History of Umpiring: The Origin of Hand Signals

2019-08-20 17:37:45



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Where did umpires’ hand signals come from? That question has divided baseball historians for years.

Finding a definitive answer—which lies more than a century in the past— has proved difficult. We know that umpire hand signals came into common usage in the majors between 1906 and 1907; we also know the use of signals became standard practice in the majors in 1909, when umpires were first officially instructed to call plays both verbally and gesturally. The Spalding’s Official Baseball Guide published that year actually included illustrated examples of umpires’ gestures to help fans interpret them.

But umpires, players, and coaches across the major and minor leagues had likely been using their own (non-standardized) hand signals for many years prior to 1909. That’s made tracing the ancestry of this baseball tradition an especially tricky task, as have the many conflicting accounts that have emerged around the subject.

In all likelihood, quite a few people contributed to the signaling system used by umpires today. So the question becomes: who among them was most important in bringing hand signals to modern baseball?

According to umpire Bill Klem, the answer would probably be himself. In an interview he did for Collier’s magazine in 1951, Klem said: “Today, when an umpire calls a strike, his right hand shoots above his head so that everybody in the ball park knows it. If his hand remains at his side, it is a ball. I originated that system in 1906, when my voice went bad and I could no longer follow the custom of bellowing.”

Bill Klem is, without question, one of the most important umpires to have ever graced the field, and one of the first two umpires to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1953. And perhaps he did contribute some of the gestures that would later be adopted by umpires at large: his Cooperstown plaque credits him with inventing the “fair” and “foul” hand signals, for example. But the claim that he inaugurated the hand signals for ball and strike calls—which is corroborated by no source other than his own telling of it—is dubious at best.

Actually, it sounds a lot like the story of something that happened to another umpire named Francis O’Loughlin, who’s often left out of discussions about the origin of baseball hand signals. O’Loughlin had apparently been using hand signals throughout the 1906 season, most famously during the World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago White Sox. In its coverage of the series, the Chicago Tribune reported: “the din of the rooting was so great it was impossible to hear an umpire’s decision… O’Loughlin supplemented his clarion voice with his characteristic gestures, and his decisions were apparent to all… Before the third game, both umpires were instructed to raise their right arms for strikes and their left arm for balls.”

This was the first World Series where hand signals were used to call plays. But it wasn’t the first game in which that happened: O’Loughlin had begun doing so earlier in the season when, as in Klem’s story, his voice gave out. As the Washington Post reported, “O’Loughlin sprained his larynx” before a game in April of that year, such that “instead of calling the decisions, he employed [William] Hoy’s mute signal code.” O’Loughlin continued to use hand signals throughout the season, such that by the time he reached the World Series that October, the practice had become “characteristic” for him.

But as the Post pointed out, O’Loughlin could have been borrowing from someone else: William Hoy, who played professional ball from 1888 to 1902. Hoy was deaf. Because he was unable to hear the ball-strike call issued by the umpire behind him, he and the teams he played for developed a strategy: Hoy would watch his third base coach, who, after each pitch, held up his right arm for a strike and his left for a ball. According to the Post reporter’s article, this might have been that “mute signal code” that inspired O’Loughlin.

Some historians have been skeptical of the idea that Hoy originated umpires’ hand signals. And with good reason: Hoy more often used gestures to communicate with his coaches and fellow teammates than he did with umpires; plus, Hoy’s career in the majors ended four years before the use of hand signals began gaining currency among umpires. Still, Hoy probably had something to do with it—the fact that a reputable newspaper at the time went out of its way to associate Hoy with hand signaling attests to that.

But even Hoy can’t be called the originator of hand signals in baseball. Ed Dundon, who pitched briefly from 1883 to 1884, was also deaf, and he too used gestures to communicate with others on the field. He would later use hand signals while umpiring a Minor League game in 1886—one of the first recorded instances of an umpire doing so. So perhaps he, too, deserves credit.

But not all of it. There are others, umpires and non-umpires alike, who played some role in pioneering hand signals in baseball—Cy Rigler and Hank O’Day, for example, both of whom were umpires. The more one searches for a single person responsible for bringing hand signals to baseball, the clearer it becomes that no such person exists. Many probably contributed to the patchwork of signs and symbols that are employed by umpires today.

Having been used for over a hundred years by umpires, hand signals are now a cornerstone of baseball tradition. They help make up the soul of the game. That’s one of the great parts of watching umpires today, who often execute these time-honored gestures with their own characteristic flair. It’s like watching the history of umpiring—and of baseball—play out on the modern field.