SABR

John Ryn

This article was written by Brian McKenna.

John Ryn’s career was spent in the Midwest, South and West far from the eyes of the major East Coast newspapers and fans. All of it was spent in the minors or below. Considering this and the fact that his career ended more than a century ago, few have heard of him. Physically, he was big and strong and could poke the ball over the fence during a time when few could. One Ohio (his native state) sportswriter referred to an over-the-fence home run as a “Ryn act,” as a colorful analyst might do today.

He came out of a secondary school system that fielded competitive nines, sending several men into professional ball and a couple into the majors. Like many big guys of the era, he began his career as a pitcher and catcher, and then moved to first base and the outfield. As a teenager, he grew up playing with Ed Dundon and William Hoy, men whose names might be more familiar to many if they contained the moniker “Dummy.” Ryn like the others was deaf. The lack of political correctness of the nickname belies the attitudes of sportswriters, teammates, opponents, fans and the general public of the era who treated such players as an oddity. The newspapers are filled with little jokes and slights at their expense.

John Ryn was born in February 1862 in Marion, Ohio, to John and Mary Ryn. His parents were born in Ireland. The couple had seven children, all born in Ohio: Annie, 1857; Mary, circa 1858; Michael, circa 1861; John; Johanna, circa 1868; Catherine, 1870; Daniel, circa 1874. The elder Ryn supported the family as a railroad laborer. After relocating to Larne, Ohio, by 1860, the Ryn family then moved to the city of Marion and remained there throughout the rest of their lives.

Though their parents could hear, three of the children - Annie, Mary and John - could not. This perhaps suggests a genetic cause behind the hearing loss. Whatever the origin, the hearing loss was congenital. John and his two sisters grew up and lived at the Ohio Institute for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb in Columbus during the school year. John entered the school in September 1870 at age eight and returned every fall well into his twenties, as did Annie and Mary. They continued to work and reside there even after officially graduating at high school age.

The institute consisted of a multi-storied school building with three main, attached wings separated by two open courtyards. The center wing contained the dining hall. The east wing housed the boys, the west the girls. From a school publication describing the latter two wings, “The first story is used as a playroom. The second is the sitting or study room, and is used out of school and work hours. The two upper stories are dormitories.” Besides the normal course load, the school also taught the students a trade, though John Ryn left without a specific employable trade. His friend Dundon, for one, became a book binder. Many students from the school remained after graduation to teach or otherwise plying their trade. For example, Dundon returned winters after the baseball season and worked on premises binding books. Eventually, many students went out into the workforce or worked on their family farms.

The Ohio Institute was the first residential secondary school in the United States to incorporate a baseball program. The school’s shoemaking teacher, Parley P. Pratt, began training the boys during the 1870s. Pratt was a graduate of Williams College and had taught at similar institutions in Philadelphia and California. He was the baseball coach throughout Ryn’s time at the institute. The players communicated with signs. In 1886 Dundon umpired an exhibition game in the south between professional clubs. His signs that day give perhaps an indication of those used at the institute. The fingers on his right hand denoted strikes; thus, the left hand fingers identified the number of balls. A shake of the head, meaning “No,” as in you didn’t make the play in time, was the safe signal. A wave of the hand signified that a base runner was out.

Historian Peter Morris points out that the institute had a strong baseball program during the 1870s and ’80s. The school even embarked on a statewide barnstorming tour in 1879, taking on several National League clubs and traveling over 3,500 miles to play over sixty contests. They fared extremely well, posting a 6-2 record against the major league clubs. Dundon, a little older than Ryn, was the star pitcher of the squad, known as the Ohio Independents.

Among Ryn’s classmates were future professional players: Edward Dundon, from Columbus; William Hoy, from Houcktown; William L. and Isaac Sawhill, from Otsego. Dundon, a pitcher three years older than Ryn, entered the school in 1868. He played for Columbus in the major American Association in 1883 and ’84. Hoy, an outfielder the same age as Ryn, enrolled at the Ohio Institute in 1872.  He later played fourteen seasons in the major leagues. William Sawhill, a catcher four years younger than Ryn, enrolled in 1873. He played in the minors in the late 1880s. William’s brother Isaac, or Ike, also attended the school and played pro ball. He was a couple years older than Ryn and entered the school in 1870. George Kihm, who entered the institute in 1880, was also at the school during Ryn’s extended stay but he was a decade younger and they didn’t play ball together as classmates.

There were more than a handful of deaf players with professional careers overlapping Ryn’s. Besides Dundon and Hoy, Reuben Stephenson and Tom Lynch also reached the majors. Old-time ballplayers Paul Hines, Doug Allison and Pete Browning also had severe hearing loss. Among the minor leaguers was Kihm who played for two decades, the Sawhill brothers, Ed Gillespie, Jake Funkhouser and a guy with the surname James who played with Oswego in 1887. Not surprisingly considering the reputation of the Ohio Institute, quite a few of these men were from Ohio: Ryn; Dundon; Gillespie; Hoy; Kihm; Sawhill.

The boys lived together nine months of the year, playing ball as weather and class and work/chore schedules permitted. Ryn, a big righthander, was mainly a pitcher and catcher but also played in the field. As the boys grew older, they joined local amateur and semi-pro clubs during the summer breaks, playing with hearing teammates. In July 1882 Ryn was among the initial members of the newly formed Marion Mohawks, the club’s main catcher and a change pitcher. Longtime pro and major leaguer Reddy Mack was also on the club. That summer Ryn also joined Dundon who found a slot on his hometown Columbus Buckeyes. The two worked as the club’s battery.

In 1883 the American Association, fresh from a successful first season, added two clubs, New York and Columbus. The Buckeyes of 1882, now a major league club, reorganized and re-manned, incorporating pros from other association teams. When school let out, Dundon and Ryn joined the Buckeyes. Dundon was a featured pitcher, spelling Frank Mountain on the mound. Since Columbus had an experienced catcher, Rudy Kemmler, and a strong backup, Joe Straub, Ryn landed on the reserve squad. In Indianapolis for an exhibition game on May 30 he “badly crushed” his thumb behind the plate. His replacement broke his finger on the first pitch. Indy had to lend the club two players just to finish the game. Three days later, Dundon made his major league debut. With the injury Ryn may have missed his best opportunity to play in the majors. He returned home to Marion and played ball locally. Catching with minimal equipment was tough on the body during the game’s early professional years. At the time in 1883 he may have only used his bare hands. But by later in the decade, the Marion Star would note: “When he caught he wore only a common leather driving glove on his left hand and a canvas glove with the fingers cut out on his right.” He never did use a glove while playing first base – his main position in later years - placing him among the last men to play gloveless.

In March 1884 Ryn signed with Portsmouth of the Ohio State League, at which point he probably left the Ohio Institute for good at age 23. In the preseason the Kenton club sent Reddy Mack to Portsmouth to entice, or trick, Ryn into jumping his contract. “Kentons are doing a shabby and dishonorable thing…Ryn is a mute, and they tried to get him on board the bonanza, doubtless thinking he might be slipped away.” Mack received a couple of fists to the face from Portsmouth officials for his deception. Ryn started Opening Day for the club on May 1 versus Ironton, a 16-8 loss. Per the Cleveland Herald, “The Irontons treated the Portsmouth club to a slugging matinee in the first part of the game, sending Ryn, the dummy pitcher, to the field at the end of the fifth inning.” Portsmouth disbanded and dropped out of the league after 31 games. He finished the season with Dayton of the same league.

Ryn and Dundon joined the Southern League in 1885, Ryn with Chattanooga and Dundon with Atlanta. By this time, Ryn had virtually abandoned the battery positions; with Chattanooga he played strictly in the outfield. In 58 games he only hit .187 but was signed for the following year despite his dismal contribution with the bat. Dundon also re-signed to play in the south. Ryn returned home by mid-September and rejoined the Mohawks for some games into October. He reneged on his commitment to join Chattanooga and in fact didn’t play in Organized Baseball in 1886. The following season, he played 77 games for Sandusky in the Ohio State League, hitting .311 mainly as an outfielder and first baseman.

In 1888 Ryn returned to Sandusky, his first professional gig that carried over to a second season, as the club moved into the Tri-State League. In July the Daily Inter Ocean noted, “All of the deaf mutes are distinguishing themselves this year. Ryn, the right fielder of Sandusky, is playing in a way to rival the king of the mutes, Hoy, of Washington, and Dundon is doing good work for Syracuse.” On August 30 Sandusky disbanded and Ryn joined frontrunner Lima for the duration of the season. He took his time in reporting to Lima, one source claiming he took the wrong train. It was more likely he was holding out for more money. Lima won the pennant by 5.5 games over Wheeling. In a combined 101 games in the league he batted .313 with eleven home runs, two off the league lead. It was claimed that Lima was a Chicago farm team. In any event, Ryn would not receive an opportunity to play for Cap Anson’s White Stockings.  After the season, Ryn and several teammates joined a Celina team for some exhibition contests. In November he signed with Canton of the Tri-State League.

Ryn played 102 games, all at first base, for Canton in 1889, leading the league with 150 hits and a .358 batting average. His performance helped drive the club to the pennant, by 10.5 games. Minneapolis tried to make a trade for Ryn several times during the season but it never panned out. After Canton’s season ended though, he joined Minneapolis of the Western Association for the club’s final games at the end of September. He continued to hit well, batting .414 with six doubles in seven games. In the season finale on the 30th, a 15-10 victory over St. Joseph, Ryn placed three hits, including a double. The Chicago Daily Inter Ocean described the atmosphere, “The wind blew so hard today it was impossible to field fly balls, and the game was called in the seventh inning. Clouds of dust swept into the grandstand and drove half of the 1,000 spectators home in the first inning.” Ryn was one of the first two men to ink a deal with Minneapolis for the following season.

In 117 games in 1890 he hit .286 and played a solid first base. The club challenged for the championship all season long, ultimately losing the pennant by a mere game. They in fact won two more games than the first place Kansas City club but also lost an additional four, amassing six more decisions than the pennant winners. He worked his position well. On May 9, per the Minneapolis Journal in a game against St. Paul, “Ryn accidentally spiked [Joe] Cantillon, though not severely. [Larry] Murphy tried to retaliate by spiking Ryn, but Minneapolis’ big mute first baseman gave him a wide berth, and caught the ball in his left hand.” He gained accolades from the Sporting Life for his handiwork: “Ryn, in addition to his terrific hitting, is putting up an almost perfect game at first, and it is safe to wager that he will lead the first baseman at the close of the season.” Denver’s Rocky Mountain News noticed as well: “Ryn, the mute first baseman for Minneapolis, is one of the best in the business.”

No matter how well he hit the ball or fielded his position, Ryn’s handicap was always on the minds of the scribes, as the Kansas City Times noted, “No ballplayer who has visited Kansas City this season has made more friends than Ryn, the Minneapolis first baseman. He never talks back to the umpire, never kicks over balls and strikes, and, in fact, is a perfect model on the field. He is deaf and dumb.” The Sporting Life wrote this piece which seems a little over-the-top: “If you want to make Ryn of the Minneapolis club angry, just say there is “a deaf and dumb man waiting to see you in the office.” They are the bane of his life and he avoids them on all occasions.” Another writer even noted, “Ryn was making some inarticulate signs at the ball.”

Ryn returned to Minneapolis in 1891. A personal triumph on May 26 versus Milwaukee is interesting for the circumstances as much as a description of the obstacles Ryn had to overcome. Per the Milwaukee Sentinel, “Deaf-Mute Ryn, the gigantic first baseman of the Minneapolis team, won yesterday’s game by sending the last ball pitched during the nine innings screaming into right field out of reach of the expectant [Sam] Dungan, who was waiting with outstretched arms for developments. It was one of the very rare games which are not won or lost until the last ball is pitched. When Ryn stepped up to the plate the score was 2 to 2. There were three Minneapolis men on bases…Six balls were pitched. He fouled one of them, struck unsuccessfully at two others and umpire [Bob] Emslie called three others balls. Ryn sent the next pitch over the outfielder’s head.”

An incident earlier in the game defined the challenges Ryn, and other deaf players, had to surmount. “A peculiar play occurred in the sixth inning. Ryn was on second base and two were out. [Moxie] Hengle sent a long fly to right field which Dungan muffed. Ryn ran to third and kept on towards the plate, but about midway to it stopped, seemingly not knowing what to do. Nearly all the Minneapolis men were yelling and beckoning to him, but, of course, he could not hear them. Finally he collected himself and made a dash for the plate. In the meantime, though, Hengle had started for second base, and, Dungan recovered the ball, and threw him out there. Ryn failed to get over the plate before he [Hengle] was put out and consequently his run did not count.”

On June 7, according to one source, “Ryn had his knee thrown out of joint at first.” He hung around the city for over a month but it wouldn’t heal. Per the Milwaukee Journal on July 18, “John Ryn, the silent first-bagger of the Minneapolis team, has, at his own request, been laid off for the balance of the season. The condition of his sprained leg is such that it necessitated this move, the limb being badly swollen. He will leave Minneapolis shortly for his home at Marion, O.” In 44 games he accrued a .329 average. Several newspapers in September announced that Ryn was signed by Brooklyn of the National League for 1892, but he never did join the club. Perhaps the story didn’t have merit.

Seattle of the Pacific Northwest League signed Ryn in March 1892. He didn’t perform well in Seattle and in truth didn’t give it his best, perhaps because of alcohol. At the turn of June, he was suspended for several games for “bad conduct,” a baseball euphemism for excessive drinking. In 46 games his average sunk to .196. After the July 14 game, Ryn jumped the club and headed back home. According to the Morning Oregonian, “His batting and fielding have been very poor since he came here, and he has taken poor care of himself.” He left for “some eastern club.” That club was Sandusky, which also included George Kihm.

He rejoined Sandusky in 1893, playing thirty games with the club through the disbanding of the Ohio-Michigan League on July 4. In May 1894 Ryn signed with a semi-pro club from Kenton, Ohio, and played for the Kokomo, Indiana, club later in the summer. He also played for a Tiffin, Ohio squad and another from the small town of Prospect. He played for Twin Cities (Denison and Uhrichsville, Ohio) in two leagues in 1895: the Interstate and moving with the club into the Iron and Oil League.  Even at the end of his career, Ryn was on the butt end of sportswriters’ jokes. One amused himself: “Ryn looked calmly on during the slaughter [a rout] but he didn’t say a word.” Another Mansfield News scribe penned this after seeing Ryn coach on the bases: “Did you see ‘Old Hoss’ Ryn the mute do his coaching act? He made almost as much noise as Mansfield’s coachers make.”

Ryn retired from professional ball at age 33. He returned to Marion and lived with his deaf sister Anna until his death, never marrying. (Mary died in 1887 from consumption.) The 1900 U.S. Census listed his occupation as “day laborer.” Future Censuses would read “common laborer” and “street laborer.” Anna cleaned laundry at home to help with expenses.

On September 2, 1920, the Chicago Cubs played an exhibition game in Marion to benefit the presidential campaign of favorite son Warren Harding, a baseball enthusiast. Ryn was among the old-time baseball celebrities on hand introduced to the crowd and shared a picture with the future President.

John Ryn passed away on August 24, 1928, at his home on North Greenwood Street. He was 66 years old. The coroner attributed his death to heart trouble, which hadn’t been a reoccurring problem. He was buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery adjoining St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Marion.

Note

 There is some controversy over the correct spelling of Ryn’s surname. The Annual Report of the Ohio Institute for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb to the Governor of Ohio for the year 1876 lists John and his two sisters as among the students in multiple places throughout the text. Each instance the name is clearly identified as “Ryn.”  Later sources such as the U.S. Census, his death certificate, and obituary in the Marion Star spell it Rynn. As Ryn was the usual spelling during his baseball career that is the spelling used in this biography.   

Sources

Minor league statistics were provided by Ray Nemec.

Ancestry.com

Baseball-reference.com

Bismarck Daily Tribune, North Dakota, 1891

Cleveland Herald, 1884

Columbus Dispatch, 1882

Daily Inter Ocean, Chicago, 1887-90

Hamilton Daily Democrat, Ohio, 1889

Heritagepursuit.com

Kansas City Times, 1890

Kokomo Daily Tribune, Indiana, 1894

Lima Daily Democratic Times, Ohio, 1888

Lincoln Evening News, Nebraska, 1891

Mansfield News, Ohio, 1895, ‘99

Marion Daily Star, Ohio, 1885, ’87, ‘92,-95, 1898, 1928, ’30, ‘40

Milwaukee Journal, 1887, ‘91

Milwaukee Sentinel, 1891

Minneapolis Journal, 1890

Morning Oregonian, Portland, 1889, ‘92

Morris, Peter. A Game of Inches: The Stories Behind the Innovations That Shaped Baseball, The Game Behind the Scenes. Chicago, Ivan R. Dee, 2006.

Ohio Democrat, New Philadelphia, 1895

Ohio Institute for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb. Annual Report of the Ohio Institute for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb to the Governor of Ohio for the year 1876. Columbus, Ohio: Nevins, Myers, State printers, 1877.

Portsmouth Daily Times, Ohio, 1897

Sandusky Daily Register, Ohio, 1892

Semi-Weekly Age, Coshocton, Ohio, 1889

The Silent Worker, Trenton, New Jersey, 1889

Simons, William M. The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, 2007-2008. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2009.

Sioux County Herald, Orange City, Iowa, 1889

Sporting Life, 1885-90

Sporting News, 1886

St. Louis Globe, 1883

St. Paul Daily News, 1891

Warren Evening Democrat, Pennsylvania, 1895

Winnipeg Free Press, Manitoba, Canada, 1890

Yenowine’s News, Milwaukee, 1889

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