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William Ellsworth Hoy, a Deaf Baseball Player Research Paper

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Updated: May 27th, 2021

William Ellsworth “Dummy” Hoy is considered one of the greatest athletes in the history of American Major League Baseball. His achievements would have been extraordinary for an athlete having no physical handicaps, but the fact that, deaf and mute, he managed to excel in his sport only emphasizes Hoy’s significance as a baseball player.

In the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, the overall social environment and a widespread hostile public attitude toward disability provided many obstacles to a successful career for any person with a disability. Nevertheless, Hoy’s differences did not prevent him from becoming one of the best leadoff hitters of his time nor from winning the hearts of his teammates as well as many fans, hearing and deaf.

William Hoy was born on May 23, 1862, into a middle-class family that lived in the rural community of Houston, Ohio. Hoy and his siblings grew up on a farm owned by their parents, Rebecca Hoffman and Jacob Hoy. At age three, Hoy contracted meningitis, leaving him deaf and mute (Porter 136). As a result, he could not attend public school and instead was accepted at the Ohio School for the Deaf, which had coincidentally been “the first residential school to introduce baseball as a team sport to its male students” in 1863 (Edwards 172).

It is probable that the school’s strong athletic program helped the many young boys who attended there, including star pitcher Edward Dundon (1859–1893), follow the path to careers in various semiprofessional leagues (Edwards 172). However, while Hoy’s predecessors generally played semi-professionally, he was the first to make it to the majors.

Hoy did not enter the world of professional baseball immediately after graduation. As Berger states, “in those days many deaf people were either employed or self-employed as shoemakers or shoe repair people,” and William Hoy followed this customary career path, opening his own shoe shop. However, the business did not go well as most of the residents in the rural settings of Hoy’s time preferred walking barefoot. Thus, when his workload was lacking, this future athlete passed the time playing ball with youth from the area near his shop.

By a lucky coincidence, during one of these games, a local man noticed Hoy and, impressed by the way the shoemaker moved, invited him to play for the Kenton, Ohio baseball team. Berger mentions that although William Hoy played against a professional Urbana pitcher, Billy Hart, he “had no trouble solving him for some base hits.” That game changed everything and helped Hoy decide to become an athlete.

Over a fourteen-year major league career, this baseball player joined seven teams. Hoy started with a minor league contract in 1886 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and then set off to the majors, joining the Washington Nationals baseball team in 1888 (Edwards 173). However, Hoy spent his best years, 1894–1897, playing for the Cincinnati Reds (“Dummy Hoy”). In his time in the major leagues, “he played in 1,798 games; amassed 2,044 hits, 249 doubles, 121 triples, and 40 home runs; scored 1,426 runs; stole 597 bases; and attained a career batting average of.287, a career on-base percentage of.386, and a career slugging percentage of.373” (Edwards 173).

Considering his record, American baseball writer and historian Bill James ranked Hoy as number six in his top-ten list of the most remarkable centerfielders ever (Edwards 174). Hoy’s achievements clearly show why he became one of the best-known deaf baseball players in the United States and why the members of the Deaf community consider him an iconic figure.

The invention of a signal system through which he communicated with his teammates was yet another of William Hoy’s important contributions to professional sports. When he was playing for the Cincinnati Reds, it was reported that he “was so admired by his teammates that the Reds all learned sign language” (Edwards 176). This communication approach better integrated Hoy into the team and served to improve the game. However, the use of hand signals and fingerspelling benefited not only the deaf player but the hearing players and coaches as well. According to Porter, everyone found sign language extremely helpful, and as a result, it became standard practice in baseball afterward (142).

To understand the significance of this novel mode of communication in baseball, it is important to look at the overall context of the time frame when it was introduced. At the beginning of the twentieth century, deaf education had begun to focus on oralism, promoting “exclusive use of speech and lipreading to communicate” instead of fingerspelling (Edwards 177). At the time, this method was believed to help deaf individuals better assimilate into a mainstream culture so they might function as “normal” people.

It is even reported that some hearing educators tried to teach deaf children to laugh “normally” (Edwards 178). Against the backdrop of this trend, the image of William Hoy fully embracing his identity as a deaf professional baseball player demonstrated that oralism might not be the best way for a deaf person to find success.

Notably, although William Hoy used his voice to communicate with his teammates, he did not speak English and only made a variety of peculiar sounds. According to Sam Crawford, a right fielder for the Cincinnati Reds in 1902, “he’d make a kind of throaty voice, kind of a little squawk, and when a fly ball came out, and I heard this little noise I knew he was going to take it” (Porter 140). This example of high-level collaboration between deaf and hearing players serves as evidence that words may not be necessary for athletes to understand each other well, providing they share a mutual commitment to work together for everyone’s benefit. It also shows that deafness as such is not a barrier to success and that the acceptance of one’s own physical difference can provide significant advantages.

After retiring from a successful baseball career, William Hoy bought a farm in Ohio, where he lived with his wife, Anna Maria Lowery, and their three children. To the end of his days, he was actively involved in the Deaf community as well as multiple youth and adult baseball organizations. As a sign of recognition, he became the first deaf baseball player selected for the Louisville Colonels Hall of Fame in 1941, the American Athletic Association of the Deaf’s Hall of Fame in 1951, and the Cincinnati Hall of Fame in 2003 (Porter 143).

In 1961, he appeared on the field for the last time, when he was invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch in a game between the New York Yankees and the Cincinnati Reds (Porter 143). At that time, he was ninety-nine years old, yet Berger states that, even at such an advanced age, he was full of zest for life and physical strength. Unfortunately, William Hoy did not live to celebrate his 100th birthday and died of a stroke in Cincinnati. Nevertheless, many baseball fans and Deaf people, in particular, continue to praise his accomplishments.

It is valid to assume that the road to success was not without difficulties for Hoy as he found he had much to prove along the way. First, he had to withstand the stereotypes held by his parents and society, constraints that meant he was not expected to succeed and that reflected people’s general discomfort with disability. Second, he had to evince the qualities of an excellent player even as others judged him more critically, and he was forced to find ways to compensate for his inability to hear, which could easily hinder the game at any time. Strong determination, a deep passion for baseball, undeniable talents, skills, and intelligence assisted him in attaining this goal.

Moreover, these qualities allowed him to take an important position on the team and to gain his teammates’ appreciation. It may also be possible to assert that his lack of speech and non-conformity with the hearing norms and culture of his time, which endowed the story of Hoy’s success with unique features, made him a role model within the Deaf community. By excelling in his profession and embracing his identity, he indirectly advocated for the rights of the Deaf. Nowadays, he continues to serve as an embodiment of the American dream for the members of the Deaf community as his story shows that people with a handicap can achieve great accomplishments and influence the course of history.

Works Cited

Berger, Ralph. “Society for American Baseball Research. Web.

“Dummy Hoy.” Reds Hall of Fame and Museum. Web.

Edwards, R. A. R. “No Dummies: Deafness, Baseball, and American Culture.” Sign Language Studies, vol. 12, no. 2, 2012, pp. 171-187.

Porter, David L. Their Greatest Victory: 24 Athletes Who Overcame Disease, Disability and Injury. McFarland & Company, 2013.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "William Ellsworth Hoy, a Deaf Baseball Player." May 27, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/william-ellsworth-hoy-a-deaf-baseball-player/.

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