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William Hoy, Cooperstown, and the meaning of (dis)ability

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Recognizing one man’s quiet contribution to baseball.

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William “Dummy” Hoy
William “Dummy” Hoy in 1888.
Wikimedia Commons

When William “Dummy” Hoy stepped onto a major-league baseball field in 1888, he began to make history. Over the next fourteen years, playing for six teams including the Cincinnati Reds and the Washington Senators & Nationals, he became well-known as a smart, fast center-fielder with excellent base-running skills and a cannon for an arm, amassing a career batting average of .288 with over 2,000 hits and over 600 stolen bases*. He was a good husband and father, a successful businessman, and a lifelong devotee of the game he loved. If he played today, Dayton Moore and the Kansas City Royals would covet him in a most unbiblical manner. Yet for all his achievements, Hoy is known best, when he’s known at all, for something he couldn’t do: hear.

What would baseball be without sound? Close your eyes at the ballpark, and new ways of experiencing the game appear as if through a polarized filter: judging hits by the sound of the bat, strikes and balls by the call of the umpire, a pop fly by the voices of the fielders. For generations, sound was baseball for the millions of people who followed the game by radio and it remains so today: the Royals have the widest-ranging radio network in all of baseball. Sound helps define baseball, like a fabric whose texture can be felt even in the dark. Yet what if the filter were turned the other way, screening out sound instead? How would you experience the game? How would you play it?

William Hoy wasn’t the first deaf player in the major leagues. When Ed Dundon threw his first pitch in 1883, he led off a lineup of players who have stared down the challenge of hearing loss. Yet Hoy was the first deaf position player, overcoming the challenges presented to a fielder who could neither hear nor speak as others could. As Hoy later recalled, “As to the yelling of my own coaches, that meant nothing to me. They meant well but I could not take my eyes off the ball in play to watch them. So I had to go solo. I was always mentally figuring in advance all possible plays on the bases and in the field.” To be accepted as a leader on the field, Hoy had to demonstrate to a skeptical country that his ability mattered more than his disability.

In a nation built on the notion of individual freedoms, defining the first word has sometimes been more difficult than ensuring the second. Hoy was born into a world that didn’t know how to handle deafness; his nickname “Dummy”, which he wore with pride, was shaped by the condition thrust upon him by a childhood battle with meningitis. Though the 19th century understood “dumb” as “mute”, the barriers to communication for deaf individuals inevitably tinged the word with our modern understanding of “stupid”. To others, Hoy was defined by his deafness, and worked hard to be seen as an individual. When a scout first saw him playing amateur baseball and made contact, Hoy’s attempt to communicate scared the man away. Yet to his credit, the scout reconsidered and returned the next day with paper and pencil, offering Hoy a contract to play professionally. Of such simple adjustments, opportunity and equality are made.

Even today, we struggle with the right way to handle differences among ourselves, particularly when it comes to communication. In a moving essay on Hoy, evolutionary biologist and baseball fan Stephen Jay Gould wrote, “The practices of journalism usually worked to Hoy’s great disadvantage . . . players’ popularity and reputations still correlated strongly with journalistic attention. Few reporters ever bothered to interview Hoy at all, even though he was probably the smartest player in baseball at the time. They were discomfited, didn’t know how, or just didn’t want to bother with the extra time needed to read and write answers.” If this doesn’t remind you of today’s treatment of Hispanic, Asian, or other non-English-speaking players, it should. Barriers to communication are not solely in the ears of the deaf.

Cooperstown

Does “Dummy” Hoy belong in the National Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, NY? He was a good player, and a good man, but is that enough to enshrine him among baseball’s legends? Does, or should, his disability affect that decision? Nancy Churnin certainly thinks so. As the author of a new children’s book about Hoy, she was drawn into his story after reviewing a high school play about Hoy for the Dallas Morning News, and hearing from deaf individuals such as Steve Sandy of Ohio, who saw Hoy as an inspiration. As she explained to me, “He quickly convinced me both that Hoy deserved this honor and of how much it would mean to the Deaf community. So I resolved to reach out to the most powerful people I knew for help -- kids. I decided if I wrote a book about Hoy for kids, his story would inspire them and they would help get him in the Hall of Fame.”

“What I want children to learn from the story is the power of perseverance as they see how Hoy never gave up on his dream, not when he was told he was too small and not when he was told there was no place for someone who was Deaf; to be kind to others who are different and to try to build a bridge between the Deaf and hearing communities . . . and most of all to see that if you are different, that difference may be just what the world needs. William Hoy didn't overcome his difference. He was as Deaf at the end of the story as he was at the beginning and he was proud of being Deaf. He used his difference, the way being Deaf gave him an opportunity to learn sign language, to make the game better for everyone. Your difference may be the source of your gift to the world.”

Gould took another approach to the same conclusion, writing that “Dummy Hoy belongs in the Hall of Fame by sole virtue of his excellent, sustained play over a long career. . . I suspect that Hoy’s deafness did deprive him of a necessary tool for the later renown that gets men into the Hall by sustained reputation . . . Hoy never received much press coverage. So Hoy was forgotten after he left the field – and his fierce pride prevented any effort at self-promotion. His inbuilt silence abetted the unjust silence of others.”

On July 6th, Nancy Churnin will present a lecture at Cooperstown, with sign-language interpreter, part of a push to honor William Hoy’s legacy. “I will read the book, tell a few stories that aren't in the book, tell them about Steve Sandy and the push to get him in the Hall of Fame, ask the crowd if they believe he should be in the Hall of Fame and tell them they can help by writing letters. I will tell them I am delivering 783 letters from kids in Texas that day and ask them if they think New York kids can write that many or more.” By speaking out, she and others are working to help break the silence.

Legacy

Deaf players have become rarer since Hoy’s time. After 1945, only Curtis Pride has made the major leagues as a deaf player, though his successful career from 1993-2006 (with a few gaps) makes him a worthy heir to Hoy**. Now the baseball coach at Gallaudet University, and the MLB Ambassador for Inclusion, Pride’s story shows the many ways our society has advanced in the past century. With his wife Lisa, Pride is active in the Together With Pride Foundation, with the mission “to support and create programs for deaf and hard of hearing children that focus on the importance of education and the learning of life skills along with promoting a positive self esteem.”

William Hoy was fortunate to attend one of the only schools for the deaf in America during his childhood in Ohio; today opportunities are far broader for deaf individuals of all ages to pursue their goals freely. Perhaps this is one reason for the decline in deaf professional baseball players; there are more opportunities and fewer barriers than in the 19th century. Yet the core challenges remain, as long as we all struggle with the all-too-human fear of the Different. For that reason alone, recognizing the uniqueness of William Hoy’s achievement along with the example of his humanity is a powerful motivation for his inclusion in the Hall of Fame.

“Dummy” Hoy lived a long and full life after his professional career, operating a successful dairy farm in Ohio with his wife Anna and raising six children. At the age of 98, Hoy threw out the first pitch for the Cincinnati Reds on Opening Day, 1961; photos showed a wide grin on his face. Turning 99 soon afterward, he returned that fall to throw out the first pitch for Game 3 of the 1961 World Series, shortly before his passing that December. A baseball fan to the core, in his heart Dummy Hoy was just like the rest of us. Perhaps just a little better.

Notes:

*Stolen bases were recorded differently in Hoy’s day, inflating his totals compared to modern baseball.

** I tried to contact Mr. Pride, but did not receive a response in time for this story. That shouldn’t be taken against him; I’m quite sure he faces myriad inquiries from obscure writers asking similar questions. I hope he’ll forgive and approve his inclusion in this story anyway.

If you with to submit a letter of support, you can find contact information at http://nancychurnin.com/, or write directly to the baseball Hall of Fame. My thanks to Ms. Churnin for her gracious and enthusiastic responses to my questions.

Further reading

Wouldn’t these books make a great gift for someone you know, or a local school or library?

· The William Hoy Story: How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game, Nancy Churnin, 2016, Albert Whitman & Co. Picture book which “tells the story through the lens of how sign language made a difference in Hoy's life.”

· “The Amazing Dummy”, in Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville, Stephen Jay Gould, 2003, W.W. Norton & Co. Collection of essays on the intersections of baseball and science.

· Silent Star, Bill Wise, 2012, Lee & Low Books, Inc. Another nice children’s’ book which takes a broader view of Hoy’s life.