Silent Sounds
Jackie Robinson

Silent Sounds

In 1973, I taught what is arguably the first accredited baseball history course on a college campus in the Midwest. My course emphasized the fact that more than any other sport baseball reflects the American spirit. Jackie Robinson’s crashing the racial barrier was my salient point.

Over the last decade, professional football has seriously challenged baseball’s claim as the National Pastime. Its critics say baseball is too slow and passive when it comes to holding the attention of the action-addicted American people. Baseball was always more rural and traditional, being better suited for camaraderie and story telling. Football is caffeine-laced for the urban movers and shakers with short attention spans.

Despite the popular advances of football my original theory still stands. Baseball represents the past and traditions. Its rules are more solid and easier to recognize and enforce. Football is in constant flux. Its legion of rule changes has reduced the game to organized chaos.

Baseball is richer for its signs. The constant pantomime that accompanies almost every pitch is a joy to watch. It is one of its many nuances that football can never equal. Sure football players call signals but they are so complicated that they bring no extra anticipated meaning to each play.

It is estimated that during a nine-inning game about 1000 signals pass between catcher and pitcher, coach and batter, among fielders and anywhere in between. A few are obvious, but many are clandestine touches, twists and even mimicry that an outsider has difficulties even noticing, let alone understanding.

The most common signs in baseball are the ones for balls, strikes, and outs. While they are universally understood, most people do not know that they originated out of a need to facilitate the understanding of the game’s deaf players, especially William Dummy Hoy.

Hoy graduated from Ohio School for the Deaf and began his professional career in 1886. He played for several major-league teams from 1888 to 1902, including five seasons with the Cincinnati Red Stockings.

Around 1887, Hoy made a request to the third-base coach to raise his left arm to indicate a ball, his right arm for a strike. Hoy could then follow the hand signals after each pitch, and be ready for the next. The umpires and other players found these signals so useful that they became standard practice and today they still used everywhere. To Hoy they became the silent sounds that connected him to the hearing world of baseball.

Hoy taught his teammates how to communicate through sign language. When he made a spectacular play, fans stood in the bleachers and wildly waved their arms and hats in what can best be described as an early form of Deaf applause.

While there have been only a large handful of deaf or hearing-impaired players their history has been the subject matter of legends. Take the sad story of 19th century player, Pete Browning, the original Louisville Slugger, who still ranks as the tenth leading hitter of all time in major league baseball with a .341 batting average.

Browning’s fielding was another story. While the inferior equipment of the time is somewhat of a mitigating factor, Browning’s dismal record in the field makes him also one of the game’s most atrocious defensive players. Due to a chronic mastoid infection in his inner ear, Browning was a dangerous liability in the field because of his inability to hear. Fortunately he was shifted to the safer outfield after his first three seasons.

His unusual style of playing the infield while standing on one leg, which he claimed to have adopted in order to avoid collisions with other players, made it even worse. Some sources have noted that his probable rationale was to gain an advantage against base runners he could not hear by aiming one leg toward them, and that he continued to do so in the outfield because he couldn’t hear his teammates on either side.

Other prominent deaf players included Luther Dummy Taylor, who pitched nine seasons in the big leagues. In 1904 he won 21 and lost 15 for the New York Giants. In 1902, Taylor beat Hoy and Cincinnati 5-3, the only time in major league baseball history when two deaf players faced each other. Taylor went on to the Illinois School for the Deaf, where he coached Richard Sipek. Sipek had a brief career, playing the outfield for Cincinnati in 1945.

The next and last deaf player to play in a major league game was Curtis Pride, who first appeared in the big leagues at age 17. He was an outfielder and designated hitter for six teams over his brief career. Pride was originally signed by the New York Mets but reached the major leagues with the Montreal Expos in 1993. Since 2008 he has been the baseball coach at Gallaudet, the only American university exclusively for the deaf. My sister-in-law spent four years there. Other deaf Major Leaguers with brief careers include George Leitner, Billy Deegan, Thomas Lynch, Reuben Stephenson, and Herbert Murphy.

This all led me to wonder who was the patron Saint of the Deaf.  I found a short list with a handful of names. The only one I recognized was St Francis De Sales. He was a preacher, writer and spiritual director in the French district of Chablais just before the Revolution in the 18th century. His simple, clear explanations of Catholic doctrine, and his gentle way with everyone, brought many back to the Church. This St. Francis skillfully used sign language as a messenger to the deaf, a class of handicapped people who in many ways were invisible social outcasts.

Radio commentator, Rush Limbaugh, whose drug addict to painkillers many years ago, not only totally deafened him, but seriously threatened his legendary career on the radio, once profoundly said being deaf is the only handicap that makes people mad!

From my own experience, I know this to be a fact. One of the attendant activities of being extremely hard-of-hearing in my case is to continually apologize to people for having to ask them to repeat something. For me, social gatherings, especially lectures and sermons during Mass, are extremely stressful and exhausting as I struggle to find a coherent thread of understanding. Most priests I know are woefully unskilled in speaking to people with serious hearing loss.

Many times, when my attention begins to wane, I will look up at the huge Cross hanging over the altar. One time, it reminded of a recent game with my beloved Mets. While their catcher was flashing his signs to his pitcher, it appeared to me that he had made a sign of the cross. I realized then being hearing-impaired had become my cross to bear the rest of my life. Thanks to that Cross, all the silent sounds of my life have come alive in a symphony of faith, baseball history and personal reflection.

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Written by
William Borst