AUTHOR MOVED BY HOY’S STORY
As a child in the 1860s, William Hoy contracted meningitis and lost his hearing and speech. Hoy, however, didn’t lose his passion for baseball. After years of practice and defying expectations, Hoy played in the major leagues from 1888 to 1902.
Because of his hearing loss, Hoy had trouble understanding umpires’ calls. On the pad of paper he used to communicate, Hoy worked with officials to institute hand signals for balls, strikes and safe and out calls.
Nancy Churnin, a theater reporter for The Dallas Morning News, learned about Hoy’s story in 2003 while reviewing a high school play. Her interest led her to write a children’s book, The William Hoy Story, as part of a campaign to earn Hoy a spot in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. She hopes her book will help Hoy’s candidacy when he’s eligible for a veterans committee vote in 2018.
Q: How did you become involved with Hoy’s story?
A: I don’t do much with high school plays, but the subject was so intriguing that I did a story, and I received a thank-you email from Steve Sandy in Ohio. I wrote back, “You’re welcome, but why is someone in Ohio interested in a play in a high school in Garland, Texas?” It turns out Steve is deaf, he’s a close friend of the Hoy family, and he has dedicated the last couple decades to trying to get Hoy into the Hall of Fame.
The more we communicated, the more I became convinced he was right. I thought, “How can I help? I’m a theater critic, not a sportswriter. Who are the most powerful people I know?” I decided kids will be excited about Hoy deserving to be in the Hall of Fame and can write letters.
People don’t know his name, but once they hear the story, they are inspired. When I take it to kids, they all want him in the Hall of Fame. They have sent me 783 letters, which I hand-delivered to the Hall.
Q: With his inspiring story and impact on the game’s communication, why do you think Hoy is not well known today?
A: Some people say because he was deaf and because most sportswriters didn’t know sign language, he’s not somebody they would interview as much.
In talking with Sandy who educated me about prejudice against the deaf, I think there was prejudice against people using sign language. Alexander Graham Bell was one of the educators who believed sign language should be discouraged, so they might have thought twice about honoring
somebody who communicated through sign language at that time. There was a sense that all deaf people should speak. Not all deaf people can speak and not all deaf people choose to speak, so it was a little bit of a political issue. We’ve come a long way now in recognizing the beauty and the importance of this language, which is a source of pride to this community.
Q: Are the hand signals the umpires use now the same ones Hoy used during his career?
A: In the Hall of Fame, the person who gets credit for introducing and codifying the signals is umpire Bill Klem. Klem entered the scene after Hoy retired, so there’s no question Hoy introduced signals. What’s safe to say is Hoy popularized them.
Are the signals exactly the same? The basic ones are — the hand for balls, the hand for strikes, safe, out. Have they become a little more sophisticated? Certainly, they were not official when he was playing, but there’s no question he helped popularize them. Where do you get the idea of introducing signals to the game? Well, it had to have come from the deaf players.
A: That was organized by Sandy. It’s his life dream to have Hoy inducted. He invited me to join the committee, so it’s an ongoing community. We are people of all different walks of life, some deaf, some hearing. We all agree that Hoy deserves to be in the Hall, and we all do what we can to spread the word. They have been very excited about my book and its popularity.
My main contribution is just that I’m supportive. The whole
reason for writing this is I just believed it was right. My heart goes out to this community that’s faced a lot of prejudice over the years. I’m trying to lead a diverse book movement where I want kids to see people from communities who are not represented in children’s books.
Q: Whether it’s through the ballot or in a different exhibit, how have you seen progress on Hoy becoming part of the Hall of Fame?
A: I feel so encouraged because Sandy had been in contact with the Hall for about 15 years, and he never was able to make a presentation. I sent them a copy of the book with copies of letters from kids, and I think that made a difference. They could see kids were inspired by Hoy, and they invited me out July 6 for a question-and-answer with Sandy and a book signing.
The librarian at the Hall put all the letters into Hoy’s file and said he would show them to the committee. To me, that was very encouraging. I want to give the kids credit, because it would be their letters that would be the difference to move the heart of people on the committee.
A: He is someone who was told he couldn’t play, first because he was too small and then because he was deaf and mute. What makes his story extra special is that he didn’t simply overcome a difference. He used his difference to make the game better. Sometimes people feel, “Oh, I’m not big enough. I’m not strong enough. I’m different, or people make fun of me.” Sometimes your difference can be your strength. If he hadn’t been deaf, he wouldn’t have introduced signals, and it’s a better game for that. Nancy Churnin wrote a children’s book about William Hoy, above, who was deaf and mute and played big-league baseball from 1888 to 1902.