SABR

George Kihm

This article was written by Brian McKenna.

George Kihm learned to play ball on the diamonds of the Ohio Institute for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb in Columbus. The school sent more than a handful of men into professional baseball. By looking at Kihm it was hard to see any physical imperfections. He was gentlemanly, good looking and tall with a barrel chest and strong arms. When he wasn’t tossing the ball or hitting it a mile, he was throwing opponents around on wrestling mats and boxing to earn a little extra cash.

Like many career minor leaguers, Kihm bounced around from town to town, switching ball clubs with the various friends he made in the game. He played all over the country except in the south and was an integral part of pennant winners in Toledo, Indianapolis and Columbus. Kihm was a smooth-fielding first baseman and key slugger for four of the first six champions of the top-tier American Association. Most though wouldn’t be able to recall his name or deeds without the sobriquets “Dummy” or “Mute” attached to his reference.

George Pius Kihm was born on August 31, 1873, in New Washington, Ohio, to Nicholas Kihm and Katherine (Lux) Kihm. Nicholas Kihm was born in May 1847 in Walsheim, Pfalz, Germany, and immigrated to the United States around 1860. He was a school teacher, educating children in German and music among other subjects. Katherine Lux was born in November 1850 in Rochester, New York. The couple married around 1868. They had seven children between 1869 and 1881: Katherine, 1869; Anthony1870; George; Mary, born circa 1874; Joseph, born about 1877; Bernard John, circa 1879 and a daughter born in 1881.

The Kihm family moved often as Nicholas moved from school to school in Ohio. At various times they lived in New Washington (multiple times), Putnam County, Sharon, Sherman, Huron County and other districts as well. Katherine Kihm passed away on January 7, 1882, when George was eight years old. Nicholas remarried on April 17, 1883, to Magdalina Leng. They had four children: Monica, circa 1885; Victoria, about 1886; Leo, around 1888; Rosa, circa 1891.

George and his brother Anthony attended (and resided at during the school year) the Ohio Institute for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb in Columbus beginning in September 1880. The rest of the family could hear and speak. 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.”

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 Kihm’s time at the institute. The players communicated with signs. In 1886 Ed Dundon, a graduate of the school, 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.

The boys lived together nine months of the year, playing ball as weather and class and work/chore schedules permitted. Kihm, a big righthander, was mainly a catcher and infielder but pitched at times. As the boys grew older, they joined amateur and semi-pro clubs during the summer breaks, playing with hearing teammates. Several schoolmates a little older than Kihm entered professional baseball during the 1880s: John Ryn; Dundon; William Hoy; William and Isaac Sawhill. Dundon and Hoy had major league careers. Like the rest of these men, Kihm was nicknamed “Dummy” in baseball circles because of his affliction. He entered pro ball during the 1890s, continuing for two decades. A list of his contemporary deaf colleagues includes Ryn, Hoy, Luther Taylor, a player named Merrick, Jake Funkhouser, Reuben Stephenson, George Leitner and William Deegan.

Kihm, with blue eyes and dark hair, grew to approximately six feet tall and weighed anywhere between 180 and 200 pounds during his playing days. In May 1891 Kihm, nearly eighteen years old, graduated from the Ohio Institute and returned to the family home which was in Landeck at the time where his father was teaching. There, George caught on with the semi-pro Delphos Reds. The club’s manager, Fred Laemmerman, a local tailor, would make the six mile trip to Landeck before and after every game to ensure the appearance of his newest find. Kihm played with the club on and off during the regular season and into the fall through 1894. After many of his professional seasons, Kihm would return home to Delphos and join the local club, barnstorming through October. In Landeck he met a local girl named Katherine Mueller and married her on October 10, 1893. They had five children: Alfred, 1895; Margarita, 1899; Otto, 1903; Earl, 1906; Robert, 1914. All five children and their mother could hear and speak.  

Kihm rejoined Delphos in 1892. In September he also played for Sandusky, a team that included John Ryn. The following year, Kihm played for Delphos and with Bismarck of the Western Association. He enticed old diamond foes Reddy, an outfielder, and Zane Grey to join Delphos with him. Zane Grey, a pitcher, was about to enroll in the dental program and play ball at the University of Pennsylvania. He became famous as one of the country’s leading Old West novelists. Kihm knew the brothers from Columbus where the Greys lived as did Kihm while attending school. The Greys played for the Town Street School team and the semi-pro Capitals in Columbus. Shortly after the trio joined Delphos, the club went on a 22-1 tear. In total the team posted a 33-12 record in 1893 and won the regional championship. Zane, then known by his first name Pearl, went 8-0 for the club and batted .419. Kihm was typically behind the plate when Zane was on the mound.

In 1894 Kihm began the season with Lima and then played with Delphos and then Lima again and Decatur, Indiana through July. Referring to the June 24 game in Marion, a 12-6 loss, the Marion Daily Ledger commented, “A mute catching for the Delphos was a feature rarely witnessed on the home grounds, but the man who talks on his fingers played a good game.” Kihm joined a club called Rushmore with Reddy Grey for a couple of games in early August. On August 5 the Delphos Herald noted, “The Mute made a couple of elegant slides which were roundly applauded.” Both Greys were with Delphos again in 1894. For the season, the club posted a 17-13 record.

Kihm, a big, strong guy, was an all-around athlete. He boxed and wrestled professionally since he was a teenager and played football. In November 1892 he entertained at a fundraiser for the Delphos team: “Everybody should attend the dance to be given by the baseball team next Wednesday (the 25th) at Flick’s Hall. This promises to be a very enjoyable affair. The hall is new, good music and a good caller will be on hand and during intermission Sullivan, of Lima, and Keihm [sic], the mute, will spar several rounds. The boys intend having a first class team and good grounds to play on next season and everybody should help them all they can.”

By 1893, his pugilistic skills were in demand throughout northern Ohio, billed as “The Mute” or the “Delphos Cyclone.” His manager Jack Kirwin scheduled training programs, matches and sparring exhibitions outside the baseball season. On January 17 Kihm sparred with Lima heavyweight Pat Conway in Delphos: “The Mute was as quick as a cat on his feet. He drove Conway all over the stage, sending in his right and left.” After Conway quit in the second round, “The crowd yelled like Comanche Indians and cheered their man for fully ten minutes.”

On December 22, 1893, near Lima, Kihm battled Paulding fighter John King. “The Mute out-classed King and landed a blow in the first round that practically ended the fight and won it for him in the third.” In 1895 the Lima Daily News recalled, “Delphos people will remember the hard drubbing Geo Kihm gave King the Paulding pugilist at Ft. Jennings about two years ago. The mute has not forgotten his abilities and can fight as well as play ball…There resides in Detroit one Joe Ashton, a pugilist, who claimed he held the middleweight championship of Michigan. Wednesday night (September 18) this champion was pitted in the roped arena again Kihm for a fight to the finish. The battle lasted quite a time and required eight rounds to be decided, when Ashton was knocked completely out. The Delphos boy was an easy winner, as Ashton was not in it from the start. The mute’s winnings were over $300.”

In November 1894 Kihm and Reddy Grey signed with Findlay (Ohio) of the Interstate League for the upcoming season. Findlay manager Charles Strobel had seen the pair playing with Delphos. He was impressed calling Kihm, “the fastest first baseman in the business…He is the fastest base runner playing.” Zane Grey (playing under the pseudonym of Pearl Zane) joined the club when the school year ended. With Findlay, Kihm filled a utility role, playing catcher, first base and outfield and even pitching a little. In 37 games he hit .337 before the league folded in July. Much of the Findlay club, including the Greys and Kihm, then joined Jackson of the Michigan State League. Kihm batted .404 in 31 games with that club.

Kihm rejected an offer from Syracuse over the winter. Meanwhile, Strobel purchased into the New Pacific League in 1896, taking over the Tacoma (Washington) entry. The team was mainly made up of Ohio players and Michigan State League players from the previous year, including Kihm who officially signed on February 17, and past teammates Fred Cooke, Howard Brandenburg, Harvey Pastorius and Louis Ogden. Kihm made an impression in Tacoma: “Kihm is as handsome as a young god. He is six feet tall, measures 42 inches around the chest and weighs 187 pounds. He is but 22 years old, does not drink nor chew and smokes very little. But the greatest recommendation is that he is a star coacher, the only mute coacher playing ball.” Along these lines, the Sporting Life noted, “The coaching of Dummy Kihm along the lines is a caution to young pitchers. Although he can neither hear nor talk, he can make a noise that fairly scares the yachts farther out into the lake.”

Kihm batted .352 in 34 games. The New Pacific League, a financial failure, disbanded on June 15. Strobel and the men didn’t have enough money for passage and miscellaneous expenses to return home. They had to barnstorm, but that didn’t cover the costs. Kihm boxed to earn extra money for the men. In one match he defeated Kid Ryan, described as a trainer in a “big athletic club.” As umpire Harvey Pastorius described in an interview with the Fort Wayne Sentinel, “The next fight was at Spokane. There Kihm met an unknown and nearly killed him…Although he was obliged to split his ring earnings day after day with the men who were in the party, Kihm never made a “holler” and he went in the ring night after night and took several good gruelings [sic] to get his party back from the coast. He is some scrapper, all right, and if he had been born without his affliction, is likely that he would have given the umpires as much trouble as the average ball player does.” The men didn’t arrive in Ohio until July 17.

Strobel gathered some money after returning home and purchased the Toledo Swamp Angels of the Interstate League on July 27 for $2,500. Much of the Tacoma club joined the Toledo roster. In that first game on the 27th Kihm made a splash with his play at first base. As the Tacoma Daily Ledger noted, “Kihm simply electrified the fans.” He also showed a little too much competitiveness, per the Fort Wayne News, “Dummy Kihm, of Toledo, of course can’t kick much, but he displayed his temper Monday (August 31) by throwing a bat at the pitcher because he hit him with a pitched ball.” Toledo won the second half and the pennant with the new players plus batting champion Ervin Beck. With the club Kihm spent his last games at catcher. In 58 games he hit an even .300.

Despite a good year, Toledo released Kihm and Fred Cooke in February 1897. They both joined Fort Wayne also a member of the Interstate League and tore up the league, finishing among the league’s batting leaders. Cooke was named manager and inserted Kihm as his permanent first baseman, a position he would almost exclusively occupy throughout the rest of his professional career. Another deaf ballplayer, Jake Funkhouser, occupied third base. Kihm reported to the club in good shape: “Kihm is about 14 pounds lighter this season than last and is in fine condition. Kihm is a great first baseman. He is always in the game and never says a word.” Referring to the July 25 game, the Fort Wayne News took delight in his coaching technique: “Dummy Kihm afforded much amusement to Dayton rooters. His pantomimic coaching Sunday was one of the features.” On July 29, “Kihm made the longest hit ever seen on the Youngstown grounds.” The News was also aware of his appearance in late August: “Dummy Kihm now wears a mustache. He exhibited it here for the first time.”

The club finished in a so-so fourth place but Kihm batted .350 in 124 games and led the league with seventeen home runs. Still, the News was critical of his methods: “Kihm selects the pitcher he intends to punish and when he finds him he pads his batting average sufficient to last for two or three games. He has a much better eye than last season and if he was not imbued with the desire to knock them out of the lot each time he stepped to the plate he would be able to secure more safe punches.”  The Fort Wayne team was a farm club of the National League’s Cleveland Spiders, and many of the team’s players played at least briefly for the major league team. Though Kihm was one of Fort wayne’s most accomplished players, he never appeared in a regular season game for Cleveland. 

Kihm held out for more money in 1898, sending his contract back unsigned in January. However, the two sides soon agreed. Per the Fort Wayne News, “This afternoon (February 6) a letter was received from Dummy Kihm stating that he would be in the city in a few days, and if possible go into training for a ten round go with some of the Fort Wayne pugilists. Kihm has promised his wife that he will not enter the ring again, but he thinks that this one time will not count.” On March 4 he faced Andy “Savage” Yates, boxing to a draw. Fort Wayne released their first baseman on June 21. That day he signed with New Castle of the same league. According to the New Castle News, “For economical reasons the Hoosiers found it necessary to release some of their players, and Kihm was among the ones chosen, because Captain-Manager (Tom) O’Meara decided that he would go on the first bag himself.”

On the 22nd he joined New Castle’s roster against Fort Wayne and got a little revenge. He knocked four hits including a game-winning triple to cap the 2-1 defeat. A local sportswriter commented, “That Dummy Kihm is a dangerous man with the stick.” The Sporting Life later noted, “Of all the changes which have been made in the (Fort Wayne) Maroon ranks this year the only one which really hurt was the release of Kihm. The great first baseman had made a friend of every lover of the game here by his fine playing and his gentlemanly conduct. His services were fully appreciated by the management, and it was the pressure of necessity which forced him out of the club. With the fast outfield, with Tom Campbell catching finely and hitting steadily, and with a manager who is himself a great hitter and a good first baseman, the release of Kihm was inevitable.” New Castle finished in fourth place, while Kihm hit .289 in a combined 148 games in the Interstate League.

Eighteen Ninety-Nine was an off year for Kihm. In February he was traded with Pop Lytle to Wheeling of the Interstate League for John Farrell and William Graffius. Lytle was New Castle’s manager in 1898 and would do the same for Wheeling. At the beginning of June, Wheeling released Kihm “because his hitting is weak.” He caught on with Mansfield of the same league but only played a total of 28 games in the Interstate League before Mansfield released him as well. New Castle newspapers were flooded with boastings of their one-sided trade, as Lytle did little with the bat as well. At the beginning of August Kihm joined his old teammate Fred Cooke who was managing the Crawfordsville team in the independent Indiana-Illinois League.

Kihm hit .293 in 110 games for the Troy Washerwomen of the New York State League in 1900. He had perhaps his finest game of the season on September 2 in a 6-2 victory over Albany.  The  Syracuse Post-Standard, noted: “Kihm for Troy proved a tower of strength, hitting safely four times, knocking in five of Troy’s runs and scoring the sixth himself.” The club didn’t fare as well, landing in seventh place with a poor 48-66 record. Later that month he returned home and barnstormed in Delphos, playing for the local club and also filling in for the area’s top semipro team,  Fort Wayne Shamrocks. Uncharacteristically, he played shortstop that offseason. On September 30 he showed his toughness. “Two balls were in use in the practice game, and just as George Kihm was in the act of throwing from second to first, a batted ball struck him just over the right eye, almost knocking him down. The optic was soon closed, but Kihm went into the game at short and did credible work.”

In his 78th game with Troy in 1901, on July 13, Kihm broke his thumb in Utica sliding into second base. He was batting .331 at the time but was released nonetheless. The day of the injury he missed perhaps his best opportunity to join a major league club. As the Delphos Daily Herald stated, “Fifteen minutes after the accident Manager (Frank) Leonard of the Syracuse club of the Eastern League arrived at the grounds with $500 to purchase the release of Kihm for Boston. Mr. Leonard, when informed of the player’s misfortune, wired immediately to the club for which he was carrying on negotiations. Boston had a man there who was much impressed by Kihm’s work and steps were taken to secure the player. It is stated on good authority that so anxious was the Boston management to land Kihm that they would have paid double the price if necessary.” With the injury his opportunity lapsed.

By September Kihm was playing again in Delphos. On the 15th he arrived in Los Angeles to join the local club in the California League. Because of the moderate weather, he appeared in 49 games, hitting .264, for the club and barnstormed into January. He also played in a winter league with a team sponsored by the local Maier and Zobelein Brewery. He re-signed with the Los Angeles club for 1902 but never return to the west coast to honor the agreement.

Instead, he batted .296 with 52 extra base hits for the pennant-winning Indianapolis club of the newly-created and independent American Association. In June, Los Angeles manager James Morley made a trip to Indianapolis to recruit Kihm but the effort failed; he was happy in Indy. The 1902 Indianapolis Indians with a record of 96-45 is often listed among the top minor league clubs in history, rated 27th by minorleagubaseball.com. Kihm did his part for the club as the Washington Post exclaimed, “Kihm, Indianapolis’ dummy first baseman, is a most valuable player. He covers the sack like a (Charles) Comiskey and wallops the leather like a (Jesse) Burkett.” The 1903 club didn’t fare as well, falling to fourth place. Kihm upped his batting average though to .320.

In 1904 Kihm joined Columbus of the American Association and remained with the club through 1908. In that time the club won three pennants. The league transferred Kihm from Indianapolis to Columbus in April 1904. That spring he beat out Dominick Bransfield for the first base job. Kihm continued to hit all year, finishing with a .311 average. In late June Pittsburgh Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss visited Columbus and the rumor mill heated up. Some believed a trade was worked out for Kitty Bransfield, the Pirates first baseman who was in manager Fred Clarke’s doghouse. It wasn’t true though. Per the Sporting Life, “Tacked into the story was a statement that Barney was trying to buy Dummy Kihm, of the Columbus team, for the Pittsburghs, and that he had looked over the man one Sunday…Asked as to Kihm, he said: “Not a bit of it. I don’t want the man and would not take him as a gift. He cannot hit except in spurts. Watty (William Watkins, Indianapolis manager in 1902-03) had him once, paid money for him, and then after a thorough trial, let the man go. That should be good evidence…”

The American Association was happy to keep him: “Every time Dummy Kihm plays here (Louisville) (George) Tebeau’s pockets profit by about ten prices of admission paid by that many mutes who live in Louisville. Kihm is naturally a great favorite with them, as well as everyone else, and after each game the mutes gather around the main entrance and enthusiastically go through all kinds of fantastic motions indicating that part the great first basemen took in the game.” The Columbus nine finished in second place poised to make a move.

The 1905 Columbus squad copped the first of three consecutive pennants under manager William Clymer, winning 100, 91 and 90 games, respectively. Impressive for the era, Kihm had a string of 51 consecutive errorless games in 1906. He ran off another errorless streak two years later, 36 that time. In 1908, the club slipped to third place; likewise, Kihm’s average dipped to .240. In April 1909 Columbus sold him to Grand Rapids of the Central League. The acquisition was made at the request of new Grand Rapids’ manager Joe Raidy who played shortstop with Kihm and Columbus in 1908. Grand Rapids in those years was essentially a Columbus farm team. In his first two seasons with Grand Rapids, 1909-10, his average was a little weak, .260 and .246 respectively. But his fielding was a sharp as ever: “Dummy’s fielding is also very much high class, and all the infielders have to do is to get the ball somewheres [sic] near the bag and he’ll do the rest.” In June a Fort Wayne newspaper noted, “Dummy Kihm, the tall and noiseless first sacker of the Grand Rapids Stags, isn’t wearing his mustache this season. He had it shaved off when he reported in the spring, and its absence makes Dummy look five years younger than he did last season. Dummy is one of the few ballplayers of today who has worn a mustache in recent years. With the advancement of the game the mustache and whiskers went under the razor and it is very seldom that the fans see a man with hair on his face playing the game nowadays.”

Kihm suffered from a sore arm at the beginning of 1911 “that made life miserable for him for the first month of the season.” He was apparently a pull hitter, as the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette remarked about the June 13 game, “Kihm, usually a dead left field hitter, crossed everybody in the ninth when he singled to right.” In late June the Grand Rapids club relocated to Newark, Ohio. In all, he batted .293 for the year.   

In March 1912 Kihm rejected a deal to return to Grand Rapids because he wanted to play closer to home, preferably for Lima. But that couldn’t be arranged since Lima already had Frank Nesser at first base. In May he contacted Troy asking for a slot but that was a no-go as well. With that his career in professional baseball ended at age 38. In a professional career that stretched from 1895 to 1911, Kihm appeared in over 2,100 games and accrued 7,661 at bats. He placed 2,245 hits for a solid .293 batting average. Fast for a big guy, he also stole over 300 bases.

For a time, he stayed close to the game, playing occasional contests for the local Delphos club. In March 1913 he was listed on Akron’s roster but was released before spring training. From 1914-16, he managed and played regularly for Delphos. His son Al manned second base at times. Time was catching up to him as a sportswriter noted in 1916, “Dummy Kihm has slowed up considerable but still handles himself about first like a regular ballplayer.”

Until his death, Kihm worked at the Schaffer Sawmill and Handle Factory in Delphos, which was owned by a brother-in-law. He had been doing so during the winters as early as 1904. On October 10, 1936 George Kihm died at home after a brief illness at age 63 on his 43rd wedding anniversary. He was interred at St. John’s Cemetery in Delphos after a ceremony at the adjacent St. John’s Catholic Church.

Sources

Akron Times, Ohio, 1912

Ancestry.com

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