The Deaf and the Origin of Hand Signals in Baseball

This article was written by Jami N. Fisher - Randy Fisher

This article was published in the The National Pastime (Volume 28, 2008)


Dummy Hoy taught his teammates sign language, which they began to use in game situations and even off the field. Initially, Hoy when at bat had to turn around to look at the umpire’s hand signal in order to see the call, ball or strike. Opposing pitchers would rush him. In 1887, after adopting the system where he got the signals from the third-base coach, Hoy saw his batting average improve dramatically. (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)


The year 2008 has been the occasion for several retrospectives—on Fred Merkle, the only world championship (so far) owned by the Chicago Cubs, and the song “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” (see Timothy A. Johnson’s article at page 138)—but it may mark as well the centennial of a feature so ingrained into baseball as we now know it that it tends to escape our attention. It is in 1908 that, as the historical record suggests, the practice whereby the umpire raises his right hand to indicate a strike finally took lasting hold in Major League Baseball.

What is the history behind that signal and, more generally, of hand signals used by players, managers, and coaches as well as umpires?

Baseball’s popularity as the national pastime grew rapidly among hearing people in the United States beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century, but it is often not recognized that, at the same time, deaf Americans too were being introduced to the game and playing it. No understanding of baseball history can be complete without some understanding of the influence that deaf people have had on the game.

Bill Klem is often said to have pioneered the use of umpires’ hand signals,1 and a connection is sometimes made between their use and Paul Hines or other late- deafened players.2 In the American deaf community it tends to be accepted as fact that hand signaling in baseball can be traced simply to its widespread use by deaf players. It was natural for American Sign Language (ASL) to pervade the game of the deaf ballplayer. A deaf person will translate new experiences into the sign language that he uses in his everyday life. Arguably, it is more plausible that deaf players in professional baseball taught their managers, coaches, and even umpires the new signs, and not vice versa—although one report of signaling among players, in 1860, does predate by five years what appears to be the earliest known playing of baseball in the deaf community.3

As hand signals in baseball probably emerged from a joint effort between deaf players and hearing players and officials, it is important to recognize how the personal experiences of deaf players were involved in this development. Looking at the lives of players who translated their experience from residential schools for the deaf to the major leagues, we can begin to see more clearly the history of hand-signal usage in baseball.

First, though, it will be helpful to take a close look at a couple of the signals themselves and then a broad, bird’s-eye view of the history of baseball hand signals in general.

Etymological evidence

The view that what are now baseball’s conventional hand signals have their origins in sign language used by the deaf is supported by the etymology of arguably the game’s two most basic signals. The signal for “out” in baseball is identical to the sign for the word out in ASL: A, or the thumbs-up handshape, is moved up and over the shoulder of the dominant hand. And the signal for “safe” bears a striking resemblance to the ASL sign for free—it is made with two open and flat hands with the palms down, which start crossed over one another and then move outward. The ASL sign for free involves the same hand placement and movement, the only difference being its two F handshapes (on each hand, thumb and index finger touch).

Historical evidence

No single source is available from which we can learn in detail exactly how deaf players communicated with each other and with deaf umpires. It is reasonable to assume they used sign language and gesturing to communicate plays, calls, and other relevant information. That such communication among umpires and players alike was mutual, and not unilaterally invented by umpires for the benefit of players (or vice versa), is important to note.

Deaf baseball began with sandlot games in 1865 at the Ohio Institution for the Deaf, in Columbus. Eventually, the players at the Ohio Institution would form the first deaf semiprofessional baseball team, the Ohio Independents, which played in baseball tours nationwide. Deaf players followed the same rules and played in the same style as did their hearing counterparts, except that they relied on sign language and gesturing to communicate.

In May 1867, the College Nine, known as the Columbia Baseball Club, made their claim as champions of the deaf-mute community.4 They had played against teams including the Union and the Actives of Capitol Hill, both members of the National Association of Baseball Players (circa 1857–75), whose dissolution coincided with the formation of the National League in 1876. Games with the Columbia team were like other games except that the umpire used a red flag to indicate foul balls or strikes. The players had short expressive signals of their own, mostly between pitcher and catcher. For outfielders, the keen eyes of a deaf player were often more quickly understood than the distant voice of a non-deaf player.5

Hand signals and flags were probably used, unofficially, as early as 1865 in games involving deaf schools. By the 1870s, Henry Chadwick was describing, and prescribing, hand signals among players, and already catchers were signing to pitchers both the type and location of pitches, although initially it may have been more common for the pitcher to sign to the catcher.6 David Anderson in More Than Merkle notes that “the umpires of 1908 were among those who had introduced the use of hand signals to communicate calls to a partner, the players, the bench, and the fans.”7 Quoting Spalding’s, Dickson goes on to describe the impact that the use of hand signals had on spectators:

Signaling strike, safe, and out calls was an important means of adding to enjoyment of the game. The signal system had been “invaluable assistance” to the umpires in “making their decisions understood when the size of the crowd is such that it is impossible to make the human voice carry distinctly to all parts of the field.”8

And so the formal incorporation of hand signals into baseball had, in addition to its logistical value as a means of keeping players informed of calls by the umpire, the unintended advantage of signaling to fans as well what the calls were. “In my day,” Dummy Hoy observed in 1944, many years after his retirement, “there were no electric scoreboards to announce balls and strikes or outs.”9 Moreover, the strain that umpires had to put on their vocal chords when their only means of communicating their calls was to bellow them was now considerably relieved.

A common and plausible assumption is that flags gave way to handkerchiefs, which eventually gave way to the hand signals. Along the way, a curious analog to that visual method of communicating calls made a short-lived appearance. Paul Dickson in The Hidden Language of Baseball: How Signs and Sign Stealing Have Influenced the Course of Our National Pastime offers this interesting quote from Sporting Life (September 14, 1901): “The umpire is to wear a red sleeve on the right arm and a white one on the left People at the far end of the park, unable to hear even Sheridan, the umpire, can see colors.” Dickson adds, however, that sleeve colors were likely intended for the benefit of spectators sitting far from the field and that there is no evidence to support the view that the colors were ever intended to signal the umpire’s calls for the benefit of the players.10

Biographical background

We have reviewed a general history of baseball hand signals, showing how signals used in day-to-day sign communication among deaf individuals were adapted to baseball as it was played in deaf schools and eventually in the majors. We now turn to some of the individuals, deaf players and umpires alike, for a view from the inside, as it were, of their experience in baseball and of their lasting contribution to the very structure of the game.

Parley Pratt, a shoe-repair teacher and athletic coach at the Ohio Institution for the Deaf, was the first to teach baseball to deaf people, circa 1865.11 He was also the first deaf umpire. He and another deaf umpire, W. S. Lott, officiated games for deaf teams in the early 1870s. In 1871, Parley umpired his first game, between the Independents and the Crescents,12 and ten days later Lott was called in to officiate a game between the Red Stars and the Crescents.13

The first deaf player to reach the big leagues was Ed “Dummy” Dundon, a pitcher for the Columbus Buckeyes of the American Association (1883–84). It was from Pratt that he had learned the signals while playing for the Ohio Institution for the Deaf in 1879. He continued to use them during his professional career—he instructed the third-base coach to signal balls and strikes to him when he was at bat. At least one author has asserted, “The universal hand signs used by umpires were developed at this time so that Dundon and school mate William ‘Dummy’ Hoy could follow the proceedings of the game despite their [deafness].”14 Evidently hand signals were used by umpires for a time in the nineteenth century, though not yet universally, and finally were established as an integral part of the game after they were revived in 1908.

Probably the best-known deaf player in history is Dummy Hoy, an outfielder who played fifteen seasons (1888–1902) in professional ball, with the Washington Senators, Buffalo Bisons, St. Louis Browns, Cincinnati Reds, Louisville Colonels, and Chicago White Sox. Hoy requested that the umpires, his coaches, and managers use hand signals during his at-bats, and he was probably the first player for whom the home-plate umpire used what is now the conventional hand signal for a strike. “Hoy,” according to Richard Marazzi in The Rules and Lore of Baseball, “has been credited with initiating the practice of umpires raising their right hands on a called strike. He asked the umpire to raise his right arm to signify a strike, since he had no way of knowing what the count was. The idea soon became a standard procedure.”15 That Hoy initiated the practice has been criticized as an overstatement of his contribution to its eventual acceptance as the convention, but to speculate on his influence in this regard is warranted by the length of his career and the evident esteem of his peers.

In the beginning, Hoy would turn around to look at the umpire for each pitch to see what the call was. This put Hoy at a disadvantage, rushing him between having to look back at the umpire and then preparing for the next pitch. Most pitchers worked fast against him, giving him no break, and his batting average suffered.

In 1886, Hoy struggled at the plate (his exact batting average is disputed) with Oshkosh, but eventually the third-base coach remedied the situation by using hand signals to indicate the umpire’s call, the glance to third base from home plate being far less awkward. Moreover, he had the support of manager Frank Selee,16 and in 1887 his batting average rose to .367.17 In 1891, when Hoy was playing for the St. Louis Browns, manager Charles Comiskey, coaching third and following the plan that had worked so well for Hoy in Oshkosh, “signified a strike and ball with the index finger of both hands, the left meaning a ball and the right a strike.”18

Hoy taught sign language to his teammates, who often signed among themselves both on and off the field. It is interesting to speculate whether this team-shared sign language influenced the development of sign language for communicating in-game strategy.

Luther “Dummy” Taylor, a deaf-mute, pitched for the New York Giants (1900–8) and, briefly in 1902, for the Cleveland club of the newly formed American League. The Cleveland players were slow to learn sign language, however, and within months Taylor had been recruited back to the Giants. He taught sign language to his teammates and manager John McGraw. Taylor made use of a pad and pencil as well, which he always carried. Eventually the whole team learned to sign, with varying degrees of success—some of whom were deemed to be “all thumbs.” Hall of Fame pitcher Joe McGinnity was said to be careless with his finger spelling.19

McGraw used various finger spellings to communicate directions, which differed from the umpires’ hand signals for called plays. For example, while umpires might use actual signs to signal calls like “out” or “safe,” McGraw would spell out s-t-e-a-l for the runners to steal bases. “Hit and run” he would sign on his fingers.20

Like many deaf people, Taylor relied on facial expressions, body language, and other visual cues to a degree that others often found mystifying. Paul Dickson notes:

For his part, Taylor seemed to be able to “read” situations the others missed. His obituary in the New York Times commented that “sportswriters of Taylor’s time observed that he gave up few stolen bases as he could divine a baserunner’s intention instantly by the facial expressions of the runner, the coaches and other players on the field.” 21

His deafness, then, in so far as it naturally led him to compensate by developing his ability to read situations, as Dickson puts it, may be considered to have actually given him distinct advantages over his opponents.

After Taylor retired, he coached the baseball team at the Illinois School for the Deaf. One of his players there was Dick Sipek, who would go on to play as an outfielder for the Cincinnati Reds in 1945. Sipek was the first deaf big-leaguer to escape the. nickname “Dummy.”

Sipek, in an interview in 2003, described his experience with signs and signals in baseball. When he was at bat or on the base paths, he would follow gestures made by the manager or his third-base coach. The manager would sign “swing the bat” to him to indicate that he was being put in as a pinch-hitter. On the bench, before Sipek’s turn at bat, Bill McKechnie, the Reds manager, would give him signals orally—Sipek reads lips well. Before the game, when the manager would meet with his players and go over the new signals for that day, Sipek had suggestions but frequently found them rejected.22

Sipek taught his teammates Bucky Walters, Frank McCormick, Kermit Wahl, and other players sign language. His roommate, Wahl, was fast to learn. Upset at being called out on a close play one day, Sipek used a sign for a profanity, which the umpire failed to comprehend while the Reds’ bench broke up in laughter.23 Sipek was the last fully deaf player in the majors until Curtis Pride, approximately the eighth in major-league history, debuted for the Montreal Expos in 1993 (The other five players—William Deegan, George Leitner, Thomas Lynch, Herbert Murphy, and Reuben Stephenson—all were cup-of-coffee players in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.) In 1996 he became a free agent and signed with the Detroit Tigers. Both his third-base coach, Terry Francona, and his first-base coach, Ron Oester, used hand signals and signs to communicate with Pride during games.24


Hand signals have become integral to baseball; it is hard to imagine the game without them. Their function as the language where by those in the game—players, coaches, the manager, and umpires—can communicate when at least one of the parties is deaf is clear. That signing in baseball would eventually be adopted by the hearing as a superior means of communication may have been difficult to foresee back in 1865 when Parley Pratt and others at the Ohio Institution for the Deaf began to improvise. That single individual who can be designated as the one undisputed inventor of signing in baseball may be elusive, as is a definite date for its first clear appearance, and about broad assumptions that its origins lie solely in the deaf community we must exercise caution, but a look at the evidence—historical and even etymological as well as biographical and anecdotal—does indicate that the particular, highly inflected form of the language of baseball signing that is so familiar to us would have been impossible without the contributions of deaf people who have played, managed, coached, umpired, and loved the game.

JAMI N. FISHER is the American Sign Language Program coordinator and instructor at the University of Pennsylvania. She is a coda—child of deaf adults—and works to promote understanding and awareness of American Sign Language and Deaf cultural issues among deaf and hearing communities.

RANDY FISHER is a founding member of the William “Dummy” Hoy Committee, which promotes awareness and recognition of Hoy’s accomplishments as a deaf baseball player in the major leagues. He has been researching the history of deaf baseball players for more than twenty years.



  1. For examples, see entries for Klem at the websites of the Baseball Hall of Fame, Bioproject (SABR’s Baseball Biography Project), and Baseball Almanac:baseballhalloffame.org/hofers/detail.jsp?playerId=427281, http://bioproj.sabr.org/bioproj.cfm?a=v&v=l&pid=7595&bid=1221, http://www.baseball-almanac.com/quotes/quoklem.shtml (accessed 2 June 2008).
  1. Robert L. Tiemann, “Paul Hines,” in Nineteenth Century Stars (Cleveland: Society for American Baseball Research, 1989), 60.
  2. Rochester Evening Express, 9 July 1860, quoted in A Game of Inches: The Stories Behind the Innovations That Shaped Baseball—The Game on the Field, by Peter Morris (Chicago: Ivan Dee, 2006), 340.
  3. It is important to note that, today, culturally deaf people do not embrace the term deaf-mute. The preferred term is deaf. However, culturally deaf people of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did refer to themselves and one another as “deaf mutes.”
  4. The National Deaf Mute Gazette 1, no 6 (June 1867).
  5. Morris, A Game of Inches, 47–48, 341.
  6. David Anderson, More Than Merkle: A History of the Best and Most Exciting Baseball Season in Human History (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 87.
  7. Ibid., 87–88. 
  8. Joyce Gordon McBride, Courier, 11 July 1987, 6.
  9. Paul Dickson, The Hidden Language of Baseball: How Signs and Sign Stealing Have Influenced the Course of Our National Pastime (New York: Walker, 2003).
  10. The Ohio Chronicle 10, 32, 10 March 1900, p. 1.
  11. The Mute Chronicle (also known as The Ohio Chronicle), 3, 6 May 1871, p. 2.
  12. The Mute Chronicle, 34, 13 May 1871, p. 2.
  13. Joseph Santry, in Anchors Aweigh, July 1988, 15.
  14. Richard Marazzi, The Rules and Lore of Baseball (New York: Stein and Day, 1980), 21.
  15. Robert L. Tiemann and Mark Rucker, Nineteenth Century Stars (Kansas City, Mo.: Society for American Baseball Research, 1989), 64.
  16. Randy Fisher, “William ‘Dummy’ Hoy and the Invention of the Umpire Hand Signals,” Herald Newspapers (Toledo edition) 71, 9, 28 February 1992, pp. 1, 10.
  17. St Louis Daily Globe-Democrat, 9 April 1891.
  18. Matthew Moore and Robert F. Panara, Great Deaf Americans, 2d ed. (Silver Spring, Md.: Deaf Life Press, 1996).
  19. Lawrence Ritter, in Perennial (2002), 101; originally published in The Glory of Their Times: The Story of the Early Days of Baseball Told by the Men Who Played It (New York: Macmillan, 1966).
  20. Paul Dickson, Signs: Baseball’s Hidden Language (New York: Walker, 2003), 74.
  21. Randy Fisher, interview with Dick Sipek, via TTY, in March 2003.
  22. William Mead, Even the Browns (The Zany True Story of Baseball in the Early Forties) (Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1978), 213–14.
  23. Brown Syder, “A World of Silence Doesn’t Slow Pride,” Baltimore Sun, 6 June 1996, p. 5D.

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