The “Dummy” Who Invented Umpire Signals

hAs summer closes in North America, it is the end of the baseball season, at least here. But  baseball has become a truly international sport. So, while the season is winding down in the U.S. and Canada, in other parts of the world, such as Australia and Latin America, play will soon be resuming.  Therefore, this is a good time to look at the sport and some of its developments, such as the signs that umpires use to signal “you’re OUT”, “you’re SAFE” and BALLS and STRIKES…..

…but what does this have to do with hearing?

The story begins in Houcktown, Ohio, on May 23, 1862 when William Ellsworth Hoy was born to English-German and Scottish parents, Rebecca Hoffman and Jacob Hoy, who were farmers.  The boy lived with his parents and three brothers and one sister for his first three years, during the American Civil War.   During this time h1a major epidemic of Meningitis spread through Ohio and other states and by 1865, the boy was deaf from this dreaded disease.  Deafness in the 19th century, especially at age three, sealed a child’s fate. William was bound to be deaf and mute for his entire life.  At age 10, he traveled to Columbus and entered the Ohio School for the Deaf from which he graduated in 1879 at 17.

The boy was highly intelligent and hardworking and was valedictorian of his high school class. In those days, even in the US, many deaf people were employed or self-employed as shoemakers or shoe repairers. In his early twenties, he opened his own shoe shop in his hometown. h2During the summer, the people of Houckstown often went barefoot so the shoe business would grind to a halt. That allowed William to play baseball outside his shop with other local kids.

One day a man passed by and saw the boy playing baseball.  While he was impressed with William’s talent, he was concerned that he was deaf. Nonetheless, the man returned and asked him if he would be interested in playing on the Kenton, Ohio, team against its bitter rival Urbana.

Hoy said yes, and he h4played exceptionally that day, even getting some base hits against the Urbana pitcher, Billy Hart, who played professionally. The following day he closed the shoe shop and set out for the Northwest League in hopes of starting a professional baseball career.

Some teams turned him down because of his handicap, but he caught on with Oshkosh, Wisconsin in 1886. On October 26, 1898, Hoy, now 26,married Anna Maria Lowry, who was also deaf and later became a prominent teacher of the deaf in Ohio. They raised three hearing children: Carson, Carmen and Clover.  Carson became a lawyer and a jurist and Carmen and Clover became schoolteachers.

William was an excellent ballplayer who put together arguably the greatest baseball career of any seriously handicapped player.  He did so at a time when he was, almost inevitably, known to the world as “Dummy” Hoy. the !

William Ellsworth “Dummy” Hoy

If William Ellsworth Hoy were playing today, he would not be called “Dummy”–not by players nor by fans nor by the media. He’d be “Bill” or “Billy,” perhaps “Will” or “Willie.” He wouldn’t be a deaf mute, either. He’d be “aurally and vocally challenged.”

But back whenh7 Hoy was playing 1886-1902, nicknames were bluntly descriptive, often to the point of cruelty. To Hoy, his condition wasn’t an excuse; it was what it was. Indeed, he routinely referred to himself as “Dummy” and politely corrected h9those who, for whatever reason, called him “William or Bill.”

Hoy began his major league career in 1888 with Washington of the National League. A left-handed batter and right-handed thrower, he played center field with Buffalo, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Louisville. From the beginning of his career in Washington, he set out to communicate with his teammates.  He posted this statement on the clubhouse wall:

“Being totally deaf as you know and some of my teammates being unacquainted with my play, I think it is timely to bring about an understanding between myself, the left fielder, the shortstop and the second baseman and the right fielder. The main point is to avoid possible collisions with any of these four who surround me when in the field going for a fly ball. Whenever I take a fly ball I always yell ‘I’ll take it’–the same as I have been doing for many seasons, and of course the other fielders let me take it. Whenever you don’t hear me yell, it is understood I am not after the ball, and they govern themselves accordingly.”

Hoy’s yell was actually more of a squeak than a yell, but his teammates understood. Hoy played for Buffalo in the Players League in 1890, h5with St. Louis team in the American Association in 1891, then back to Washington in the National League in 1892 and 1893. He moved on to Cincinnati of the National League in 1894, where he stayed until going to Louisville of the National League in 1898 and 1899. He then played for Chicago of the American League in 1900 and 1901. He spent one more season with Cincinnati in 1902 and finally ended his baseball career with Los Angeles in the Pacific Coast League in 1903.

Hoy’s moving around made him one of 29 players to play in four major leagues.  All told, he played 1796 games and had a  fine .287 batting average. He had 2004 hits, scored 1426 runs, hit 40 homers and drove in 726 runs. Possessing great speed, he stole 597 bases.  While he was named to the  Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame since 2003, Cooperstown has eluded him, at least so far…..

Umpire Signs

Perhaps Hoy’s greatest claim to fame is that, at least according to some baseball historians, it was because of him that with umpires began using hand signals for balls and strikes and safe and out calls. There is some doubt about this, and it may be more legend than fact. Some credit Cy Rigler with creating signals for balls and strikes while umpiring in the minor leagues. However, according to the November 6, 1886 h6issue of The Sporting News, the deaf pitcher Ed Dundon is credited as using hand signals while umpiring a game in Mobile, Alabama on October 20 of that year). Moreover and Bill Klem, a colorful umpire who began his career two years after Hoy retired is officially credited with inventing hand signals, as noted on his Hall of Fame plaque.  

Indeed, no article published during Hoy’s lifetime has been found to support the suggestion that he influenced the creation of signals, nor did he ever maintain that he had such a role. However, he did have one other distinction. At the time of his death in 1961 at the age of 99, Hoy was the longest-lived former MLB player ever.

Due to the possibility that he may have played a role in inventing the use of signals, as well as for his all-around play, there is a movement to support his election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Since the Hall of Fame was established in Cooperstown because of the myth that baseball was invented there by Abner Doubleday, perhaps that institution will open its doors to a player whose fame is based on both his accomplishments, which are amazing but true, and on the legend that has grown up around him.

You can join the effort to enshrine William Ellsworth “Dummy” Hoy in the Baseball Hall of Fame by  signing a petition to convince the committee to admit Hoy to the Baseball Hall of Fame.


About Robert Traynor

Robert M. Traynor is a board certified audiologist with 45 years of clinical practice in audiology. He is a hearing industry consultant, trainer, professor, conference speaker, practice manager, and author. He has 45 years experience teaching courses and training clinicians within the field of audiology with specific emphasis in hearing and tinnitus rehabilitation. Currently, he is an adjunct professor in various university audiology programs.