William Ellsworth "Dummy" Hoy was the first deaf person to play Major League Baseball, and is generally credited for the development of the hand gestures used by major league umpires to signal balls and strikes and other in-game calls. Hoy was only 5'4" and 148 pounds and he was also both deaf and mute, but he proved to be a fine fielding outfielder with blazing speed and a magnificent throwing arm, and overcame adversity and prejudice to not only reach the major leagues, but in fact become the greatest player with a significant physical handicap in baseball history.
Born in Houcktown, Ohio, Hoy lost his hearing and speech at age three following a bout of spinal meningitis. After graduating from the Ohio State School for the Deaf in Columbus as class valedictorian, Hoy opened a shoe repair store in his hometown and began playing amateur baseball on weekends as a barehanded catcher for a team in nearby Findlay, Ohio. After he got four hits in a single game against a barnstorming professional pitcher, he decided his talents were good enough to make a run at becoming a professional player.
Hoy attended several tryouts before a scout for the Milwaukee Brewers of the Northern League thought enough of him to offer him $60 a month to play professional ball. Hoy thought this offer was too low for a player of his talent and soon enough caught on with another team in nearby Oshkosh, Wisconsin for $75 a month. The Brewers scout was soon so impressed by Hoy's play for Oshkosh that he increased his original offer to $85 a month. However, the miffed Hoy refused, declaring (by scribbling on a pad of paper), "I wouldn't play for you for a million a month!"
Hoy had always been a good hitter, but in the early years of his career pitchers figured out that they could gain the upper hand by quickly winding up and pitching while Hoy was turned around to ask the umpire if a ball or a strike had been called. In 1885, Hoy batted .219, by far the worst mark of his career at any level, so in 1886, he devised a system whereby the third base coach would use hand signals to indicate whether a ball or strike had been called. His average zoomed up to .367 that year, and umpires soon began using hand signals themselves that Hoy could quickly interpret with a glance.
Major League Stardom
Following the 1887 season, Hoy's contract was picked up by the Washington Nationals as an outfielder, beginning a 14-year major league career that would also include stints with the Buffalo Bisons of the Player's League, the St. Louis Browns of the American Association, the Washington Senators, the Cincinnati Reds, the Louisville Colonels, and the Chicago White Sox. In his first-year campaign of 1888, Hoy led the National League with 82 stolen bases, still one of the highest marks ever tallied by a rookie. He also set then rookie records for games, at-bats, hits, singles, and walks in a season.
Hoy was an excellent hitter at the major league level, hitting over .300 three times, and showed excellent plate discipline, leading the American Association in walks with 119 in 1891 and posting an on-base percentage over .400 in five separate seasons. Hoy took advantage of his speed to play a very shallow center field, where he displayed excellent range and powerful throwing arm, leading all NL outfielders in total chances and putouts as a centerfielder in 1897, once throwing out three men at home plate in a single game (on June 19, 1889, one of only three players ever to do so), and setting an all-time major league record with a ridiculous 45 outfield assists for the White Sox in 1901.
Hoy finished up his career with a second stint for his hometown Cincinnati Reds at age 40 in 1902. Although he batted .290 with a .389 on-base percentage in 72 games, the Reds released him to make way for younger players. Hoy accepted his fate quietly, but not before he made one last bit of history for the record books. On May 16, 1902, Bill "Dummy" Hoy of the Reds went to bat against Luther "Dummy" Taylor of the New York Giants, marking the first and still only time two deaf players faced each other in the major leagues.
Hoy then finished out his career with the Los Angeles Looloos of the newly founded Pacific Coast League where he racked up 46 stolen bases at age 42, played in every single one of the 211 games on the 1903 schedule, and lead his team to capture the PCL pennant. Hoy's teammates that year included Joe Corbett, brother of "Gentleman Jim" Corbett of boxing fame, and a young Clifford Carlton "Gavvy" Cravath, who would later become a famed major league slugger of the Dead Ball Era.
Following the 1903 season, Hoy retired from baseball for good and settled on a 60-acre dairy farm outside Cincinnati. For the next several decades he was active in the "deaf colony" that sprung up in central Ohio, serving as a supervisor of several hindered deaf workers who worked in the Goodyear factory during World War I and coaching several all-deaf baseball teams.
Hoy generally stayed out of the public eye during his long retirement, although he did surface in 1939 for a reunion with former teammates Clark Griffith and Connie Mack, at which a press photographer snapped a famous portrait the trio enjoying a nostalgic chat in sign language.
On October 7, 1961, Hoy threw out the first pitch of the World Series between his beloved Reds and the New York Yankees. A few days later, he became ill and was hospitalized and on December 15, 1961 he died of a stroke. He was 99 years old, and had led a full and amazing life despite the odds.
In 1796 major league games, Hoy compiled a .287 batting average and a .386 on-base percentage to go along with 2044 hits, 1004 walks (98th all-time), and 594 stolen bases (17th all-time). Hoy was also a fine outfielder, one of the finest of his day, who set several fielding marks. At the time of his retirement, he held the major league records for most games in center field and career putouts and total chances as an outfielder, and his 1,004 walks put him second behind only the great Billy Hamilton.
This would have been an outstanding career for any player, but Hoy was also deaf and dumb. Hoy was a pioneer who though determination and skill overcame prejudice to rise to the highest level of a game that initially only used vocal calls when he first broke into it, and his legacy remains secure as perhaps the finest deaf athlete to play any sport.
Although perhaps not well known to the general public, Hoy remains quite well-known today in the deaf community, which views him as a hero and continues to press for his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Although Hoy is a marginal candidate going strictly by his career numbers, the physical handicaps he overcame should probably be reconsidered. It is also noteworthy that several of his former teammates, including hall of famers Honus Wagner, Connie Mack, and Clark Griffith, strongly pushed for his induction in later years.