Perspectives Daily

Hand Signals

Deaf History and the Birth of Umpiring Gestures in Baseball

Rebecca A.R. Edwards | Oct 24, 2018

The World Series of 1906 was a series of firsts. It was the first modern Subway Series, pitting the American League’s Chicago White Sox against the National League’s Chicago Cubs. It was also the first World Series appearance for both franchises. It marked the first appearance in the World Series for the Cubs’ famous infield of Tinker, Evers, and Chance. And it was a true classic, ending in a huge surprise upset, as the Cubs, the team with the best record in baseball at 116-36, were defeated by the White Sox, a team with a collective batting average so weak (.230) they were nicknamed the Hitless Wonders. They batted even more poorly, at .198, on their unlikely road to victory.

Game 3 of the 1906 World Series.

The 1906 World Series was the first Fall Classic in which the umpires used gestures to make calls. Wikimedia Commons

It was also the first World Series in which the umpires called the games with gestures. As the Chicago Tribune reported,

Fans who were fortunate enough to see the world’s series in this city last fall will recall that the din of rooting was so great it was impossible to hear an umpire’s decision. Umpire Johnstone, who worked behind the plate in the first game, had difficulty in making even the batteries understand his decisions. Next day, “Silk” O’Loughlin supplemented his clarion voice with his characteristic gestures, and his decisions were apparent to all. . . . Before the third game, both umpires were instructed to raise their right arms for strikes and their left arms for balls.[i]

Umpire Francis “Silk” O’Loughlin, we learn, employed his characteristic gestures to call the game. But most umpires did not gesture in 1906; in fact, umpires largely resisted the idea, arguing that it detracted from their dignity. O’Loughlin, it turns out, had only turned to the gestures that would become characteristic to his style of umpiring in desperation.

In April 1906, as the season was opening, he was scheduled to umpire a game in Washington, DC. But the Washington Post reported, “O’Loughlin sprained his larynx Tuesday . . . and had no voice today.” Still O’Loughlin took up his position and called the game. The Post continued, “Instead of calling the decisions, he employed ‘Dummy’ Hoy’s mute signal code, which certainly was a novelty for Silk.”[ii]

William Ellsworth “Dummy” Hoy was, and still is, the most famous deaf man ever to play major league baseball. He played centerfield from 1888 to 1902 for a variety of teams including the Washington Senators, the Cincinnati Reds, and the Chicago White Sox. In 1,796 major-league games, he amassed 2,044 hits, 248 doubles, 121 triples, and 40 home runs; scored 1,426 runs; stole 594 bases; had 274 career assists; had a career fielding percentage of .915; and had a career batting average of .287. His batting average exceeded the league average of .281. His combined on-base and slugging percentage of .759 exceeded the league average of .725.[iii]

Wherever he went, Hoy brought with him a signal system, so that he could know what the umpire’s call was. Hoy described it this way in 1900:

The act of lifting up the right hand by the [third base] coacher while I am at bat to denote that the umpire has called a strike on me and the raising of the left hand to denote that a ball has been called has come to be well understood by all the League players. The reason the right hand was originally chosen to denote a strike was because “the pitcher was all right” when he got the ball over the plate and because “he got left” when he sent the ball wide of the plate. I have often been told by frequenters of the game that they take considerable delight in watching the coacher signal balls and strikes to me, as by these signals they can know to a certainty what the umpire with a not too overstrong voice is saying.[iv]

It seems, faced with his own suddenly not too “overstrong” voice, that O’Loughlin adopted Dummy Hoy’s mute signal code for himself.

It is important that the Washington Post saw it that way too. For years, deaf baseball fans have argued that Dummy Hoy brought umpires’ signs, in particular the signs for balls and strikes, into the game. And for years, hearing baseball researchers have denied that this was true. Bill Deane, who served as the senior research associate at the National Baseball Library and Archive from 1986 to 1994, published his own view of the claim about Hoy in 2012. In his Baseball Myths: Debating, Debunking, and Disproving Tales from the Diamond, Deane argued that the deaf community’s version of events amounts to the promulgation of a “Hoy myth.” He concluded, “The consensus is that standardized umpires’ hand signals first appeared in the big leagues about 1906, give or take a year. And Dummy Hoy, who last played in the majors in 1902, had nothing to do with them.”

It turns out that Hoy had everything to do with them. Even baseball witnesses in 1906, the year that Deane himself points to, saw the signs, recognized them as Hoy’s, and attributed them to Hoy and not to O’Loughlin.

The truth of the matter is that the oral history and preserved knowledge of the deaf community had the story right the entire time. As working historians, we are trained sometimes to be skeptical of such stories—oral tradition gets details wrong, we say; received wisdom is sometimes more culturally revealing than it is historically accurate.

The Hoy case is a reminder that, as good as it is to uncover the reporting of a neutral party, that in and of itself does not make a story suddenly true. It was already true. The truth about Hoy’s most lasting contribution to the national pastime has been too long and too unfairly denied.

Deaf fans knew it all along. Hearing fans just weren’t listening.

[i] “Gestures to Tell Umpire’s Ruling,” Chicago Tribune, January 6, 1907.

[ii] “Nationals Lose Game,” Washington Post, April 19, 1906.

[iii] All statistics are from http://www.baseball-reference.com.

[iv] Hoy as quoted in the Sporting News, January 27, 1900.

Chicago is host city to the 2019 AHA annual meeting. Rebecca Edwards will be speaking there on a panel on “Chicago Sports History: Fans, Gambling, and Shifting Loyalties” on Saturday, January 5.

Book a hotel room at the Hilton Chicago or Palmer House Hilton through the AHA’s housing service Experient by December 10 for a chance to win one of two sets of four tickets to a Chicago Cubs game or one of two sets of four tickets to a Chicago White Sox game during the 2019 season. Tickets come with a complimentary overnight stay at the Palmer House or Hilton Chicago. 


Rebecca Edwards is a professor of history in the Department of History at the Rochester Institute of Technology, in Rochester, New York. Her book on the history of deaf ballplayers in major league baseball is forthcoming from MacFarland Press. She is a lifelong Red Sox fan.


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