Seeing Home: The Ed Lucas Story
1 No Cup or Cane
Wool uniforms are extremely uncomfortable, even in cool temperatures.
When I was twelve years old, in the spring of 1951, my mother’s brother Eugene gave me the wool uniform jersey he wore when he played semipro baseball in our New Jersey hometown. I remember the pride I felt as I put on the large, heavy gray shirt with the number 4 stitched on the back, and the words “Jersey City Eagles” on the front. I almost never took it off after that.
It wasn’t so bad at first, but when the warm weather came, and summer started heating up, the uniform top seemed to gain fifty extra pounds from all of the sweat my slim body was pouring into it. When school let out, a typical day would go like this: I would get up in the morning, put Uncle Eugene’s jersey on, match it with whatever pants I could find, and then head out to play ball with my friends. At noon I’d stop to have lunch, try to dry the shirt out a bit, then go back out to play again until I heard my mother calling me for dinner.
Baseball was my life back then. It still is.
My mother, Rosanna, knew how much I loved the game and how much the jersey meant to me. Each night as I went to bed she would lovingly take the shirt from my room and wash it. We lived in a small apartment in a public housing project, so washing machines were not readily available. Instead, she would use an old-fashioned washboard and spend an hour scrubbing out all of the sweat and grime by hand. Then she would hang the shirt up, either inside on the shower curtain or outside on a clothesline, so that it would be ready for me the next day.
My mother did all of this even though she really didn’t want me to play ball at all.
It wasn’t that my mother hated baseball. She regularly listened to games with me and my father, a die-hard New York Giants fan. She was just being protective of me. I was born with a medical condition that limited my sight. Even the slightest jolt might take away my vision forever. Though I could see with the help of thick glasses, I was classified as legally blind. At twelve years of age, I wasn’t concerned about such things. My parents worried that their worst fear, my losing my sight completely, could happen at any moment.
My dad, Edward Joseph Lucas, Sr., was a sports fan his whole life. As a first-generation Irish-American, he lived for Notre Dame football games on the radio in the fall. His real passion, though, was baseball. No matter what time of year it was, Dad could always be counted on to talk about his beloved Giants, at that point one of the premier teams in the National League. He fell in love with them growing up in Jersey City, because their minor league club—also called the Giants—played there. I inherited my father’s passion for the game.
Dad was self-educated. He had to drop out of school after the eighth grade to help support his family. Nevertheless, he was a voracious reader, always with a Bible, dictionary, or newspaper in hand. By the time he met my mom, he was working a bunch of odd jobs, including as a waiter and a dockworker constructing battleships for the U.S. Navy on the rough Jersey City waterfront.
My mother was also first-generation Irish-American. Her maiden name was Furey. She was a high school graduate and was working as a seamstress when she met my father. Back then, most ethnic and immigrant groups kept to the same close circles in the melting pot of Jersey City, just a stone’s throw from New York. Therefore, she would run into him quite often when she was out and about with her sisters and brothers. A romance blossomed, and they got married in 1938.
While they didn’t live in abject poverty, conditions weren’t so rosy for them in the beginning. Most people in their neighborhood couldn’t afford a car, so they walked and took the bus everywhere. My parents never bought a house of their own; they always lived in apartments.
Family was the key to happiness for them. Because they were all so close to each other, both emotionally and geographically, the Lucas and Furey families were there to help each other out when needed. Thanks to God and His providence, they never lacked for any of the necessities. Laughter usually filled every gathering. It was a good life.
On January 3, 1939, I was born prematurely at the Margaret Hague Hospital in Jersey City. Today, they have all sorts of technology and medicine to help “preemies,” but not back then. As a result,
my eyes were weakened due to an insufficient amount of oxygen provided in the premature baby tent. So as I began my life, I had to face glaucoma and cataracts and had six eye operations to try to correct things. Luckily, Jersey City had a free public hospital built during the Depression to provide aid for families like mine who couldn’t afford medical care. They did their best, but they couldn’t fix my eyes.
When I was two years old, knowing that my eyes were not developing right and fearing that I would go blind, my mother made an appointment with Dr. Brophy, the best ophthalmologist in the area, without telling my father. His fee was ten dollars, a fortune for her at the time, but she paid it, knowing that I would have a chance at better care. Dr. Brophy diagnosed my problem as congenital cataracts and helped fix things to the best of his ability. He saved my sight before my third birthday came along.
My father flipped out when he discovered that my mother had lied to him about Dr. Brophy and the fee. She stood her ground and told him that her baby came first. Later in life I wondered about what seemed to be an overreaction on my father’s part. Why wouldn’t he also want the best for his child? As I later came to understand, he was at the beginning of a problem with severe alcoholism. The stress of married life and supporting a child was driving him to the bottle.
While my father was certainly the disciplinarian in the family, he was not a mean drunk. He never laid a hand on my mother or on anyone else; he was the kind of drinker who would drown his sorrows in whiskey and beer until he couldn’t function anymore. My mother prayed for his salvation, but the tension of living with
a drunk who wouldn’t admit that he had a serious problem was getting to her as well. She considered ending the marriage. This all came to a head shortly after that, when my dad’s boss, Mr. Riley, came to the apartment and told my mother in no uncertain terms that either Dad quit drinking, or he would be fired. She delivered the ultimatum to Dad, emphasizing her own worries and fears.
Luckily for all of us, that shocking realization brought my father back from the abyss. The possibility of losing his job and losing us was his rock bottom. He started praying and going quietly to AA meetings with my mom. They would tell family members and babysitters that they were going on “a date” for the evening.
Fifteen months after I was born, my sister Maureen came along. We moved to Marion Gardens in Jersey City, another public housing development built to assist those with meager incomes. World War II was heating up, but Dad had an exemption from service because of his two children and his age at the time. He helped on the home front by working on battleships and destroyers. To supplement his income, he also decided to take a job working as a bartender, which terrified my mother. To her, it was like letting the fox directly into the henhouse. Though my father had made a vow to her, and he was keeping up with his AA meetings, she was worried that the easy temptation of alcohol might lure him back.
But Dad’s newfound deep faith ensured that would never happen.
Before the crisis, my father had been a “Christmas/Easter” churchgoer. As a wise pastor I met later in life put it, Dad was the sort of person who visits church only three times in life, when they are “hatched, matched, and dispatched.”
After he hit that rock bottom, my father dedicated himself to
the Church, to Jesus, to the Virgin Mary, and to his special patron and middle namesake, Saint Joseph. Prayers became an important part of his life, and of ours. Sunday services were never missed. We are Catholic, so each night we would make time to say the family Rosary, putting off any other events to pray, quietly meditate on the Gospels, and spend quality time with the Lord.
With the love, strength, and compassion of the Holy Spirit filling his heart and soul, my father was able to curb his desire to consume any more alcohol.
My father never touched another drop of alcohol for the rest of his life.
WHEN I WAS about five or six, we moved to another Jersey City housing project, Lafayette Gardens. My mother insisted on the relocation because this put us in the proper district for PS 22, a school that offered special classes for children with vision problems.
There were about eight to ten children in the special vision classes, many of whom—like Gene Mehl and Margie Boasci—became lifelong friends. Our books were all written in large print. We would travel from class to class, learning alongside other students. My eyes were probably the worst of all the children, so each time my desk was placed as close to the blackboard as possible.
My sister Maureen went to Assumption Catholic School, which was near PS 22. I desperately wanted to go there, too. I wanted to be like Maureen and all of the other kids, who didn’t have to worry about special books or classes.
They did try letting me attend Assumption for a bit, an
experiment that ended with almost comical results. I had to use a large magnifying glass to read the books that were part of the required religious education, which were not printed with large type like the state-funded books at PS 22. One day, I was sitting by the window, intently studying one of my textbooks with the magnifying glass held up above the book. It was a bright, sunny day. The angle was just high enough for the blazing solar rays to pour through the focused glass on to the dry paper and . . .
Well, I’m sure if you’ve seen enough old-time comedies, you can figure out what happened next. Thank God there was an extinguisher nearby to put out the resulting fire. Nobody was harmed, but that put an end to my days at Assumption.
We had a pretty normal family life. I never felt like an outcast or that there was something wrong with me. Along with Uncle Eugene, we had my father’s other brothers, Uncle George and Uncle Chris, and his sisters, Aunt Marge, Aunt Jo, and Aunt Anne, as well as my mother’s family, Aunt Gerry, Uncle Vinnie, Uncle Billy, Aunt Marian, and my godmother, Aunt Jeanne, to watch us, take care of us, and to go out with us when my parents were occupied.
We couldn’t afford big family vacations, so we spent summers swimming in public pools, playing in parks, and going to movies with our cousins and extended family members, like the five Dunphy kids. Their father, who was totally blind, befriended my Aunt Jeanne and her husband, Arthur, so the Dunphys spent lots of time around us. There were no fewer than three movie theaters in my neighborhood at that time. For an exotic treat, my parents would take us to the Canton Tea Gardens in Journal Square. I always felt like we were in China or on some distant
Polynesian island while consuming the pu-pu pork platters and grilled shrimp served there.
My biggest thrills, of course, were always visits to the ballpark. My dad and other neighborhood parents would take a bunch of boys on the bus down to Roosevelt Stadium on the Hackensack River to watch the Jersey City Giants play. This happened at least once a week. My pals, Joe Walsh and Eugene Turner, were Yankee fans, but our buddy Benny Darvalics supported the Dodgers—the Giants’ and Yankees’ biggest rivals—so we razzed him quite often. No matter what team we rooted for, the love of baseball was our bonding ritual and common ground.
I was fortunate enough, in April 1946, to witness American history in Jersey City when Jackie Robinson made his professional baseball debut at Roosevelt Stadium, breaking the color barrier in sports and paving the way for the civil rights movement. My dad, despite his flaws, was always a fair man who gave people the benefit of the doubt. He did not make assumptions based solely on skin color. Recognizing that this would be a special moment, Dad kept me out of school that day to go to the game. I’m eternally grateful that he did.
Years later, I shared with Jackie my story of seeing him play in his first professional game. He expressed his deep appreciation for the way the fans in my hometown treated him that day. Robinson remembered the fifty-two thousand Jersey City rooters giving him a standing ovation, even though he was a member of the opposing team and actually went four for five with a home run to help beat our home team.
In 1947, I paid my first visit to Yankee Stadium. I don’t remember who took us or how we got there—all I vividly recall is the
explosion of color that greeted me when I entered the Cathedral of Baseball: From the bright green grass, the sepia-tinged dirt, and the green-gray of the signature copper awning framed by the clear blue skies, this was definitely a special place.
I don’t remember much from my sighted life, but I remember Yankee Stadium. I knew, even then, that I wanted to spend my lifetime there.
The one image from that day that remains sharpest in my mind is that of Yankee catcher Yogi Berra crouched behind the plate with his crisp white pinstripe uniform and the number 8 stitched across its back. The number was partly obscured by the brown leather straps and buckles that kept his protective equipment strapped to his body.
That’s what a Yankee looked like to me. It still is.
I’ve told that story to Yogi many times. Shortly after the opening of the Yogi Berra Museum on the campus of Montclair State in New Jersey in 1998, Berra took me behind the scenes of one of the exhibits to let me feel the very same equipment that I remembered from that day fifty-one years earlier. That was quite a treat.
Baseball was my passion. Even with my limited abilities, I absolutely had to play the game, despite my mother’s worries and fears. One particular day, Wednesday, October 3, 1951, was the perfect day for a game.
I had no idea that it would alter the course of my life.
THE 1951 BASEBALL season was a wild one in the National League. While the Yankees were cruising to their customary World Series spot as the representative of the American League, the senior
circuit—the National League—saw a nail-biting finish. The Brooklyn Dodgers, led by Jackie Robinson, had all but sewn up the spot at the top of the standings in late summer. At one point they led the second-place New York Giants by a margin of fourteen games. The season doesn’t end in late summer, though. The Giants pulled off an incredible series of winning stands, while the Dodgers hit a slump. As a result, the teams were tied when the season ended, and they went to a three-game playoff series to decide who would go on to face the Yankees for the title.
The first two games were split between the teams. This led to a decisive showdown at the Giants’ home park, the Polo Grounds, on 155th Street in Manhattan. I would have given anything to be at that game. Unfortunately, it was on a Wednesday, a school day, and they were not yet playing nighttime playoff games.
Like the rest of the Dodgers and Giants fans in school, I was on pins and needles wondering what was happening in the game, which began shortly after 1:00 p.m. The end-of-day school bell couldn’t come fast enough. As soon as we were dismissed, I raced home five blocks and noisily entered the living room just as the game was reaching the last three innings. Bad news: the Giants were losing four to one.
My father, who at the time was working a night job as a pressman for the New York Times while my mother worked the day shift at the A&P, was sitting on his favorite chair, rosary beads in hand, praying for a miracle while he watched the game on our small black-and-white twelve-inch Philco TV. I remember snapping and cracking a piece of chewing gum as my father snarled at me to be quiet in a tone that would scare away the devil himself. This was
serious business for my father. The Giants could not come this far only to lose to the hated Dodgers.
Dad’s prayers were answered in the bottom of the ninth when one of my boyhood heroes, Bobby Thomson, stepped to the plate with men on base and hit a walk-off home run that catapulted the Giants to the World Series. We were watching the game on TV, the first nationally televised game, and the legendary Ernie Harwell was announcing. I don’t remember at all what he said to close the game. What sticks in my head, and in most people’s minds, is the frantic radio call made by Russ Hodges. In what is perhaps the most famous baseball radio moment of all time, Hodges screamed over and over again into the microphone: “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”
I never heard that call live, and even if we had had the radio on, I wouldn’t have heard it, as my father was doing his own screaming. He was so elated with the victory that Dad opened all of the windows and started yelling at the top of his lungs. I happened to be setting the dinner table and was so startled by Dad’s cheering that I dropped the stack of dishes I was holding. They went crashing to the floor. At that moment, I could have smashed all of my parents’ good china and my father wouldn’t have cared. Bobby Thomson’s home run had given me temporary immunity from all parental rules.
I seized upon this unique opportunity to ask Dad if it was okay to go outside and play ball. If my mother had been home, the request would have been denied even before I finished asking. My father was on a cloud of happiness. He may not have even been listening to what I said. In any case he gave me the green light. I was off and running. I quickly changed into my trusty wool uniform
shirt and a pair of jeans and headed down to meet the other neighborhood boys at our local baseball spot.
Since we were living in a public housing project, the government wasn’t going to spend extra money on amenities like proper baseball fields for the kids. We had to make do with what was available. In this case, we played at what was affectionately called the “skating rink.” Basically, it was a run-down old fenced-in blacktop area. I wasn’t quite sure whether it was a former parking lot, a storage space, or actually a place for skating. Nevertheless, it was perfect for baseball.
At this point, most of the people in the neighborhood were outside, either commiserating with each other if they were Dodgers fans, or slapping each other on the back if they were Giants rooters. The few Yankee fans around just said, “See you in the Series next week.” Some older boys had a bat, and we chose sides. Most of the time, we played with a pink rubber “spaldeen” ball. The unusual name came from the way residents of the New York area pronounced the actual brand name written on the ball, “Spalding.” It was the unofficial city kid’s choice, because it was cheaper than a real ball.
But this day was special, and someone had brought along a major league ball for us to play with. They’d caught it in the stands at the Polo Grounds a few weeks before. For the first time in years, we’d be using the genuine article. We also didn’t have the required eighteen players that the big leagues had, maybe only ten, so there were five guys on each side, with the rules decided at the beginning of the game. We were still playing baseball, but had to adapt it as the situations dictated.
We played for as long as we could. As the October sky started to get darker, some of the kids headed home and we had to make
do with fewer players. This meant switching positions. I was catching, but now they wanted me to pitch. This was a great opportunity for me. Because of my glasses and limited sight, I was never asked to pitch. They didn’t even have time to finish the question before I ran to the mound and grabbed the ball. The first thing I did was to take off my glasses. I laid them carefully on the ground next to me.
In retrospect, that might seem like a foolish thing to do, but it made sense to me at the time. None of my favorite big league pitchers wore glasses on the mound, and I was sure some of them had trouble seeing the catcher. If they could do it, I could, too.
As the first batter approached the plate, the excitement was building inside me. Flush with the thrill of the Giants’ win and the opportunity to emulate the fireballers I’d seen on TV, I reached back and used all of the strength in me to throw a pitch right down the middle.
I was hoping for a swing and a miss, an easy strikeout and glory. What actually happened was that the batter connected perfectly with the ball, and it made a rapid approach straight back to the mound. Physics tells us that when a ball is hit, no matter how fast the pitch comes in, the velocity and force will increase as it is batted back.
It was on a crash course for my face.
I’ll never know whether I would have had enough time to react if I’d kept my glasses on and the daylight on the skating rink had not been waning. Before I knew what happened, the ball smacked me right between the eyes with a force so great that it knocked me to the ground. Luckily, I never lost consciousness, but I knew immediately that I was in deep trouble.
The twilight of an October afternoon on a makeshift baseball diamond as a white horsehide sphere shattered my fragile vision was the last clear thing I ever saw.
The pain was overwhelming as I stood up. Bright flashes obscured my sight. I couldn’t focus properly. I put my glasses back on and tried to act casual, but I was terrified. The other boys were concerned, and offered to help. I refused them and walked carefully back home all by myself, aided largely by memory and reflex.
I tried to avoid my parents when I got home. I didn’t want to spoil my dad’s joyous celebration of the Giants’ victory, and definitely didn’t want my mother to know that I had disobeyed her orders and played baseball. I also didn’t want to admit that she was right about how dangerous it could be for me.
My mother had scheduled a routine eye exam months before for October 8, the following Monday. I’d completely forgotten that. I could fool my parents, family, and friends into thinking everything was okay, but how in the world was I going to put one over on my doctor? During the weekend, as I continued to pretend to be able to see, I came up with the perfect scheme.
The Jersey City Free Eye Clinic, where I was a patient, was made up of little examination cubicles and a big eye chart on the wall for everyone’s use. The waiting room, cubicles, and exam room were all in one open area. You could hear everything that went on. While I was waiting for my turn, I listened carefully to the other patients as they recited the lines on the chart for the doctors. After about a half hour, I had the exam sequence down cold: top line, “EFPTOZL6EC,” middle line, “FEL3CQZPD2,” and so on. The smallest line on the bottom, the one nobody ever gets right? No problem, I
figured it out just by listening to the mistakes and corrections. By the time I was called in, I was good to go.
As expected, I was able to breeze right through each question the doctor asked me. My answers were so on the money that even my mother was amazed at how much my vision was improving. Things were going great, I’d be out of there soon, and nobody would be the wiser. Surely the pain in my eyes would go away by itself in just a few days.
There’s a problem with a foolproof plan like mine. Fools are making them.
My doctor, who had the degree and years of experience, was able to see right through my scheme. He said, “That was very good, Ed. Now let’s start again. This time I’m going to put a pencil next to a random letter on the chart, and you tell me what it is.”
Final score: Eye Doctor, one. Ed Lucas, zero.
As soon as it was confirmed that I couldn’t make out even the largest letters on the chart, my doctor went into full crisis mode. Something was terribly wrong with my vision. I tearfully confessed what had happened. It was quickly diagnosed that the blow to my eyes had detached my retinas and caused the possibility of blood clots. I might lose my sight completely if nothing was done about it. He sent me home with drops and medicine and scheduled a major operation to possibly salvage what sight was left.
At just twelve years of age, thanks to fate, genetics, and a poor decision, I was facing a life of darkness.
The thought terrified me.
YEARS BEFORE, I had been walking through New York City with my mother, father, and sister, and we came across a blind man standing outside the Port Authority Bus Terminal, on the corner of Forty-Second Street and Eighth Avenue. He wore dark sunglasses and ragged clothes. In his left hand was a tin cup, which was apparently full of coins, judging by the rattle that it emitted when he shook it. In the other hand he held a cane. In front of him was a sign saying PLEASE HELP ME. I’M BLIND.
To me, this was the only fate for a person who couldn’t see, standing on a corner with a cup and a cane, helplessly begging for coins. Even the Bible was filled with stories of blind men, lepers, and cripples, alone in the streets, scorned and pitied by society.
The moment I left that eye clinic, my world started to crumble around me, and I slipped into a deep depression. Was I about to spend the rest of my life begging on a street corner?
Not if my parents had anything to say about it.
They were determined that there would be absolutely no cup or cane in my future.