The poignant story behind baseball umpires' signals

The Signal Season of Dummy Hoy Play by Allen Meyer and Michael Nowak. Directed by James Abar. ``The Signal Season of Dummy Hoy,'' at the Hudson Guild Theatre, commemorates the man who occupied the central role in a historic event in baseball annals. About 1886, William Ellsworth ``Dummy'' Hoy, a deaf and mute baseball player, helped devise the signals used ever since by umpires for ``strike,'' ``ball,'' ``safe,'' and ``out.'' Allen Meyer and Michael Nowak have made a lively, leisurely, and inevitably moving account of this relatively little known piece of baseball lore.

Hoy, who clung to his nickname throughout his long career, turned from cobbler to professional ball player when he joined the Oshkosh team of the Northwestern League in 1886. ``The Signal Season of Dummy Hoy'' deals with the early stages of a career that lasted until 1903.

Notwithstanding his star performances on the field, ``Dummy'' receives more than his share of crude hazing from his rowdy and boozy teammates, according to Meyer and Nowak. Nevertheless, the Oshkosh players devise the rudiments of a system of signals by which ``Dummy'' can grasp the umpire's decisions as to strikes and balls. When the system proves fallible, players and umpire gather in a hotel room for a mock game in which to perfect the signals. Directed for all its worth by James Abar, this proves to be one of the liveliest and most entertaining scenes in ``The Signal Season of Dummy Hoy.'' A radio booth epilogue records the day in 1961 when 99-year-old Dummy throws out the first ball in the World Series.

The factually based dramatic comedy attempts and, in important ways, succeeds in being more than merely an account of surface events. With the hearing-impaired Larry Bazzell giving an impressively eloquent performance in the central role, the play probes Hoy's struggles not only to communicate but to grapple with the stubborn streak which both drives and impedes him.

Among the contributing theatrical devices are a series of exchanges between Dummy and Speaker Hoy (Katherine Diamond), serving as voice of conscience and alter ego. Another device is to have Dummy's teammates mouth their words silently to suggest the plight of the non-hearing individual in a vocal world.

The ragtag Oshkosh contingent is well represented by Rick Carter as the most hostile team member, James Gleason as the peppery scout-player, and Dan Monahan as the cornet-playing teammate who befriends Dummy. Gregory Chase's manager and Ben Thomas's top-hatted umpire are typically embattled, while Nancy Travis gives an attractive performance as a would-be sports writer whose struggle to break into a man's field of journalism in its own way reflects Dummy's plight as an outsider. Francois Giroday and Cleto Augusto help furnish comic relief.

Although it tends at times to belabor the obvious, ``The Signal Season of Dummy Hoy'' can prove as stirring as it is sincere. A performance interpreted for the deaf and hearing-impaired, such as the one I attended, adds to the drama's impact.

The Hudson Guild production (through Dec. 27) has been designed in period style by Ron Gottschalk (scenery) and Karen Hummel (costumes), with lighting by Paul Wonsek.

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