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Did umpires develop hand signals because of deaf player Dummy Hoy?

January 10, 2012 |  8:00 am

FabforumBASEBALL URBAN LEGEND: Notable deaf ballplayer William "Dummy" Hoy led to the creation of hand signals by umpires.

As loud as baseball fans can be at times, it comes as no surprise to see that there exists an elaborate system of silent signals between the various participants of any given baseball game. Whether it be a third base coach signaling a bunt to the batter, a coach signaling the infield to play in on the corners to guard against the bunt or a catcher signaling a high strike to the pitcher to make the batter's bunt attempt more difficult, the so-called "hidden language" of baseball is in full effect each and every game. One of the most notable examples of this "language" is the hand signals used by baseball umpires. There are few sights more dramatic in baseball than an umpire spreading his arms out wide to signal a player is safe on a close play at the plate. Similarly, many umpires have taken to turning their strike three hand signal into practically a piece of performance theater. Today we examine the history of umpire hand signals and try to determine whether a great deaf player from the early days of professional baseball, William "Dummy" Hoy, was responsible for their creation.

William Hoy was not born deaf but lost his hearing as a child due to meningitis. He attended the Ohio State School for the Deaf where he was the class valedictorian. He followed in his father's footsteps and became a cobbler. After working as a cobbler for a number of years, Hoy began to draw attention as a semi-pro baseball player. He signed his first professional contract in 1886 and made the Major Leagues in 1888. He played in the Majors from 1888 through 1902 for a variety of teams (he spent the most time with the Cincinnati Reds). A speedy player who, at five feet four inches, was a hard man to strike out, Hoy was a star player for years. He was especially known for his strong defensive play in center field. One of his most noted achievements was the day in 1889 when he threw out three runners at home plate in a single game (still a Major League record). Still, he was a fine batter, as well, retiring with over 2,000 hits and a .288 lifetime batting average.

In the early days of baseball, there was a certain sense of uniformity when it came to nicknames. If you wore eyeglasses, your nickname was "Specs." If you were at all Native American in your ancestry, your nickname was "Chief." If you were short, your nickname was "Stump." And if you were deaf, your nickname was "Dummy." This is not to say that many of these terms were not intended as derogatory, but they were so ubiquitous that players tended not to chafe under them. Hoy, for his part, accepted his nickname completely, even correcting people who addressed him as William. Hoy was not mute, though. He could speak, although his voice was low and a bit squeaky. He could read lips, but also used sign language. Hoy is not a member of Baseball's Hall of Fame, and among the reasons people often give in support of his case for induction is that he was responsible for umpire hand signals - that umpire's had to begin using their hands to denote "strike" or "ball" so that Hoy could understand the call. These signals then became a standard part of umpiring.

First off, it seems clear that Hoy did not lead to the creation of hand signals, as there is a newspaper account of Ed "Dummy" Dundon, a deaf pitcher in the American Association from 1883-84, using hand signals in a game that he umpired in 1886. There are also some accounts that when Dundon was pitching, he also had the umpires provide him hand signals on balls and strikes.

But even if Hoy did not create hand signals in the Majors, it is possible that he was responsible for them becoming prevalent. After all, Dundon's career was brief while Hoy's was not. In addition, Hoy played in three separates leagues, the National League, the short-lived Player's League and the slightly longer lived American League, so he would be able to spread the use of hand signals to many different places. Here is where it gets a bit trickier. There are no contemporary accounts of Hoy receiving hand signals from umpires during his playing days.

In addition, Hoy lived until he was 99 and never in that time did he claim to have developed hand signals with the umpires. Hoy was a very intelligent man who was always glad to talk about baseball history - his correspondence is a baseball historian's dream. And it never came up in any of his letters. It was only around the 1950s that Hoy began to receive credit for being the person who developed hand signals and even then, with Hoy still alive (he died in 1961, less than two months after throwing out the first pitch at one of the games of the 1961 World Series between the New York Yankees and the Cincinnati Reds), no one had any quotes from Hoy on the subject. Surely Hoy would have mentioned this at some point in his various correspondences. Hoy did use hand signals to communicate with his teammates, and it appears as though that communication has been expanded into the realm of umpire communication, as well. I would not be surprised at all if umpires did occasionally communicate with Hoy through signals, but it does not appear to be as widespread as often claimed. In addition, in 1901, the Chicago White Sox attempted to use colored sleeves on the umpires to denote whether a pitch was a ball or a strike. On a ball, the umpire would raise his left arm, which would be a white sleeve. On a strike, the umpire would raise his right arm, which would be a red sleeve. Newspaper accounts discussed this novel approach and they explained how it was designed so that fans could easily discern the call. Hoy actually was on the White Sox that year, and no mention of Hoy was given. This certainly suggests that the umpires were not giving Hoy hand signals if the White Sox felt the need to develop signals for the umpires (and, again, no mention of Hoy was given in the discussion of the hand signals).

Moreover, another knock on the "Hoy created the custom of hand signals" claim is the simple fact that hand signals were notprevalent during the turn of the century. Even if you were to concede that umpires would give signals to Hoy, they did not use them with anyone else. It was not until 1907 that the hand signal became standard for umpires. Baseball's Hall of Fame officially credits umpire Hall of Fame umpire Bill Klem (who began umpiring in the Majors in 1905) as the originator of umpire hand signals. Klem, himself, never took credit (only for using hand signals in the minors in 1904 for fair or foul calls), and it seems more likely that it was a mixture of people that led to the creation of the signals, mostly based on the common sense idea that as crowds grew bigger and louder, hand signals were necessary for the outfielders and the fans to understand the calls of the umpire. When the hand signal became mandatory in 1907, there were plenty of umpires who protested, as they felt silly using hand signals. This certainly would suggest that it was a recent innovation.

There are a number of accounts of other people who claim to have been involved in the creation of the umpire hand signal, including an interesting account from Brigadier General R.J. Butt who claimed that his father, also a Brigadier General (during the Civil War) had written to American League president Ban Johnson in 1902 suggesting that they use hand signals and that Johnson had written back to say that he agreed.

In any event, I think that it is clear that Hoy did not invent hand signals (as Dundon used them, and even Durndon might not have been the first) and I think that there is enough evidence to suggest that it is likely that Hoy was also not responsible for hand signals becoming a standard part of the game. This does not mean that Hoy should not be celebrated - his career was very impressive and he was a great ambassador for the game. I think that he is a worthy addition to the Baseball Hall of Fame. I just don't think that he is responsible for the hand signals that we see today from umpires.

So for the legend, I am saying...

STATUS: False.

 Thanks to Paul Dickson's brilliant The Hidden Language of Baseball and a great essay from Stephen Jay Gould in the collection of his baseball essays, Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville: A Lifelong Passion for Baseball. Both men (especially Dickson) provided a lot of great information.

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Photo: Dummy Hoy. Credit: Associated Press.

 

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