This is the forty-fifth in a series of examinations of baseball-related urban legends and whether they are true or false. This week, examine whether a famed deaf baseball player led to the institution of hand signals by umpires in baseball, marvel at the short-lived costumed mascot of the New York Yankees (yes, costumed mascot of the New York Yankees – you read that right) and finally, did a pitcher really strike out three batters with no fielders on the field?
Click here to view an archive of all the previous baseball urban legends.
BASEBALL URBAN LEGEND: Notable deaf ballplayer William “Dummy” Hoy led to the institution of hand signals by umpires.
STATUS: I’m Going With False
As loud as baseball fans can be at times, it comes as no surprise to see that there exists an elaborate system of silent signals between the various participants of any given baseball game. Whether it be a third base coach signaling a bunt to the batter, a coach signaling the infield to play in on the corners to guard against the bunt or a catcher signaling a high strike to the pitcher to make the batter’s bunt attempt more difficult, the so-called “hidden language” of baseball is in full effect each and every game. One of the most notable examples of this “language” are the hand signals used by baseball umpires. There are few sights more dramatic in baseball than an umpire spreading his arms out wide to signal a player is safe on a close play at the plate. Similarly, many umpires have taken to turning their strike three hand signal into practically a piece of performance theater. Today we examine the history of umpire hand signals and try to determine whether a great deaf player from the early days of professional baseball, William “Dummy” Hoy, was responsible for their creation.
William Hoy was not born deaf but lost his hearing as a child due to meningitis. He attended the Ohio State School for the Deaf where he was the class valedictorian. He followed in his father’s footsteps and became a cobbler. After working as a cobbler for a number of years, Hoy began to draw attention as a semi-pro baseball player. He signed his first professional contract in 1886 and made the Major Leagues in 1888. He played in the Majors from 1888 through 1902 for a variety of teams (he spent the most time with the Cincinnati Reds). A speedy player who, at five feet four inches, was a hard man to strike out, Hoy was a star player for years. He was especially known for his strong defensive play in center field. One of his most noted achievements was the day in 1889 when he threw out three runners at home plate in a single game (still a Major League record). Still, he was a fine batter, as well, retiring with over 2,000 hits and a .288 lifetime batting average.
In the early days of baseball, there was a certain sense of uniformity when it came to nicknames. If you wore eyeglasses, your nickname was “Specs.” If you were at all Native American in your ancestry, your nickname was “Chief.” If you were short, your nickname was “Stump.” And if you were deaf, your nickname was “Dummy.” This is not to say that many of these terms were not intended as derogatory, but they were so ubiquitous that players tended not to chafe under them. Hoy, for his part, accepted his nickname completely, even correcting people who addressed him as William. Hoy was not mute, though. He could speak, although his voice was low and a bit squeaky. He could read lips, but also used sign language. Hoy is not a member of Baseball’s Hall of Fame, and among the reasons people often give in support of his case for induction is that he was responsible for umpire hand signals – that umpire’s had to begin using their hands to denote “strike” or “ball” so that Hoy could understand the call. These signals then became a standard part of umpiring.
First off, it seems clear that Hoy did not lead to the creation of hand signals, as there is a newspaper account of Ed “Dummy” Dundon, a deaf pitcher in the American Association from 1883-84, using hand signals in a game that he umpired in 1886. There are also some accounts that when Dundon was pitching, he also had the umpires provide him hand signals on balls and strikes.
But even if Hoy did not create hand signals in the Majors, it is possible that he was responsible for them becoming prevalent. After all, Dundon’s career was brief while Hoy’s was not. In addition, Hoy played in three separates leagues, the National League, the short-lived Player’s League and the slightly longer lived American League, so he would be able to spread the use of hand signals to many different places. Here is where it gets a bit trickier. There are no contemporary accounts of Hoy receiving hand signals from umpires during his playing days. In addition, Hoy lived until he was 99 and never in that time did he claim to have developed hand signals with the umpires. Hoy was a very intelligent man who was always glad to talk about baseball history – his correspondence is a baseball historian’s dream. And it never came up in any of his letters. It was only around the 1950s that Hoy began to receive credit for being the person who developed hand signals and even then, with Hoy still alive (he died in 1961, less than two months after throwing out the first pitch at one of the games of the 1961 World Series between the New York Yankees and the Cincinnati Reds), no one had any quotes from Hoy on the subject. Surely Hoy would have mentioned this at some point in his various correspondences. Hoy did use hand signals to communicate with his teammates, and it appears as though that communication has been expanded into the realm of umpire communication, as well. I would not be surprised at all if umpires did occasionally communicate with Hoy through signals, but it does not appear to be as widespread as often claimed.
In addition, in 1901, the Chicago White Sox attempted to use colored sleeves on the umpires to denote whether a pitch was a ball or a strike. On a ball, the umpire would raise his left arm, which would be a white sleeve. On a strike, the umpire would raise his right arm, which would be a red sleeve. Newspaper accounts discussed this novel approach and they explained how it was designed so that fans could easily discern the call. Hoy actually was on the White Sox that year, and no mention of Hoy was given. This certainly suggests that the umpires were not giving Hoy hand signals if the White Sox felt the need to develop signals for the umpires (and, again, no mention of Hoy was given in the discussion of the hand signals).
Moreover, another knock on the “Hoy created the custom of hand signals” claim is the simple fact that hand signals were not prevalent during the turn of the century. Even if you were to concede that umpires would give signals to Hoy, they did not use them with anyone else. It was not until 1907 that the hand signal became standard for umpires. Baseball’s Hall of Fame officially credits umpire Hall of Fame umpire Bill Klem (who began umpiring in the Majors in 1905) as the originator of umpire hand signals. Klem, himself, never took credit (only for using hand signals in the minors in 1904 for fair or foul calls), and it seems more likely that it was a mixture of people that led to the creation of the signals, mostly based on the common sense idea that as crowds grew bigger and louder, hand signals were necessary for the outfielders and the fans to understand the calls of the umpire. When the hand signal became mandatory in 1907, there were plenty of umpires who protested, as they felt silly using hand signals. This certainly would suggest that it was a recent innovation.
There are a number of accounts of other people who claim to have been involved in the creation of the umpire hand signal, including an interesting account from Brigadier General R.J. Butt who claimed that his father, also a Brigadier General (during the Civil War) had written to American League president Ban Johnson in 1902 suggesting that they use hand signals and that Johnson had written back to say that he agreed.
In any event, I think that it is clear that Hoy did not invent hand signals (as Durndon used them, and even Durndon might not have been the first) and I think that there is enough evidence to suggest that it is likely that Hoy was also not responsible for hand signals becoming a standard part of the game. This does not mean that Hoy should not be celebrated – his career was very impressive and he was a great ambassador for the game. I think that he is a worthy addition to the Baseball Hall of Fame. I just don’t think that he is responsible for the hand signals that we see today from umpires.
Thanks to Paul Dickson’s brilliant The Hidden Language of Baseball and a great essay from Stephen Jay Gould in the collection of his baseball essays, Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville: A Lifelong Passion for Baseball. Both men (especially Dickson) provided a lot of great information.
BASEBALL URBAN LEGEND: The Yankees had a costumed mascot during the 1970s.
On July 10, 1979, the famous costumed mascot the San Diego Chicken (who was working for the Seattle Mariners that day), put a hex on New York Yankees pitcher Ron Guidry during a Mariners/Yankees game in Seattle. This upset Yankee outfielder Lou Piniella, who then chased the mascot and even threw his glove at the giant costumed bird. After the game, Piniella remarked regarding his irritation at the mascot trend, “If people want to pay to see a chicken, they should dress the players up in chicken suits.” New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner supported his player, deriding the then-nascent trend of baseball teams having costumed mascots (a trend started in large part by the San Diego Chicken). Steinbrenner noted, “These characters don’t belong in the ballpark.” This was an especially notable statement by Steinbrenner since two weeks later the Yankees debuted their own costumed mascot. Thus began the short-lived and ultimately quite forgettable career of Dandy, the only costume mascot in Yankees history.
The first notable interactive mascot in baseball was the New York Mets’ Mr. Met, who first showed up at games in 1964. Mr. Met was just a guy in a Mets uniform back then, though, not the giant-head costumed mascot that the Mets have today. In the mid-70s, the radio station KGB-FM Radio in San Diego debuted a commercial with a chicken mascot. They then designed a costumed version of the bird and this giant chicken became popular in San Diego, ultimately appearing at over 500 San Diego Padres games (although never becoming the official mascot of the Padres, which is why he was available to be the mascot at the Seattle Mariners’ game against the Yankees in 1979). The Chicken’s fame perhaps peaked in 1977. That winter, the Philadelphia Phillies decided to get their own mascot for the 1978 season. They hired husband and wife designers Wayde Harrison and Bonnie Erickson to design a costumed mascot like the Chicken and the result, the Phillie Phanatic, was such an instant success that teams all over baseball began falling over themselves to come up with their own costumed mascots. Today, only four teams in Major League Baseball do not have a costumed mascot. Those teams are the Chicago Cubs, both Los Angeles teams and the New York Yankees. That was not always the case for the Yankees, however.
After seeing how successful the Phanatic was, the Yankees also hired Harrison and Erickson to create a costumed mascot for them for the 1979 season. The result was an anthropomorphic bird named Dandy (a play on the song “Yankee Doodle Dandy”) who had a mustache similar to Yankee closer Sparky Lyle (and somewhat similar to Yankee captain Thurman Munson).
The Yankees leased the use of the mascot for three years at a total cost of $30,000. While the debut of the mascot was originally intended to be a big occasion, Steinbrenner’s comments squelched that. There was a theme song for the mascot that was never used. Ultimately, the mascot was confined only to the upper deck region of Yankee Stadium (complete with a bodyguard to make sure no one attacked the mascot). If the mascot’s timing already seemed bad, it seemed even worse when less than a month after it debuted, the great Thurman Munson died in a plane crash. Due to Dandy’s resemblance to Munson, the Yankees pulled the mascot from the stadium entirely for a little while.
The mascot served out its full three-year lease, but at the end of it, Harrison and Erickson chose not to renew, feeling that the Yankees were not giving proper promotion to the mascot (after all, part of the appeal to Harrison and Erickson in creating mascots was the marketing opportunities outside of baseball – the Phillie Phanatic makes countless public appearances at various events). I can’t say whether it was an example of them dumping the Yankees before the Yankees could dump them, but whatever the case, Dandy was clearly not a good fit and the Yankees have not had a mascot since.
Thanks to Erin St. John Kelly for an article in the New York Times about Dandy that was informative.
BASEBALL URBAN LEGEND: Rube Waddell once sent all his fielders off of the field during a game.
George Edward “Rube” Waddell was one of the premier power pitchers of the early 1900s. He has strikeout records that still stand to this day (he has the most strikeouts in a single season by a lefthanded pitcher in American League history). He was one of Cy Young’s chief rivals during each of their respective heydays.
Sadly, alcoholism and perhaps a personality disorder (it is extremely difficult to know what the problem was with players of the early 20th Century as mental illness often went undiagnosed and when a person was a drinker, alcohol was pretty much blamed for everything).
Personality conflicts hurt Waddell early in his career and he was drummed out of the National League around 1900. Luckily, he eventually signed on with the Philadelphia Athletics and resurrected his career. For six seasons from 1902-1907, Waddell was the Athletics’ best pitcher, as he led the American League in strikeouts in all six seasons. Ultimately, the personality problems also led to him leaving Philadelphia, as well (he was out of baseball entirely by 1910, when he was still in his early 30s). But in those early years, life was good for Waddell. He loved Philly and Philly loved him.
After leading Philadelphia to an American League pennant in his first year with the team in 1902 (this was before there was a World Series between the American League and the National League champions), Waddell came to Spring Training in 1903 on top of the world. His happiness also led to some awfully strange behavior in the Spring of 1903. Waddell was always a fierce competitor (he often was involved in a war of words with his rivals, chiefly Cy Young). This was made especially evident during preseason games in 1903 where Waddell performed some in-game stunts that sound ridiculous but they actually happened.
During one game, Waddell intentionally walked the bases loaded in the ninth inning with two outs. He then ordered all of his teammates save his catcher off of the field, showing his utter confidence that he would strike out the final batter. And you know what? He did do just that. He performed cartwheels back to the Athletics club house as the crowd chanted his name.
The next game, he upped the ante even further. He repeated the trick, only this time he started the ninth inning with no fielders. Again, his cockiness was backed up by his performance as he struck out the side to end the game.
Waddell never tried these tricks in an actual regular season game, but I bet he would have loved to have done so.
Waddell passed away from tuberculosis in 1914 at the age of 37. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1946.
Thanks to Alan Howard Levy’s Rube Waddell: The Zany, Brilliant Life of a Strikeout Artist for the information of Waddell’s crazy feats.
Okay, that’s it for this installment!
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