The applause was silent, but enthusiastic nonetheless.
During the William “Dummy” Hoy Celebration on March 21 at the Ohio School for the Deaf in Columbus’ Clintonville neighborhood, whenever a speaker was introduced or made a point about the life and times of the former Major League Baseball player, students, faculty and guests raised their hands in the air and vigorously waggled their fingers.
It was applause without all that smacking of palms.
The tribute to Hoy, who graduated from the deaf school in 1879, drew lots and lots of waggling fingers.
The event was part of Ohio Deaf History Month, which is in its second year.
Hoy is credited with bringing the use of hand signs for balls, strikes, “out” and “safe” to baseball.
Although the term dummy to describe someone who can’t hear or speak is insulting today, it wasn’t considered as such in Hoy’s era, and it was what he called himself.
“This is a very special event, and he really deserves our recognition,” said Dawn Watts, co-founder of Ohio Citizens for Deaf Cultures, via American Sign Language. “He struggled a lot. He really showed us you can persevere. We should really be proud of him and all the work that he did.”
Other speakers included state Rep. David Leland (D-Columbus), co-sponsor of the bill that created Ohio Deaf History Month; Nancy Churnin, author of “The William Hoy Story” children’s book; David Risotto, director of an upcoming film biopic of Hoy titled “The Silent Natural”; and Steve Sandy, a Columbus resident who is deaf and has been waging a campaign for decades to have the first deaf player in the history of the big leagues enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
“William Hoy did not let the fact that he was deaf stand in the way of his achieving what he wanted to achieve,” Leland said. “It did not keep him from doing what he wanted to do, and that’s a lesson that everybody needs to learn.
“Everybody has an issue, whether it’s being deaf or whatever, but everybody is going to have issues – but the important thing ... is for people to realize they can overcome that and they can do anything they want to do.”
Churnin, speaking on a video feed from her home in California, credited Sandy with inspiring her to write the first of what is now eight children’s books.
That first book was rejected many times, she said.
“I couldn’t give up because William Hoy couldn’t give up,” Churnin said.
“This is really an honor and a privilege to be there before you because this is where Dummy Hoy got his start,” Risotto said. “Without this school, we wouldn’t have hand signals in baseball. You guys should be honored to be in the school where so much history has its start.”
Risotto described meeting Sandy many years ago and working with him, first on a documentary about Hoy and, more recently, on “The Silent Natural,” which will debut May 31 in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, where much of the movie was shot.
Risotto said some studios were willing to pay him big bucks for the rights to the Hoy movie, but he refused because he knew hearing actors would end up being cast in the roles of deaf characters.
“My thoughts were, ‘No hearing actor can portray a deaf role the way it should be,’ ” Risotto said. “That’s why it’s not a Disney film. I refused to go along with Hollywood standards, and that’s why we did it this way.”
The tagline on Risotto’s soon-to-be-released movie is, “He made thousands of fans cheer, but never heard one.”
William Ellsworth Hoy, according to the website of the Society for American Baseball Research, was born in Houcktown in Hancock County on May 23, 1862. He was left unable to hear or speak after contracting meningitis at age 3. Although undersized at about 5 feet, 5 inches, he was spotted playing baseball by a scout and went on to a pro baseball career that lasted from 1888 to 1902, including two stints with the Cincinnati Reds.
Hoy died in Cincinnati on Dec. 15, 1961, at age 99.