The umpire read William’s notes. “Yes, that could work,” he said.
from The William Hoy Story
written by Nancy Churnin
pictures by Jez Tuya
Albert Whitman & Company, 2016
With baseball season in full swing, so to speak, I discovered someone who made such a big impact on the game that he changed it forever.
William Hoy was born May 23, 1862, in my home state of Ohio. Lots happened three years later. The Confederate States surrendered to the Union Army and ended the Civil War. P.T. Barnum was elected to the Connecticut legislature.
And three-year-old William Hoy contracted meningitis.
As a result, he lost his hearing and speech. When he was old enough, William’s parents sent him to the Ohio State School for the Deaf in Columbus, Ohio, where he learned American Sign Language (ASL) and a love of baseball. He received a traditional education and was valedictorian when he graduated in 1879.
Even though some people including his own father were skeptical, William did not let his deafness keep him from achieving his baseball goals. He signed his first contract with a minor league team in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, when he was only 24 years old.
Sometimes pitchers took advantage of William. In one game, because he was too far away to read the umpire’s lips, he didn’t know that his first three pitches were strikes. He thought they were balls. He waited and waited for the next pitch but it never came. Instead, the pitcher burst out laughing and pointed to the stands behind William. They were filled with laughing fans.
William was good at making connections. He transferred his knowledge of ASL and adapted it to the baseball diamond. He convinced the third-base coach to raise his right arm if the umpire called a strike, and his left arm if the call was a ball. His suggestion to that third-base coach caught on and changed baseball forever. I think William Hoy would be surprised at how important signaling has become to the game he loved so much.
Non-verbal signals became more and more popular. They helped fans, too, especially those seated high in the stands who couldn’t hear the calls either.
Of course, the purpose of signaling is communication. Umpire signals need to be standard across all the teams in the League. But a catcher’s signal to the pitcher needs to be strategic. And discreet. The catcher tells the pitcher what kind of ball to throw and where it should land. Playing on a particular player’s strengths and weaknesses, the ball/strike count, who’s up next, what inning is being played, how many outs, even weather conditions go into a catcher’s decision.
That’s a lot of information to communicate and a lot of information to keep secret from the other team. It’s especially tricky when a player is on second base, directly across from the catcher. No one wants the opposing team to be able to “read” those signals.
This year baseball’s adding a new technology. It’s called PitchCom and it turns a catcher’s signals from a learned and predetermined sequence of finger-flips, points, and wiggles, to his touch of a button on the wrist of his glove-hand. An electronic signal is transmitted through an antenna and changed to a voice signal. A small devise worn inside the pitcher’s ball cap receives the voice signal and sends it to the pitcher’s ear. Verbal but inaudible to most everyone but the pitcher, this could bring signal-stealing to an end.
ProMystic is the company that developed PitchCom. John Hankins, the company co-founder, was fascinated by the Huston Astros’ scandal where an electronic devise videotaped catchers’ signals and decoded them by playing them back in real time. Hankins and his team adapted the technology he had developed for magicians and mentalists to baseball.
PitchCom is available in Spanish, Korean and Japanese. A less expensive version is being developed for school teams and Little League.
After being tested in the Minor Leagues last year, Major League Baseball announced that PitchCom will be allowed for the 2022 season. It is optional, based on the pitcher’s comfort level with the technology and the catcher’s comfort with the learning curve involved in changing flying fingers to tapping buttons.
I like to watch baseball on TV and listen to all the talk about how the game is played and how well the players and teams are doing. I can see close-up all the wind-ups, the fly-pops, and where the second-baseman spits. And I can share my popcorn with Frances, my cat.
This year I’ll keep an eye out for the catchers’ signals. And whether or not there are any.
I started watching baseball in high school My priorities have changed since then, but the crack of a bat and flying signal-fingers still pull at my nostalgic heartstrings.
The 2022 season officially started on April 7 and will finish up October 5. Then post-season games will determine who will play in the World Series. Then the series, itself. I’ll probably be shopping for turkey and trimmings by then, but batter up, anyway!
-—stay curious! (and communicate your intentions)