 8 beneath the criss-crossed chest protector straps on the back of Yogi Berra’s pinstriped uniform.
It was 1947, the Yankee catcher’s rookie year.
Nine years later, after losing his sight in a freak baseball accident, Lucas went to Opening Day at Yankee Stadium, beginning a streak of home openers that reached 60 straight on April 6, when the Bronx Bombers began the 2015 campaign against the Toronto Blue Jays. Without question, it’s the blind Emmy award-winning journalist’s favorite day of the year.
“Some people love Christmas,” said Lucas, 76, of Union, N.J. “To me, this is everything in one. You make new friends and meet old ones.”
From DiMaggio to Matsui and Munson to McCann, Lucas has not only witnessed, but has been a large part of Yankee Stadium history for more than 60 years. On Mar. 10, 2006, he and his wife, Allison, were the first and only couple married at Yankee Stadium’s home plate.
This special occasion and countless other fond moments shared with Yankee heroes, Hollywood entertainers and world leaders he’s met at the storied ballpark are captured in decades’ worth of photos that comprise the main part of Lucas’ baseball memorabilia collection.
Some are autographed, such as one from Mickey Mantle, while others show him simply sharing a laugh with the likes of President Bill Clinton or former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Lucas lost his sight after getting struck by a line drive while recreating New York Giant Bobby Thomson’s pennant-clinching “Shot Heard ’Round the World” home run with other kids on a New Jersey sandlot, on Oct. 3, 1951.
The accident worsened a pre-existing vision problem, and before long his world went dark.
But Lucas’ love for baseball still burned bright. Before long, he began getting press passes, first to New York Giants games at the Polo Grounds and then Yankee Stadium, thanks to late Yankee Hall of Fame shortstop Phil Rizzuto, who befriended Lucas, beginning a lifelong relationship between the two New Jersey residents. Lucas later organized the annual Phil Rizzuto Celebrity Golf Tournament that raised more than $1 million for St. Joseph’s School for the Blind in Jersey City, where Lucas learned how to overcome his lack of sight.
Through the years, Lucas collected all kinds of memorabilia for the tourney and a silent auction held immediately afterward. Through his vast network of contacts, many players, including Hall of Famers, would donate autographed caps, jerseys, bats and balls to the event.
Lucas recalls one of the first conversations he had with Rizzuto, when the Scooter encouraged him to never let go of his dreams, and to remember that many great ballplayers had overcome obstacles during their careers. Early on, Rizzuto was told that he was too small and would never make it.
“Phil told me stories about how Babe Ruth was picked on because of his weight and funny looking nose,” Lucas said. “Joe DiMaggio was discriminated against because he was considered a greasy Italian foreigner. Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby and Elston Howard faced strong opposition as they broke several color barriers in baseball. I understood Phil’s message. If they didn’t quit, I had no right to, either.”
After Rizzuto’s passing in 2007, Lucas created a non-profit foundation that raises money to help students with disabilities pay for college at his alma mater, Seton Hall University. He was the first blind person to graduate from the school, in 1962.
For several years, a huge likeness of Lucas was put up on the large Yankee Stadium video board to promote “Strikeouts for Scholarships,” a program by the Yankees and WCBS 880 AM that saw $10 donated to the Ed Lucas Scholarship Fund each time a Yankees pitcher struck out an opposing hitter during the season.
Lucas still organizes a large golf tourney each August, with help from former Yankee skipper and general manager Gene Michael, to raise money for the Scholarship Fund.
Lucas’ life story is told in a new biography (Jeter Publishing/Simon & Schuster) called Seeing Home that was released on April 21. Thanks to strong pre-release orders, it has a good chance of making The New York Times Best Seller List.
In the book, Lucas shares many of the amazing, sometimes humorous incidents he’s experienced at Yankee Stadium. One of his funniest Opening Day moments was in 1960, with the Red Sox visiting New York.
Lucas had gotten to know Thomson, the former New York Giant, who had been traded to Boston following a lengthy National League career. It was the last year of Red Sox slugger Ted Williams’ career, so Lucas asked Thomson if he would introduce him to the famous batsman.
Lucas had a German shepherd guide dog with him, named Kay. So Thomson led them to the Red Sox clubhouse where Williams was getting ready for the game.
“Hey, how are you?” Williams bellowed.
“Hi Mr. Williams,” said Lucas, awestruck by a chance to meet the game’s greatest hitter.
“I’m not talking to you,” Williams said, smiling. “I’m talking to your dog!”
Whitey Ford won the first home opener Lucas went to in 1956, a game Mantle homered in.
Many years later, Lucas was stationed in his usual press box seat, on the third base side of home plate, close to Yankee owner George Steinbrenner’s suite when he learned that Mantle and Roger Maris were with The Boss.
So before the game began, Lucas asked the late Barry Halper, a limited Yankee partner and avid memorabilia collector, if he could get the two famous home run hitters to sign a ball for him. Lucas and The Mick had become great friends through the years, close enough that Mantle could kid around with Ed without offending him.
A couple of innings later, Halper came back to Ed and couldn’t stop laughing. When Ed asked why, Halper told him what Mantle had said after being told who the ball was for.
“What’s he want my autograph for?” The Mick joked. “He can’t see it.”
However, their deep admiration for one another is clearly evident in the many interviews that Lucas did with the Yankee Hall of Famer both during and after his career.
In 1967, Lucas was on hand when Elston Howard broke up Red Sox rookie Bill Rohr’s bid for an Opening Day no-hitter, by singling to right field with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Lucas always wore a radio ear piece to follow the action.
“Put them away,” the Yankee Clipper told Lucas. “I’ll do the play-by-play for you.”
That’s just what he did for the rest of the game.
Lucas also recalls the home opener on April 9, 1996, when Andy Pettitte not only had to battle the Kansas City Royals, but Old Man Winter as well by pitching in a snowstorm.
In 2003, Lucas was there when Hideki Matsui, playing his first game in pinstripes, belted a grand slam to help beat the Twins, and in 2009, Lucas covered the opening of the “new” Yankee Stadium.
“I had to learn my way around,” he said. “The atmosphere is different, the sound of the ball is different there.”
In addition to Yankee Stadium, Lucas went to every Mets home opener from 1962-2012 at the Polo Grounds, Shea Stadium and Citi Field. That streak was snapped two years ago when the Mets and Yankees both opened at home on the same day – the first time it had ever happened.
Although disappointed by the scheduling, his allegiance to the Yankees goes back much further, so his decision about which game to attend wasn’t very difficult.
Lucas has done extensive work for the YES Network, which broadcasts Yankee games, even winning an Emmy in 2008-09. He also writes a regular column for the Jersey Journal newspaper called “As I See It.” In 1995, Lucas was inducted to the New Jersey Sports Writers Association Hall of Fame, part of a class that included Super Bowl-winning quarterback Joe Theismann and Baseball Hall of Famer Larry Doby.
In 2002, Ed was chosen, along with his son, to carry the Olympic flame through the streets of New York City on its way to the Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.
Then, in 2009, Lucas was inducted into the Irish American Baseball Hall of Fame located at Foley’s NY Pub & Restaurant, in Midtown Manhattan, along with longtime Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, broadcaster Vin Scully, sluggers Steve Garvey and Paul O’Neill and umpire Jim Joyce.
While appreciative of such events, there’s no place Lucas would rather be than at the ballpark. As his friends know all too well, if he isn’t home, that’s where he’s most apt to be.
“When I was in college, Father James Carey and I would have coffee every morning,” Lucas said. “I didn’t come in this one day. The next day Father Carey said to me, Ed, were you sick?”
“No, I wasn’t sick,” Lucas replied.
Persisting, Father Carey said, “Can I tell you where you were?”
“OK,” Ed answered.
“You were at Yankee Stadium!”
“Yeah, but how did you know?”
“Because Mel Allen (the Yankees’ broadcaster) had the camera put on you!” Father Carey said. “You were talking to the players.”
Of course, it was Opening Day. Where else would Ed Lucas be?
For more information about Lucas and his book, Seeing Home, visit www.EdLucasOnline.com.
Paul Post is a frequent contributor to SCD. He can be reached at email@example.com.