To an overwhelming majority of baseball historians and fans, the term “breaking barriers” is uniquely linked to Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson. We all know the story, or at least we should, for it transcends baseball like no other topic in the history of the game. In fact, the “breaking barriers” term had been used so prevalently since Robinson broke the “color” barrier in 1947, that Major League Baseball bonded with Scholastic Inc. more than 20 years ago on an outreach program called Breaking Barriers.
At the core of its character-building message, the annual “Breaking Barriers” essay contest combines the values of determination, commitment, persistence, integrity, justice, courage, teamwork, citizenship and excellence demonstrated by Robinson. Students, grades 4-9 are directed to share their own experiences in overcoming obstacles. To date, more than 27 million students and nearly 4 million teachers have participated.
Committed to keeping the Robinson name alive, MLB has gone one step further with its “Jackie Robinson Day” celebrations every April 15, the anniversary of Robinson’s major-league debut. Centering on saluting and honoring Robinson, all players, coaches, managers and umpires wear his number 42 on their jerseys on this one special day. What follows are hundreds of articles and stories of Robinson written by hundreds of writers. On this hallowed day in baseball, there is no shortage in keeping the iconic name of Robinson alive.
But while MLB has rightly focused on preserving and maintaining a true baseball champion and what he stood for and against, another player virtually lost in the tangled web of history had broken the very first barrier in baseball more than 50 years before Robinson broke his. And by breaking the communication barrier in baseball, William “Dummy” Hoy is linked to Jackie Robinson in this regard. Only nobody knows it.
The Hand Signals
Historians know Hoy as the most celebrated and successful Deaf player in major league history. With stats worthy of at least a good look by baseball’s powers-that-be for a place in the Hall of Fame, Hoy’s name is usually included in any argument of who actually was responsible for implementing the hand signals used by umpires. There are hundreds of references to Hoy being the catalyst, including his late granddaughter, Joan Hoy Sampson, who said just before her death a few years ago, “We never questioned anything other than the fact he had started hand signals. We knew that he had, and it was an accepted fact in our family.”
The 2009 Emmy-award winning documentary, Signs of The Time, examines the debate from both sides, citing the April 19, 1906 edition of the Washington Post strongly supporting the Hoy camp. In the game recap, the reporter writes, “Umpire Silk O’Loughlin sprained his larynx Tuesday ordering manager Stahl off the field at Washington, and had no voice today. Instead of calling his decisions, he employed Dummy Hoy’s mute signal code.”
Despite this and other references from teammates, family and reporters, it is Hall of Fame umpire Bill Klem who is recognized and credited with the introduction of hand signals, his Hall of Fame plaque reading in part, “credited with introducing arm signals indicating strikes and fair or foul balls.”
Notwithstanding Hoy being overlooked and even snubbed for this true breakthrough in the annals of baseball history, he is as remarkable and revered to the Deaf as Robinson is to African-Americans. And the numbers are both staggering and startling. With Deaf/Hard of hearing Americans (48 million) outnumbering African-Americans (45 million), there is an army of Hoy supporters who know his story.
A Household Name
But while Hoy is certainly a hero to the Deaf, why is it that his name isn’t yet a household name like Robinson’s is? Why is it that MLB hasn’t recognized Hoy as a pioneer, a true trailblazer in breaking a serious barrier during extremely difficult times? Is it because the Deaf don’t have a real voice in justifying their cause, or is it that MLB isn’t listening to what the Deaf have been trying to express to its officials and others in baseball for decades?
The U.S. Postal Service announced recently that famed Deaf advocate and scholar Robert Panara would be honored with a stamp in his honor. With his image on the stamp signing with the word, “respect,” Panara issued the ultimate compliment to Hoy, years ago signing, “Hoy is the Deaf community’s Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, Hoy broke the communication barrier.” This phrase and belief is well known today in Deaf society.
Certainly there are a number of parallels linking Hoy and Robinson in breaking barriers. While Hoy certainly did not experience the level of prejudice and bigotry that Robinson did, he managed to overcome rampant ignorance and biased opinion during one of the most tumultuous times in Deaf history.
The 1880 Milan Conference
In the summer of 1880 — only a handful of years before Dummy Hoy splashed onto the baseball scene — an international event shook the already unstable foundation of Deaf culture. While the Deaf had grown accustomed to a prevailing ignorance surrounding them, their common ground was in their sign language, the great majority depending entirely on signing as their communication vehicle.
But passionate debates had begun to surface between the oralism “experts” and supporters of sign language. The winds of change were blowing — and blowing hard and fast. Staunch supporters of oralism called for a shift in the paradigm, and as the heated debates took root and gathered momentum, an international meeting was organized to set the standards for Deaf living.
The dreaded Milan Conference of 1880 was one of the most elaborate scams in the history of scams. With far-reaching decisions that set the Deaf back for decades, the snobby Pereire Society planned a strategic agenda tailored specifically for its selfish needs. Totally against the use of sign language as the standard or even an alternate form of communication, the arrogant society went over the top to insure both a lopsided victory and to make its holier-than-thou points. Armed with handpicked, pro-oralist delegates, and encouraging hostile reaction at those representing the opposition, it was certainly no surprise that the outcome ended badly for the Deaf.
Eight resolutions passed, including a disproportionate vote of 160-4 that considered the “incontestable superiority of articulation over signs in restoring the deaf-mute to society and giving him fuller knowledge of language.” The trickle-down affect was immediate. Deaf teachers and educators were fired, and hearing teachers no longer allowed to sign, leaving “listening” as the singular method for Deaf students to learn. Professional jobs for the Deaf in all occupations were reduced dramatically, setting the Deaf back even further than before, with no valid leaders to turn to. According to Deaf author and researcher Mark Drolsbaugh, quality education was “no longer accessible, and students spent hours learning how to pronounce, “George Washington,” instead of having dynamic discussions about who this Mr. Washington was, and how he contributed to American history.”
The Ugly Laws
As if the intentional prejudice brought about by the Milan Conference decisions hadn’t taken its toll, other obstacles within our own borders had affected the climate of those deemed “different.”
Enacted to help reduce the public appearance of “unsightly or disgusting” people, “Ugly Laws” contributed to an increase in depression, lack of self-esteem and the emptiness of feeling worthless to persons, “Diseased, maimed, mutilated or in any way deformed as to be an unsightly or disgusting object.” While the Deaf and Mute were not directly indicated in the wording of these laws, they were nonetheless considered “not normal.”
No different than historical ethnic-minorities before them, the Deaf were the next to suffer the consequences of the elite. Like the African-Americans during Jackie Robinson’s day, and to some extent the Native-Americans forced unmercifully to march hundreds of miles onto miserable reservations, the Deaf had become an island unto itself.
Along Comes Hoy
Not unlike Jackie Robinson, Dummy Hoy emerged onto the scene at seemingly just the right time in history. The Deaf badly needed heroes, heroes they could admire and emulate. Hoy blended a commanding combination of extreme talent, outstanding morals and an innate confidence and passion to succeed in everything. In no time at all, the Deaf populace had embraced Hoy as a hero. With skillful and intelligent preparation — as well as a keen awareness to his circumstances and opportunity, Hoy penetrated a communication barrier at perhaps the most unstable time in Deaf history. Burdened by the imposed restrictions posing as social reform, Hoy managed gracefully to overcome the restrictive borders of communication, utilizing his unique prospect to advance the Deaf cause. Historian and Deaf scholar Susan Burch is quoted:
Sporting events extended the interplay of the societies- Deaf and hearing…Deaf athletes sought acceptance from mainstream society, but Deaf people served as their primary audience and judges. As members of a larger Deaf community, their claim for admission into hearing society was made in Deaf terms. Only their status as Deaf, not oral, not passing, enabled Hoy to win the approval and approbation of the Deaf audience.”
Viewed as both an equal and a hero, Hoy’s elevated status as “hero” was due partly to the Deaf community emphasizing signing over speech. Burch adds, “Hoy embodied the American dream for the Deaf. As a non-college graduate who communicated only in signs and in writing, he displayed the abilities of common Deaf people.”
Famed philanthropist and writer Stephen Jay Gould studied Hoy extensively, writing several articles about him in the process. Gould agreed wholeheartedly with the assessment that Hoy was — and still is — a giant hero in the Deaf community, stating, “When we study his career, we discover that he stands out not for his unusual deafness, but rather because he was such an exemplary performer and human being. His determination, honesty, character and energy left a lasting impression on all he met. He became a hero to the Deaf community and to all handicapped people to aspire to.”
The Jackie Robinson Project: George Washington University
In the spring of 2015, I was invited along with “Hoy For The Hall” colleague Rex Bishop to speak at the annual meeting of the Jackie Robinson Society of GWU. I had written a letter to the director, Professor Richard Zamoff, comparing Robinson and Hoy in breaking barriers. The notion intrigued him. As a late addition to the speakers, we were granted about five minutes to get our points across to the assembly of Robinson supporters.
Within a few days, we received the following letter from Professor Zamoff:
William “Dummy” Hoy deserves to be enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame because of his baseball accomplishments, his heroism in the face of widespread prejudice and discrimination, and the credit that his heroism and accomplishments bring to the National pastime.
In his own way, “Dummy’ Hoy’s courage, perseverance, intelligence and character inspired (and continue to inspire) us all. As Jackie Robinson, Hoy was a role model and a revolutionist in a baseball suit. As Robinson, he deserves recognition not only I the minority community he narrowly represents, but also in the larger community his exemplary achievements aspire.
“Jackie Robinson changed America by encouraging, educating, challenging and ultimately, forcing us to think differently about matters related to race. “Dummy” Hoy’s election to the Baseball Hall of Fame would provide the national attention he has long deserved. It would not only acknowledge his credentials as a Hall of Fame Baseball player, but would also provide tangible evidence of what the hearing impaired can accomplish.
“Dummy” Hoy’s enshrinement in Cooperstown would encourage, educate, challenge, and ultimately force us to think differently about matters related to physical challenges and disabilities.”
Accolades for Hoy
In October of 2015, Topps introduced its “Pride & Perseverance” trading card set, featuring baseball players overcoming obstacles. Featured among the 11 players is Hoy, one of two (Curtis Pride) Deaf players in the set. According to David Leiner, VP & general manager of North American sports for Topps, “These men had to overcome great odds to not only make it to the Majors, but at times with what could have been a disadvantage. Instead, they are an inspiration and we are honored to showcase them in our product.”
Along with the recognition Hoy deserves from Topps, a children’s book was released earlier in the year by author Nancy Churnin. The William Hoy Story: How A Deaf Player Changed The Game has received rave reviews from dozens of major industry sources. Churnin was a feature author during the Hall of Fame’s Summer Author Series earlier this year, later visiting Hoy’s birthplace in Houcktown, Ohio, as well as the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame.
Other Halls of Fame
While the push is on to get Hoy inducted into Cooperstown, other notable organizations have recognized Hoy’s contributions. To date, Hoy has been inducted by the following halls of fame:
- 1941: Louisville Colonels Hall of Fame
- 1951: American Athletic Association of The Deaf Hall of Fame
- 1989: Hancock County, Ohio, Sports Hall of Fame
- 1990:Ohio School For The Deaf Hal of Fame
- 1992: Ohio Baseball Hall of Fame
- 2003: Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame
- 2004: Baseball Reliquary: Shrine of The Eternals
Linked: Robinson and Hoy
Hoy researcher and historian Steve Sandy has been studying Dummy Hoy for more than a quarter century, gathering information and spreading the good news of Hoy. An avid advocate for Deaf rights, Sandy (who is Deaf) understands the plight of African-Americans and their prolonged fight for equality. Realizing Jackie Robinson’s “contribution” to baseball blazed the trail for African-Americans and set a new social standard, Sandy is miffed that Hoy has not been recognized for what he has done for Deaf culture.
“The Deaf can understand the ignorance that African-Americans endured. But the African-Americans have proven themselves over and often, and now they are equal in society.” Noting that the Deaf are in dire need of strong representation, Sandy wrote, “We ought to pay homage to Branch Rickey. If it wasn’t for him, who would have cleared the way for Jackie Robinson? Just as Connie Mack, Clark Griffith, Frank Selee, Charlie Comiskey, Tommy McCarthy, Sam Crawford, Honus Wagner and others had tried for Dummy Hoy, there is a need for a higher authority. The Deaf are still in the “glass ceiling” and getting nowhere until someone pushes the door open.”
As we have examined Hoy’s career, life and legacy, it is crystal clear that he is as vitally important to Deaf culture as Jackie Robinson is to African-Americans. Hoy’s name deserves to be a household name. He broke the first barrier in baseball during a most difficult time in Deaf history. But, not only should his name be known, it should be linked with Jackie Robinson’s, as barrier-breaking pioneers.
References & Resources
- Signs of the Time
- Charles Reilly & Sen Qi, Gallaudet University, “A Brief Summary of Estimates for the size of the Deaf population in the USA Based upon available Federal data and published research”
- 2014 US Census Data
- Wikipedia, “Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf”
- David Boles, BolesBlogs, “Enforcing the Ugly Laws”
- Dan Thompson, “Ugly Laws: the History of disability regulation in North America”
- R.A.R. Edwards, Sign Language Studies, “No Dummies: Deafness, Baseball, and American Culture”
- Stephen Jay Gould, “The Amazing Dummy,” essay from Susan Ware’s book Forgotten Heroes: Inspiring American Portraits From Our Leading Hist (later reprinted in Gould’s book, Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville: A Lifelong Passion for Baseball)