William Hoy was not Major League Baseball’s first deaf player, but he was the game's most successful. He finished his career, which spanned from 1888-1902, with 2,048 hits, 596 stolen bases and 725 runs batted in. In the 21st century, Hoy received consideration by the Veterans Committee for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“He faced prejudice, especially in the beginning of his career,” says Nancy Churnin, who wrote The William Hoy Story, a children’s book meant to inform and inspire. “But he also made great friends. He taught his teammates sign language, and they loved it."
Early in his baseball career, Hoy received the nickname “Dummy”—a common (albeit offensive) nickname at the time for those who could not speak. Hoy became better known by that nickname than by William or Billy.
William Hoy Defies Expectations
Born May 23, 1862, in Houcktown, Ohio, a hamlet about 55 miles south of Toledo, Hoy was unassuming, quiet, detailed and polite. His parents were farmers. When Hoy was three, he contracted meningitis, leaving him unable to speak or hear. He was sent to the Ohio School for the Deaf, graduating as valedictorian in 1879.
“Expectations for the deaf then were so low,” Churnin says. “His parents figured he’d learn how to cobble shoes and live at home his entire life. He had bigger ideas.”
In the summer as a youth, Hoy played baseball in his neighborhood. A passerby at a game asked Hoy to play for the Kenton (Ohio) team against a local squad. He did, faring well against pitcher Billy Hart, who played a season with the St. Louis Browns in a professional league.
In 1886, Hoy signed with a professional team in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The umpire's balls and strikes calls in the league confused Hoy—he could not hear them, and the stadium had no scoreboard for him to follow the count. So, the third-base coach signaled him by raising his left index finger for a ball, the right for a strike.
The more the system worked, the better Hoy played—it was even used when he played in the big leagues.
Hoy hit .367 for Oshkosh in 1887, the same year his “horse catch” became part of baseball lore. In the season finale against Dubuque for the league title, Hoy played center field. Fans, some with their horses and buggies nearby, ringed the field. In the ninth inning, Hoy miraculously caught a deep fly ball in the area where the horses stood.
“One old-timer insists that Hoy hopped up on a horse’s back, stuck up his glove and—kerplunk! He caught the ball to retire the side," according to a mid-20th-century account. "Another old-time twist to the Hoy catch was that he circled between some horses, put his arms around the horse’s neck and presto—he made the catch!”
Hoy Becomes Second Deaf Player in Professional Baseball
In 1888, the Washington Nationals of the National League signed Hoy, making him professional baseball’s second deaf player after Ed Dundon, who played one season in the big leagues. In his rookie season, Hoy led the league with 82 stolen bases.
Hoy, who stood 5-foot-6 and weighed between 145 and 160 pounds during his playing days, was known for his speed and excellent throwing arm that allowed him to play shallow in center field. He was a left-handed hitter but a righty thrower.
Players and fans adapted to Hoy's deafness. Fans stood and waved at Hoy so he knew they were cheering. When Hoy joined a new team, he posted a note in every clubhouse so teammates would know how he handled fly balls.
“Whenever I take a fly ball,” he wrote, “I always yell, ‘I’ll take it’—the same as I have been doing for many seasons, and of course the other fielders let me take it. Whenever you don’t hear me yell, it is understood I am not after the ball, and they govern themselves accordingly.”
In addition to the Nationals, Hoy played for the Buffalo Bisons, St. Louis Browns, Washington Senators, Cincinnati Reds, Louisville Colonels and Chicago White Sox. He was one of 29 players to play in four of the five acknowledged major leagues—the National and American Leagues, the Player’s League and the American Association.
In a 14-year big-league career, Hoy earned the respect of players and management alike. "There is no more earnest player in the country today,” Reds manager Tom Loftus told reporters in 1890.
“Hoy knows nothing but baseball from the time the season commences until it closes,” the manager continued. “He watches every point, and while we were in New York he kept me busy answering questions on what I would do in case of such and such a suppositious play. He is a good, earnest player, the best on the Buffalo team.”
On May 26, 1902, in his final big-league season, Hoy batted against Luther Taylor, another deaf player. “I’m glad to see you,” he signed to him before singling to center field.
In his final professional game, with Los Angeles in the Pacific Coast League in 1903, Hoy concluded his career in style. As fog hovered over the field in the ninth inning, a hitter launched a fly ball into the outfield. Hoy made a terrific catch to end the game.
Is William Hoy in the Baseball Hall of Fame?
In 1898, Hoy married Anna Lowry, with whom he had three children. Anna, also deaf, taught deaf children for much of her life. After his playing career, Hoy bought land in Ohio and became a successful dairy farmer. At age 80, he walked 72 blocks to see his son, Judge Carson Hoy, preside in court.
Hoy died on December 15, 1961, having lived from presidents Abraham Lincoln to John F. Kennedy.
“He was very famous in his time," Churnin says. "But he lived in a time when there was antagonism against the deaf community. He was mocked, laughed at, people telling him he didn’t belong."
Although Hoy was enshrined in the Reds' Hall of Fame, he has not made the cut for the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Hall of Famer Sam Crawford—who played with Hoy on the Reds in 1902—extolled his former teammate's defensive skills, baserunning and worthiness for Hall enshrinement.
"There is not a single player in the Hall of Fame who faced physical challenges, not even an exhibit." Churnin says. "I cannot tell you what [Hoy's] selection would mean to his family, and to the deaf community.”