Matthew Scott Moore

Democract and Chronicle
Rochester, N.Y., February 20, 2000

Going to bat for a deaf hero

3 projects with ties to the area focus on dead-ball era player

who many believe belongs in the Hall of Fame

By Matt Leingang

Democrat and Chronicle

(Feb. 20, 2000) – On a summer afternoon in 1889, a strong-armed center fielder for the Washington Senators set a major league record by throwing out three baserunners at home plate.

But William "Dummy" Hoy never heard the roar of the crowd that day, nor did he hear the congratulations of his teammates. Hoy, who had been deaf since a childhood attack of spinal meningitis, played baseball in a world of silence.

To offset his impairment, he developed a system of hand signals for coaches and teammates to communicate with him, a method that either makes Hoy one of the most influential players in history or someone who is merely part of baseball folklore.

The legend is that Hoy inspired umpires to use hand signals – derived from sign language – to indicate strikes, balls and outs. Baseball historians don’t agree, and Hoy’s influence has never been validated. But perhaps nowhere is his legacy, fact or fiction, more important than in Rochester, home to one of the nation’s largest deaf communities.

This is a city where three projects are coming together that might raise Hoy’s profile. By the end of the year, a local filmmaker will wrap up work on a documentary that examines Hoy’s alleged influence on umpires, a Rochester author will publish a biography of Hoy, and a tireless committee will continue its effort to enshrine Hoy in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Hoy, an Ohio native who was regarded as one of the best defensive outfielders of his era, has failed to make an impression with the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee, which considers candidates from the 19th century. Again this year, Hoy does not figure to be among the inductees announced Feb. 29, despite having career statistics that are comparable to players already enshrined.

"It’s a glaring injustice," said Matthew Moore, the publisher of Deaf Life magazine whose company, MSM Productions, will release a biography on Hoy this spring. "I seek to right a wrong and to give visibility to a great player who has been overlooked for too long."

Hoy was the first deaf baseball player to make the major leagues. The nickname "Dummy" was common among deaf people of his era.

His life once inspired an off-Broadway play, and he will be remembered June 12 when Rochester’s Frontier Field hosts Dummy Hoy Night 2000, the second year that the Red Wings will offer a tribute to the city’s deaf community.

But visitors to Cooperstown won’t find Hoy mentioned anywhere except in a few folders of yellowed newspaper clippings in the Hall of Fame library. Instead, the hall officially credits Rochester native Bill Klem, an umpire from 1905 to 1940, for creating the hand and arm signals used by umpires.

"Somewhere there is a discrepancy in history," said Don Casper, a 31-year-old filmmaker whose company, Black Cat Productions, is making a documentary about the origin of umpire hand signals. The project is not associated with Moore’s biography of Hoy.

"I’m not taking sides in this debate," said Casper, who will film in Ohio and upstate New York, possibly using Rochesterians to recreate baseball scenes. "I think the best anyone can do is present the evidence and let people judge for themselves."

Small-town boy

The people of Houcktown, Ohio, all 90 of them, were no strangers to baseball in the 1880s. Farm boys on amateur teams barnstormed from town to town on weekends, including young William Ellsworth Hoy.

Hoy had been trained as a shoemaker at the Ohio School of the Deaf in Columbus. When he returned home after graduation, he farmed with his father before setting up his own shoe-repair shop. But those weekends of baseball fueled a passion he could not ignore.

At age 24, Hoy closed his shop, grabbed a pair of spikes he had made for himself, boarded a train to Wisconsin and hooked up with a minor-league team in Oshkosh.

Despite his diminutive size (5-foot-4, 148 pounds) and hearing disability, Hoy intrigued the men who ran the Oshkosh club with his explosive speed and powerful throwing arm. Years later, a Washington teammate said Hoy took charge of the outfield by making a throaty noise, "kind of a little squawk," when calling for a fly ball.

After two years in minor leagues, Hoy got the attention of the Washington Senators, who signed him to a contract in 1888. He led the National League with 82 stolen bases in his rookie year.

"I think he surprised himself at his success," said 67-year-old Bruce Hoy, a grandson living in Van Nuys, Calif. "He certainly went beyond his dreams for a person with his disability."

Unfortunately, the majority of Hoy’s 14 seasons were spent on lousy teams. Baseball in the 19th century had four competing professional leagues, and Hoy played in every one of them, bouncing to and from Washington, Buffalo, St. Louis, Chicago, Louisville and Cincinnati.

Shy and unassuming, Hoy endeared himself to teammates. During long train rides, he would teach them finger spelling. On the field, if an umpire made a bad call against the team, Hoy voiced his disagreement from a notebook that he kept in his shirt pocket.

Hoy retired in 1902 with a .288 batting average, 2,054 hits and 726 runs batted in. Baseball back then was not the home run-bloated slugging contest that it is today. It was a dead-ball era when bunting was a major part of offensive strategy and Hoy could maximize his speed. His 597 stolen bases still rank 17th in history.

It was also a time when umpires shouted their calls.

Signs and signals

This much is certain: Dummy Hoy created a signaling system that enabled him to follow calls on the field. Newspapers from the 1890s record how Hoy, a left-handed hitter, communicated with his third-base coach, who relayed an umpire’s call by lifting a finger on his right hand for a strike, left hand for a ball.

"That gave the umpires an idea, and they began raising their rights with the violence of a pile-driver to emphasize an indisputable strike," Hoy recalled in a 1944 Cincinnati Reds souvenir book.

Hoy’s direct testimony links his coach’s hand signals with the ones eventually adopted by umpires. Later, in a 1966 book, Hoy’s Washington teammate – Hall of Fame outfielder Sam Crawford – corroborated the story.

To Moore and others in the deaf community, that is evidence Hoy originated umpire hand signals. But it is not enough to satisfy most baseball historians, among them Bill Deane, former senior research associate at the Hall of Fame library.

"It doesn’t hold up to scrutiny," said Deane, whose upcoming book on baseball myths includes a chapter on Hoy. "I don’t question that coaches gave him signals. But there’s nothing that goes beyond his opinion that he influenced umpires."

Two things bother Deane. First, he can’t find any newspaper articles or other documents from Hoy’s playing days that specifically give him credit for umpire hand signals–any such references come after the 1940s. Also, records indicate that hand signals came into play about 1905, three years after Hoy retired.

Deane said the most accurate statement anybody can make is this: Minor-league umpire Cy Rigler started the tradition of raising his right hand on called strikes in 1905, about the same time that Rochester native Klem popularized emphatic arm and hand signals in the majors.

Hoy’s claim also conflicts with a 1909 edition of Spalding’s Official Base Ball Guide, which said umpires adopted signals so fans could follow the game. "I would think that if Hoy had anything to do with it, he would have been mentioned here," Deane said.

But Hoy’s absence from publications like that suggests how little people really knew about his contributions to the game, Moore said. Hoy helped pioneer hand communication in baseball, but Cooperstown refuses to listen, he said.

For many in the deaf community, it is impossible to believe that coaching signs or umpire hand signals evolved without Hoy’s influence. Although Moore has not finished researching his book, he promises that it will make historians rethink the issue.

Fred Ivor-Campbell, a member of the Society for American Baseball Research, acknowledged that Hoy may have inspired umpires. "But other players could have also," he said. "Hoy wasn’t the only deaf player of that era."

The controversy draws parallels to Candy Cummings, who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1939 based largely on the dubious notion that he invented the curveball, a claim made by other 19th-century pitchers.

It angers many of Hoy’s supporters that players like Cummings are in the hall for seemingly arbitrary reasons. Hoy left behind solid offensive numbers that can’t be dismissed, and his grandchildren say he should be remembered for his playing ability, not his deafness.

The Hoy legacy

Today, Hoy’s descendants are scattered from Ohio to California. They are aware of efforts to get Hoy into the Hall of Fame, but they have not actively participated beyond providing his supporters with family stories.

"I think we’re resigned to the fact that the Hall of Fame may never happen," said 72-year-old Joan Sampson, Hoy’s granddaughter living in Cincinnati. "I’m sure my grandfather would love to be in Cooperstown. He was very proud of his career."

But many observers say 19th-century players such as Hoy are disadvantaged because the Veterans Committee –a group of former players and baseball executives – is reluctant to vote for old-timers they never saw perform.

That hasn’t stopped Robert Panara from trying. About 15 years ago, the Henrietta man co-founded a grass-roots movement that campaigns passionately on Hoy’s behalf. The committee includes Rochesterians such as Ogden Whitehead, the Red Wings’ assistant director of administration, who is also known as Super Wasteman, the team’s stadium mascot.

Whitehead and Panara are spending this week writing letters to members of the Veterans Committee and to the Hall of Fame, urging Hoy’s induction.

Panara is critical of the Veterans Committee’s secret ballot, which hides the identity of players being considered.

"Hoy’s induction would be enthusiastically acclaimed by the 25 million Americans who are hearing impaired," said Panara, a retired professor with the National Technical Institute for the Deaf on the campus of the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Panara’s efforts have paid off to some degree. In 1992, Hoy was elected to the Ohio Baseball Hall of Fame.

After his career ended, Hoy retired to a farm near Cincinnati with his wife and children, later working as a personnel director for the Goodyear tire company. He also maintained a close relationship with the Reds, who invited him to Crosley Field each Opening Day.

Sampson said she remembers her grandfather’s hands – gnarled, bruised and bent from years of catching baseballs at a time when players wore tiny, thinly padded gloves cut off at the fingertips.

And she remembers Hoy telling the family about how he gave umpires the idea to use hand signals.

Baseball fever gripped Cincinnati in October 1961, when the upstart Reds faced the mighty New York Yankees in the World Series. The Reds asked Hoy, then 99, to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before Game 3.

"He practiced the throw around the house because he didn’t want to disappoint the crowd," Sampson said.

It was the last time Hoy appeared at a baseball stadium. He died two months later. An obituary in The New York Times said Hoy had been the oldest-living professional baseball player, but it did not mention any role in developing umpire hand signals.

One can only imagine what Hoy might think about efforts to keep his life from fading into obscurity.

In 1988, a play celebrating his life and career opened off-Broadway in New York. But The Signal Season of Dummy Hoy struck out, lasting only a few months.

Cooperstown, Sampson said, would be the ultimate tribute for someone who proved that a deaf man can play professional baseball and be a genuine star. 

Photocaption:

On the ball: William Hoy, noted for a strong throwing arm during his playing career, tosses out the first ball before a game in Cincinnati. (Photo: The Cincinnati Enquirer)

Photocaption:

Big fan: Rochester author Matthew Moore, who plans a biography on William Hoy, says it is a "glaring injustice" that Hoy isn’t in Cooperstown. (Photo: Shawn Dowd, staff photographer)

Photo credit for Hoy vignette from 1888 Old Judge card: Baseball Hall of Fame library

Photocaption:

Center of attention: Hall of Famers Clark Griffith, left, and Connie Mack, right, reunite in 1939 with William Hoy in Cincinnati. Mack was a former teammate of Hoy’s, and Griffith and Hoy played against each other. (Photo: Baseball Hall of Fame library)

Photocaption:

Display of support: Matthew Moore, author and publisher of Deaf Life magazine, shows his cover story on William Hoy in the [October 1992] edition. (Photo: Shawn Dowd, staff photographer)

Photocaption:

Still fighting: Robert Panara of Henrietta, who leads a grass-roots effort to get William Hoy into Cooperstown, has had more success in Ohio. There in 1992 Hoy, an Ohio native, was inducted into the Hall of Fame. (File photo)

Blowup quote:

"Somewhere there is a discrepancy in history. I’m not taking sides in this debate. I think the best anyone can do is present the evidence and let people judge for themselves."–Don Casper, a filmmaker whose company is making a documentary about the origin of umpire hand signals

Baseball’s unsung hero

William "Dummy" Hoy may be one of the most influential players who is not in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Hoy’s 597 career stolen bases still rank 17th in the major leagues Here is how he compares to other 19th century players already enshrined.

Tommy McCarthy was part of the Boston Beaneaters’ great outfield of the 1890s.

Billy Hamilton held the career stolen base record for almost 80 years until broken by Lou Brock.

Hoy McCarthy Hamilton
Years 14 13 14
Games 1,798 1,275 1,593
Hits 2,054 1,496 2,163
Home runs 40 44 40
Runs 1,426 1,069 1,692
RBIs 726 666 736
Stolen bases 597 467 915
Average .288 .292 .344

Source: The Baseball Encyclopedia

Signal controversy

Many in Rochester’s deaf community believe that Dummy Hoy inspired umpires to use hand signals –derived from sign language – to indicate strikes, balls and outs. Baseball historians disagree. The National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown officially credits Rochester native Bill Klem, an umpire from 1905 to 1940, for creating the hand and arm signals used by umpires.

(Photo of Bill Klem)

Safe/Out/Foul ball./The count

(Graphic: Herm Auch, staff artist)

–Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester, N.Y., February 20, 2000

Reprinted by permission.

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