No fewer than five hardcore Yankees devotees are involved in creating a young readers’ version of Yankee Miracles: Life with the Boss and the Bronx Bombers (Norton/Liveright, 2012) by Ray Negron and Sally Cook. In a deal brokered by Holly McGhee of Pippin Properties, Kate Harrison, senior editor of Dial Books for Young Readers, has acquired world rights to The Boss & the Batboy, which tells of Negron’s transformation from street kid to batboy and beyond under the tutelage of the late former Yankees owner George Steinbrenner (aka The Boss). Due in spring 2016, the book will feature graphic novel-style art by Harry Bliss. The authors, agent, editor, and illustrator are all longtime fans of the legendary pinstriped New York City ball team.
Negron’s is a story that could warm the hearts of even diehard fans of the archrival Boston Red Sox. After Steinbrenner caught the Queens teenager spray-painting graffiti on Yankee Stadium in the 1970s, he gave him a job as batboy and set him on a path that led to his role as community leader and champion of inner-city youth. Negron, who has written several baseball-themed picture books, now serves as special assistant to the New York Yankees, a position that involves community relations and outreach, which, he said, “I proudly consider my number one job.”
Cook, a longtime baseball aficionado, is the coauthor (with Jim Charlton) of Hey Batta Batta Swing!: The Wild Old Days of Baseball (S&S/McElderry, 2007), illustrated by Ross MacDonald. She teamed up with Charlton and MacDonald again for Speak Baseball: An Illustrated Guide to Ballpark Banter, due from Chronicle next March. Cook’s father first introduced her to the sport. “We lived just outside of New York, and my dad used to take me to Yankee Stadium,” she recalled. “The whole experience was magical for me. It was such an event – the popcorn, peanuts, the thrill of the crowd. And I was a competitive softball player, so a lot of my love of baseball came from that as well.”
The author met Negron through her work with Project Sunshine, a small nonprofit that provides free educational, recreational, and social programs for families with children facing medical. Cook is special advisor for the Project Sunshine Book Club, which brings authors and illustrators into New York metropolitan area hospitals to read to pediatric patients. After Robert Castillo, an illustrator who is on the Book Club’s board of advisors, introduced Cook to Negron, she asked if he would be interested in lining up Yankee players to come to the hospital to read to children.
“Ray was excited about the idea, and arranged to have center fielder Brett Gardner come to a hospital and read my Hey Batta Batta Swing! to young patients,” said Cook. “One of the children gave him a Project Sunshine bracelet, with the promise that it would make him hit a home run, and that night he hit the first inside-the-park home run ever in the new Yankee Stadium.”
After Negron sent Cook samples of his writing about what she calls “snippets of his past” and asked her if she might help him write a book about his experiences with the Yankees, she agreed. “I realized there was a kind of spirituality in his writing – Ray really feels he was saved by Steinbrenner,” she said. “So we began collaborating on his story, which became Yankee Miracles.”
Scoring a Graphic Interpretation
The notion of adapting the book for children grew out of Cook’s conversations with Holly McGhee, who also represents Negron and Bliss. “As Holly and I talked, we realized more and more that Ray’s story has much potential to speak to young readers about really taking a higher road in life, and about the idea of working hard and seeing results,” she said. Thus The Boss & the Batboy took shape, and Cook, Negron, and McGhee began working on the book in Tampa. Fla., in March 2012 – while sitting in the stands of Steinbrenner Stadium during spring training.
McGhee, who has been a Yankees fan since childhood, when she and her father would drive the 200+ miles from north of Utica, N.Y., to the Bronx so they could see the Yankees play, immediately thought of Bliss as an ideal illustrator for the adaptation. “I knew Harry loves the Yankees, that he loves cartooning, and that he was very interested in working in graphic format,” she said. “I sent him the first chapter of Yankee Miracles and he loved it. He is a friend of [the late Yankees outfielder and broadcaster] Bobby Murcer’s daughter Tori, and he was at Yankee Stadium with both of them when the Yankees won the 1996 World Series – and third-baseman Wade Boggs rode a victory lap around the field on a police horse.”
Bliss was happy to step up to the plate. He explained that he grew up playing baseball and, though he “worshipped” the Philadelphia Phillies and the Cincinnati Reds as a kid, he quickly switched his allegiance to the Yankees after moving to New York.
“Watching the Yankees win the 1996 World Series was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had,” he recalled. “So many people gathered together, all united in the celebration of the Yankees – the Bronx was electric with joy! And when I visited Yankee Stadium with Ray last year and saw a photo of Wade Boggs on that horse, it brought back sweet memories and it did feel a bit like, ‘Okay, I have to do this book.’ And I remember Bobby Murcer with great love and respect, so all these things came together for me and cemented my place in this project.”
Bliss, who in addition to creating art for children’s books is a New Yorker artist and a syndicated newspaper cartoonist, noted that The Boss & the Batboy takes his book illustration in a new direction. “The book is a bit of a departure for me, and it’s one I’m looking forward to,” he said. “I was raised on comics and I read many graphic novels today, so I know it’s going to be a challenge and no doubt a lot of work – all those individual panels that make up each page. The tricky part for me will be to find a ‘look’ that will best convey the narrative. Watercolor panels in sepia, digitally colored panels, ink and graphite? Once the look is achieved, then the rest is pretty straightforward comic language. I take this language for granted these days, but it’s not easy. Creating comics is like composing a piece of music, with beats, rhythms, and crescendos.”
Finding a Home for the Book
Kate Harrison, who grew up in Missouri with “a basement that was basically a shrine to the St. Louis Cardinals,” adopted the Yankees as her team when she moved to New York City at 21. A self-described “huge Yankees fan,” the editor brought her one-year-old son Graham to his first Yankees game this summer.
Harrison was thrilled when McGhee submitted the proposal for The Boss & the Batboy exclusively to her in August. “This combines everything I love into one book: baseball, the Yankees, Harry Bliss, and graphic novels,” she said. “And I’ve been searching out nonfiction, and doing it as a graphic novel is the perfect format. It makes nonfiction fun and interesting. When I showed it to my publisher, Lauri Hornik, she loved it too – even though she’s a big Red Sox fan.”
Cook, Negron, McGhee, and Harrison all celebrated the sealing of the book deal at Yankee Stadium on September 20, when Yankee slugger Alex Rodriguez hit a grand slam against the San Francisco Giants. “I was already so excited about the book, but going to this game made it come to life for me,” said Harrison. “We saw that Ray really is the Mayor of Yankee Stadium. He seemed to know every single person there. His is such a great dream-come-true story.”
And it’s one that Negron is very pleased will reach a young audience. “Sally is a super partner – I call her my personal Hemingway,” he said. “I am excited about our new adaptation, number one because kids will read it, and also it’s a way of keeping the spirit of George Steinbrenner and his love of children alive. Many people never got to know how much he loved kids. Seeing my youngest son, who is now 18, talking with him when he was a little boy was the coolest thing in the world. Anytime I was in trouble with the Boss, I’d send my son into his office to talk to him first. Whenever I did that, I’d find myself out of trouble right away.”