The world can be an ugly place. In the face of mass killings and terror attacks, racism and discrimination, it can be discouraging — if not downright depressing — to see how we treat each other on this planet.
That’s why I was delighted recently to step away from the mayhem and learn about a late-19th Century baseball player who overcame a disability and discrimination and went on to make a lasting contribution to the game.
It’s written by Nancy Churnin, the wife of my longtime friend, Michael Granberry. Both are Texas journalists — she’s the theater critic at The Dallas Morning News, he’s an arts writer at the same place — and both are big-time baseball fans.
I’ve known Mike since we were summer interns at The Washington Post during our college days. I met Nancy when I visited the couple in the fall of 2014 and took an instant liking to her (even though she’s a Yankees fan).
Nancy sent me an autographed copy of the book and I set it aside to read last Saturday. I’m a lifelong baseball fan and pretty knowledgeable about the game’s history, but I had never heard of William Hoy. Thanks to Nancy’s research and writing, distilled into 27 pages of text and illustrations, I now know about another of the game’s pioneers.
William Ellsworth Hoy was born in 1862 on a farm in Ohio. As a 3-year-old, he contracted meningitis and lost his hearing and speech. He graduated from the Ohio School for the Deaf and worked as a cobbler, but also played baseball and signed his first professional contract with a minor league team in 1886.
He broke into the major leagues two years later and set a National League record for stolen bases his rookie season. At 5’5″ and 148 pounds, he played as an outfielder for seven teams, including the Cincinnati Reds, during a career spanning 14 years.
Back in his day, “Dummy” was a common name for people who were deaf and mute, according to the book. William was proud of being deaf and so referred to himself as Dummy. (Thank goodness, we’re beyond that.)
Hoy’s legacy: Working with umpires to introduce hand signals so that spectators, as well as players and coaches, could see as pitches were called balls or strikes and runners were declared safe or out.
We take those signs for granted. But it’s inspiring to realize they came about because of a little-known player who endured teasing because he couldn’t hear the umpires’ calls.
Dummy Hoy died in 1961 at age 99. Thanks to Nancy and Jez Tuya, her artist collaborator, I now know more about an important sports figure — and I hope schools and libraries across the country will add this little gem of a book to their shelves.
In a review for The New York Times, Maria Russo praised the “delightful and illuminating biography,” saying of Nancy Churnin: “She tells William’s story patiently and clearly, with a wonderfully matter-of-fact tone about the ways a deaf person navigates life. She strikes just the right balance between reporting the hardships and discrimination he faced — an owner who tried to underpay him, fellow players who laughed at and tricked him — and emphasizing the personal grit that allowed him to persevere and overcome daunting obstacles.”
Read the review here.