Growing up on Long Island in the 1950s as a diehard Brooklyn Dodgers fan, I enjoyed going with my dad to Ebbets field to watch my childhood heroes, Duke Snider and Jackie Robinson play baseball. One part of the game that always fascinated me was watching the coaches and players use hand signals to convey information and strategy to each other throughout the game. Whether it was the 3rd base coach relaying signals to the batter from the manager in the dugout or the catcher signaling to the pitcher, the signals always appeared well camouflaged from the other team and often took on a theatrical appearance. Never giving it much thought, I always accepted the hand signals as an intrinsic part of the game and simply left it at that.
About a year ago, while visiting my daughter, Lauren, and her family in Los Angeles, and observing her in her classroom, I unexpectedly learned a fascinating piece of baseball history.
During my residency training, Lauren, a twin, had become deaf at the age of 18 months from an aggressive case of bacterial meningitis. After graduating college, she became a deaf education teacher in the inner city of Los Angeles and teaches deaf high school students. Lauren feels it is important that her students understand their deaf culture heritage and often educates her students about the contributions of deaf individuals throughout history. It was while I was visiting her classroom that I first learned about the baseball player William Ellsworth Hoy, or “Dummy” Hoy, one of the most accomplished deaf players in Major League Baseball history.
William “Dummy” Hoy was born in 1862 in a small town in Ohio and became deaf from meningitis at the age of three. His story is a fascinating one and his contributions to the game of baseball not well known. He is credited by many with causing the establishment of hand signals for “safe” and “out”, as well as “balls and strikes”, and also for the use of signs by the third base coach to the batter.
When Hoy began his professional career on a minor league team in Oshkosh, Wisconsin in 1887, all umpires’ calls, including balls and strikes, were simply shouted out loud. During his first year in the major leagues, while at bat, Hoy had to ask his 3rd base coach what the umpire had called; ball or strike? Frequently, the opposing pitcher took advantage of Hoy’s distraction and “quick-pitched” him, before he was watching for the next pitch. After enduring an entire season like this, Hoy remedied the situation the following year, by requesting his third base coach to raise his left hand arm to indicate a called ball and his right arm for a strike. This allowed him to follow the hand signals after each pitch, and be ready to receive the next pitch. It was not long after that the umpires and other players found these signals to be so useful that they became standard practice in all of baseball. Shortly thereafter, the American Sign Language (ASL) signals for “safe” and “out” were also adopted by baseball.
“Dummy” Hoy’s major league career stretched over 14 years from 1888 to 1902, playing for several teams, including 5 years with the Cincinnati Red Stockings. He was one of the few players to have played in 4 of the 5 recognized major leagues: the National League, the Players League, the American Association, and the American League. During his rookie year in the majors (1888) with the Washington Nationals, Hoy lead the National League with 82 stolen bases and had a career total of 596 stolen bases. As a rookie, he won the National League stolen base title. He had a lifetime batting average of .288 and a total of 2,044 base hits. One season he batted .357! He was an exceptional fielder, leading the major leagues in 1900, at the age of 38, with 337 putouts, .977 fielding average, and 45 assists. This was the only time an outfielder led the majors in all three categories. According to historians, Hoy’s greatest achievement was throwing out three base runners at home plate in one game. An interesting fact was that Connie Mack was the catcher recording the outs! This record still stands, 127 years later.
Dummy Hoy died in 1961 at the age of 99; the longest-lived Major League baseball player ever at that time. Having contracted meningitis and becoming deaf at the age of three, Hoy never developed the ability to speak and could only make some “squeaking” sounds when he attempted to communicate with others. During his playing career, the word “dumb” was used to describe someone who could not speak, and had no bearing on one’s intelligence. Since the ability to speak was frequently associated with one’s intelligence, the epithets “dumb” and “dummy” became interchangeable with stupidity.
If William Hoy were playing today, he would not be called “Dummy”; not by players, fans, or the media. He’d most likely be called “Billy” or “Willie”. He also would not be referred to as a “deaf mute”, but rather simply as being Deaf. It is important to note that when Hoy was playing ball in the late 1800s, nicknames were created to be more descriptive, without any sensitivity to one’s feelings or political correctness. To Hoy, his condition was not an excuse; it was what it was. Those who knew Hoy have stated that he always referred to himself as “Dummy” and quickly corrected those who called him “William”.
Over the past 25 years, there have been efforts by many people, including the USA Deaf Sports Federation, to have “Dummy” Hoy elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. To date, all attempts have failed. A committee was formed and has been actively campaigning for Hoy’s induction by increasing his visibility to the Veteran’s committee of the Hall of Fame by emphasizing his playing statistics and contributions to the game. Hoy’s name has been included on the annual ballots many times, but he continues to be bypassed in favor of other players. Some baseball historians have said, “Without ‘Dummy’ Hoy, baseball just wouldn’t have been the same”.