The batboy, the Boss and the colorful team that filled the House that Ruth Built: Ray Negron and Sally Cook tell of ‘Yankee Miracles’

August 24, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 24, 2013

At 3:35 p.m. on June 29, 1973, on what should have been the last day of class for Queens student Ray Negron, the high school junior began to vandalize Yankee Stadium. Just as he did, a navy-blue town car containing two Yankees officials pulled up. Negron stood there, paralyzed with fear, as his companions fled from men they thought were undercover cops cracking down on graffiti.

Years before, Negron, a Yankees fanatic, had been able to scrimmage illicitly on the stadium’s hallowed field, thanks to sympathetic members of the ballpark cleaning crew. He thought he knew the historic ballpark at River Avenue and 161st Street inside out. On that summer afternoon, however, team security manager Frank Wilson and the other official escorted Negron into the stadium bowels, to a small police station that few even knew was located there.

Negron sat in the fetid holding cell, thinking about a wayward uncle who had met an untimely end after being drawn into a life of drugs and crime at an early age. He imagined how devastated his mother and stepfather would be by news of his arrest.

In fact, that aborted act of vandalism turned out to be the best mistake that Negron ever made. The other man who apprehended him was one George Michael Steinbrenner, a.k.a. the Boss, the larger-than-life team owner who decided to let Negron work off the damage he’d inflicted by apprenticing in the Yankees clubhouse.

Thus began a decades-long association for the Queens resident, not just with Steinbrenner but with the flagship Major League Baseball franchise.

This almost too-good-to-be-true anecdote helps kick off Yankee Miracles: Life with the Boss and the Bronx Bombers, the 2012 memoir co-written by Negron and Sally Cook. The volume affords a pleasant and sometimes surprising trip into the distant and recent pasts of the most famous team in all of American sports.

Most of the book’s 10 chapters are devoted to a key figure from the 1970s New York Yankees. The book closes out with looks at the Yankees of recent years and a tale about what happened after the last game in the old Yankee Stadium.

Negron was fortunate enough to become close with three of the key Yankees of the ’70s: Steinbrenner, team manager Billy Martin and superstar outfielder Reggie Jackson. He wound up becoming aide-de-camp to the latter man and regularly used his Fifth Avenue apartment and driving his cars. As Negron tells it, Jackson made his curtain call after hitting his third home run in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series mainly because his assistant had made the slugger promise to acknowledge the crowd’s applause if he achieved a trifecta.

A few months later, Jackson and Negron were jogging near Tavern on the Green in Central Park when they noticed a yellow school bus spinning its wheels in a snowbank. After helping to free the vehicle, much to the delight of the kids on the bus, the pair experienced an only-in-New-York celebrity encounter, which I won’t spoil.

Not long after that, Jackson’s sometimes antagonist, Martin, introduced Negron to Rat Pack members Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.

But it wasn’t all superstars and sunshine. Retired Yankees legend Mickey Mantle, Negron’s boyhood idol, chewed out the clubhouse assistant shortly after the two men met. Negron fled into a storage room and burst into tears; only belatedly did he realize that he was standing in front of a coffin that shortstop Fred Stanley had secreted in a back room of Shea Stadium. (The Mets and Yankees shared Shea while renovations were being done at baseball’s so-called home office in the Bronx.)

On more somber notes, Negron also describes:

• The untimely death of Thurman Munson, the beloved blue-collar catcher and team captain, whom Negron characterizes as having been kind and generous to less-wealthy players.

• The early retirement due to diabetes of flame-throwing pitcher Catfish Hunter, who during one spring-training season screamed for the team bus to be stopped because he mistakenly thought Negron had been left behind at a game.

• Player and subsequent broadcaster Bobby Murcer’s struggle with the brain tumor that ultimately killed him.

Touchingly, the authors write of modern-day Yankee infielder Alex Rodriguez’s charity work with Bronx youth and interactions that teammates Derek Jeter and Brett Gardner had with different deathly ill children. And he tells of the kindness Steinbrenner showed toward Dan Gooden, the very sick father of troubled Mets and Yankees pitcher Dwight “Doc” Gooden.

It turns out, by the way, that Negron was one of several young “misfits” whom Steinbrenner gave a lending hand; we’re introduced to some fellow members of their “club of lost souls” in the book’s epilogue. The volume further reveals that Negron knew of a few secrets of old Yankee Stadium, including a private retreat visited, over the years, by team legends Lou Gehrig, Munson and Jeter.

Summing up: There’s lots of good stuff here, especially for those with an appreciation for the Yankees or for the outsized American League personalities of the 1970s. There’s a bit of enjoyable New York City color, too, such as when Negron and Cook describe the scene outside the Stadium that fateful June 1973 afternoon when Negron met Steinbrenner. In a nutshell, Yankee Miracles is a delightful quick read for baseball fans.

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