Reds player William Hoy lost his hearing at age three due to meningitis. He not only grew up to be one of the greatest and most beloved baseball players of his time, he changed the way the game was played forever.
Dallas Morning News Theater Critic Nancy Churnin recently published a children's book about the Reds hall of famer: The William Hoy Story: How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game. WVXU's Howard Wilkinson talked with her about the life and career of William "Dummy" Hoy.
Howard Wilkinson interview with author Nancy Churnin
This is Cincinnati Edition on 91.7 WVXU, I’m Mark Heyne. Today's show was pre-recorded so we won't be able to take your questions and comments. Reds player William Hoy lost his hearing at age three due to meningitis. He not only grew up to be one of the greatest and most beloved baseball players of his time, he changed the way the game was played forever.
Nancy Churnin recently published a children's book about the Reds hall of famer. WVXU's Howard Wilkinson talked with her about the life and career of William "Dummy" Hoy.
Howard: Nancy, thanks for being with us today.
Nancy: Oh, thanks for inviting me, Howard. Such a pleasure.
Howard: The William Hoy story, the book that you’ve written — a children’s book — has a subtitle, “How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game.” And, of course, here in Cincinnati, there are people who know about William “Dummy” Hoy as a member of the Reds Hall of Fame. But there are an awful lot of fans who don’t know the background and the story of how he came to the major league — how he eventually came to Cincinnati. Tell us the story of William Hoy:
Nancy: Well, it’s a really remarkable story. You have a young boy. He’s born when Abraham Lincoln is president and when he’s growing up, baseball’s this new-fangled game that people think... his father tells [him], “This will never last.” But he loves this game. He loves it so much, and he has lost his hearing at age three due to meningitis. And he goes to the Ohio State School for the Deaf, and oh, how he tries out to be on this team. And they say, “You’re too small.” He was about 5 foot 4, and I think he went up to 5 foot 5 at one point, but he was always too small. But he just wouldn’t give up. He just kept practicing and practicing and practicing until he could hit any ball, he could catch it anywhere, he was so fast, and he gets noticed. He tries out for a minor league team. And he gets on in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, but he’s struggling because he’s in a hearing world. And at this point, baseball, again, is new. Nobody is telling you, “throw balls or strikes.” So he doesn’t know what he should be doing. So he’s having trouble at first. But then he gets this idea that he’ll tell the umpire, "Hey, if you put up this hand for balls and you put up this hand for strikes — if you make the sign for 'safe' and make the sign for 'out,' that’s really going to help me." Well, it not only helped him — he sets a national league record for stolen bases in his first major league rookie year with the Washington Nationals. And he ends up playing for several teams. It is a big deal when he signed with the Cincinnati Reds because he’s an Ohio boy. He was born in Houcktown, and that’s where his family farm is. So the crowds just loved him. He wasn’t the only person who introduced signals but he popularized them because he played so many years, taught all his teammates, taught it to the crowds; and the crowds loved him so much that when he came on the field, they would wave their arms. So what we now know as a typical baseball thing — waving your hands, waving your hats — that’s deaf applause. We do that because of William Hoy.
Howard: And it wasn’t easy. Obviously, you write about this in the book. He was humiliated one day when he struck out and he didn’t know it. Because the umpire was making those signals and he had the pitcher laughing at him and people in the stands laughing at him… And that’s what motivated him to come up with these hand signals.
Nancy: Absolutely. And he just didn’t give up. He just knew he had to find a way, and when he thought about those signals and how those signals had helped him navigate the hearing world of his family, he realized if he could bring that to baseball… The cool thing about it is that not only did it help him become a successful player when they introduced the signals, but it was good for everybody. He could have secret plays with his teammates, they could discuss strategy… The people in the stands remember these as the days before the jumbotrons. Nobody had screens or instant replay. So people in the far-off stands who couldn’t hear the umpires could see those signs. It made the game better for everybody, and that’s the real heart of the book — that it’s not an issue of overcoming challenges. It’s not a challenge. He was proud of being deaf. He used his difference to make the game better for everybody.
Howard: When he first came up in Oshkosh and, later, the National League, how did his teammates react to having a deaf teammate?
Nancy: It was hard at the beginning because before he had the signs, there was a lot of prejudice against deaf people. They weren’t well-integrated into the hearing the world, so if someone wanted to cover their mouth, he couldn’t read his lips, if they turned away, he couldn’t read their lips… When he introduces the signs, though, and gets them interested in the signs, he starts making friends. And, as a matter of fact, there are some pictures of him with some of the old-timers. I have a picture of him with Connie Mack, and they’re sitting there and they’re signing together. He played with a lot of players… He made the (Reds) Hall of Fame and they loved that. They learned signing from Hoy. Oh, and he had such a great sense of humor. He never had a chip on his shoulder about it. I remember this wonderful story about him going to a hotel with his teammates and there was a real noisy party in the hotel and, oh my gosh, the whole team was bleary-eyed in the morning — exhausted. There was only one person who wasn’t exhausted: the very well-rested William Hoy who wrote on his notepad, “It’s great to be deaf.”
Howard: Obviously, he is known, even today, as “Dummy” Hoy, which, these days, is a term which is not used in polite society. But in 1890s, it was different.
Nancy: It was very common then. And that was the interesting thing, because I worked with Steve Sandy who is an activist in the deaf community. He’s the one who urged me to write this book. And he explained to me that “Dummy” was actually a word of pride then because that’s how everyone who was deaf was referred to. We discussed it and we agreed that children, though, wouldn’t understand that. They think of “dumb” as meaning “stupid,” and that would be very insulting. So what I did was, I just call him William Hoy in the book. But afterward, I say more about William Hoy and I let them know he was often referred to as “Dummy” Hoy. It was just simply a name for being deaf back then. He was so smart. He was the valedictorian at the Ohio State School for the Deaf. I had to give a shout out to Steve Sandy — he was such an enormous help. He is a friend of the Hoy family. The Hoy family has been behind this and proud of this, and Steve who is endlessly patient — I had so many questions — and he provided me with newspaper articles from the 19th century. Every question he answered. And I’m also so grateful to Eric Nadel, who is the Texas Ranger’s radio announcer, National Baseball Hall of Fame honorary. He also fact-checked everything with me. I wanted to make sure everything was right… would work for the kids… but everything was right for the people who really knew this story.
Howard: Dummy Hoy — actually, he was a terrific ball player. He was very good, [as] you pointed out, about stolen bases. He hit over .300 three times in a 14-year career. He scored 100 runs eight times.
Nancy: Absolutely. He’s amazing.
Howard: The on-base percentage of over .400 four times. And that on-base percentage over .400 is considered terrific for any ball player.
Nancy: Absolutely, and Howard, I have to ask you… turn this interview around. You actually saw him. You saw him. He was 99 years old when he threw out that ball in the World Series for the Cincinnati Reds.
Howard: Saw him on television, that’s right.
Nancy: What did he look like? What was your impression? Did you know the whole history of him when you watched him do that?
Howard: I was kind of fortunate because I grew up… my dad was a big baseball fan and he knew the stories and history of the Reds. And he told me about them. And I said, oh that’s pretty neat. I can remember talking about this — the creation of the signs. And even to this day, Nancy, when I go to a ballgame — and I go to a lot of them — when I see an umpire, you know, throw his hand up for a strike or make a safe sign, I think of Dummy Hoy.
Nancy: Wow. Wow, well, that’s quite a tribute. I’m hoping that the kids who read this book… that they will think of him that way too. I mean, you [were] lucky to have a dad who took you to these [games] and to teach the history and I just still can’t get that you actually saw him on television.
Howard: It was an amazing thing because he’s had such a long life. You pointed out he was born in 1862 when Abraham Lincoln was president. After he threw out the first pitch in the game, three of the 1961 World Series, he passed away a few months later, in the presidency of the John F. Kennedy, at the age of 99. That was a long life.
Nancy: It was. He lived through so many changes and he dealt with everything with such grace. I have to tell you, another thing that’s astonishing about him is that I do all this research. I mean, I’m a long-time journalist myself. I’m the theater critic for the Dallas Morning News. I do all this research and I fully expect, when I research somebody — you’re going to find good stuff, you’re going to find some bad stuff, and you decide how to focus your story. I couldn’t find anything bad on this guy. Ninety nine years. Although he was just a terrific guy. The stories about him were legendary and they were all good. I mean, for instance, there was the story about when he sat on the field. He was called the “King of Centerfield” because he could just catch anything. He’s out there, catches a ball, umpire calls the batter out, he waves his hand, and the umpire says, “What, I called him out. You caught the ball.” And he touches the ground. “Nope, touched the ground.” He doesn’t say that. He shows that. Okay, guy’s safe! He’s honest. People knew they could trust him. He married a deaf woman, raised hearing children — all of whom were successful, maintained friendships after his illustrious baseball career. He worked for Goodyear. He organized a team of deaf workers into the Goodyear silence. He was always giving back to the community. He was always helping others. He was just a great guy.
Howard: I know after his baseball career, he had lived in Mt. Healthy here in Cincinnati and was very, very active in the community, and active with the Reds too.
Nancy: Absolutely. I think he had a lifetime pass to the Reds game. The Reds treated him well. Oh, he was so proud, and that’s in the book too. I mean, he played for a lot of teams, but that was his special time of pride, you know? His time with the Reds. That was his home team. And that’s where he wanted to live. He saved all his money, didn’t gamble, didn’t drink, saved his money, bought that farm... and my goodness, that was a time when, if you were deaf, people didn’t even expect you to live independently. People who were deaf tended to be sent to asylums or lived at home with their families, but he had that farm. He figured out a way to make it work. He even had a mechanism over the door so that if someone came to the door, and they knocked, the ball would fall… tumble down, hit the ground, vibrate, and he knew someone was at the door. He was so smart!
Howard: It was like a cannonball or something like that?
Nancy: Exactly, it had to be that loud. He was always figuring out ways to make it work.
Howard: That’s ingenious.
Nancy: That’s how he was. And that’s how he was with his signals. When it just wasn’t working, he figured out, if I use these signals, then I can play this game I love. Yeah, as they say, he made it better for everybody.
Howard: You say there are descendants of William Hoy still around here?
Nancy: Absolutely, yes. And again, I’ve known them mostly through my long distance friend Steve Sandy. We e-mail, we’re always in communication, and he speaks for the — well not technically speaks — but he writes for the Hoy family. Adam Hoy — he’s a descendent — he wrote a lovely note saying “thank you for writing about my grandfather.” And I was so touched. The family is rightfully proud of him, and they’re proud of him, the deaf community is proud of him… And you know what’s actually been so marvelous? I have not only gone to schools for the deaf and hearing-impaired, but to hearing schools, and those kids are so inspired. They’re inspired by the story of perseverance. They’re interested in learning some sign language. I usually like to have an interpreter with me so we can teach the kids some sign language. It’s a beautiful language, and it should be more widely known. And if it was more widely known, then I think it would be easier for, you know, the deaf to be more integrated into the hearing world, as they should be.
Howard: Yeah, that that was one of my questions- just how do the hearing children who read this book tend to react to it?
Nancy: Well, it’s really been beautiful. The last school that I was at which was Hexter Elementary in Dallas. It was all hearing kids. Oh, and they gave me a big packet of papers with their drawings and what Hoy meant to them and how they were related to the fact that he never gave up. I mean, that was what was so remarkable about him, that he persevered when they said he was too small, he just practiced and practiced and practiced, and then what it looked… there was a barrier because he was deaf in a hearing world. He taught hearing people the signals so he could be part of that world too, and they related to it! They wanted to play baseball. They related to it if they liked to dance. They related to it if they worked hard in school and were trying to move from one level to another level. They would say, “This is how I relate to Hoy.” And then they were so intrigued by the specificity of him being deaf. And they were so intrigued by the language. And then when I finished speaking to them, they thanked me by waving their hands with deaf applause. I started to cry.
Howard: Obviously, Dummy Hoy is a member of good standing in the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame.
Nancy: Oh, he should be.
Howard: Oh, yeah, absolutely should be. But there are people who would like to see him in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Is that right?
Nancy: Absolutely. That’s really how this whole thing got started. The real backstory of this was that I had written a small item for the morning news about Allen Meyer, who happens to be a playwright who has a deaf daughter. [He] wrote a play called “The Signal Season of Dummy Hoy,” and that was thirty years ago. A high school in Garland had performed it, and I wrote a little item about that. And I get this e-mail thanking me from Steve Sandy, from Ohio, and I e-mailed him back, “You’re welcome. But why is someone in Ohio interested in a show in Garland, Texas?” And he’s got Hoy on Google alert, because his goal — he’s been working for decades to get Hoy into the Hall of Fame, the National Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. And we want to spread the word.
Howard: We hope that will happen someday, but his plaque is in the Reds Hall of Fame in Cincinnati, and also this is Opening Day for the Reds…
Nancy: Go Reds!
Howard: And your book is also in the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame museum gift shop.
Nancy: I’m so proud and I know Hoy would be so proud to have his name up there… On the gift shop, on Opening Day, and where would he want to be more than any place else on Opening Day than at a Cincinnati Reds game?
Howard: Well, that’s right. Well, thank you very much, Nancy. We really appreciate it.
Nancy: Oh, thank you, Howard. It’s been such a pleasure.