Sign It Ain’t So, Klem?
By Rick Postl
SIGNews staff writer
The flamboyant baseball umpire, William Klem is given credit for inventing baseball hand signals. His plaque in Cooperstown says it all; however, one would argue that necessity is the mother of all inventions.
A healthy dose of skepticism is prudent as William “Dummy” Hoy played professional ball over 18 seasons, retiring two years prior to Klem’s umpiring career that spanned 37 seasons and 18 World Series appearances. Hoy had a need to understand signals during his plate appearances.
The possibility also exists that the usage of umpire hand signals pre-dates Hoy and Klem. The media was not as interconnected as the media is nowadays and media sources show signals were in use here and there.
Cy Rigler, then a minor league umpire who is also credited with inventing the hand signals, thought he was first until he reached the majors and found the signals already in use. Going back even further, newspaper records show that Edward Dundon, the first professional deaf ball player, used hand signals during a game he umpired in 1886.
The literature shows numerous public requests and discussions in support of visible umpire signals. These were before electronic scoreboards and audible announcement systems became part of the ballpark experience.
The credit for the introduction of hand signals is a source of great controversy. Klem and Hoy are believed to have meaningfully contributed to the permanence of baseball umpire signals, given their long-term contributions to baseball. One must go to bat when appropriate credits are not given or considered among the choices.
The “Signs of the Time” is a full-length documentary, narrated by Richard Dreyfuss, that considers both sides of the arguments and begs the question of appropriate credit to the mystery of baseball’s greatest innovation– the hand signals.
The film also goes beyond the controversy in considering the spirit of meaningful interactions between deaf and hearing ballplayers.
“Signs of the Time” is directed and produced by Don Casper with Crystal Pix. Casper used to work at RIT/NTID and casted deaf contributors, consultants and actors in the film.
The documentary has achieved numerous “best documentary” honors and awards at film festivals nationwide—from New York to California. Of great honors, the documentary was selected for the “Award for Baseball Excellence at the 2009 Baseball Film Festival,” held at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
“It was a highlight for us not only to screen the film at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, but to receive the Award for Baseball Excellence from the judges,” shared Casper.
The film festival is held at Cooperstown. The judging for the award was done by movie and baseball experts, not by the Hall of Fame establishment itself.
“I think that the film’s strength is its message,” shared Casper. “Many people who come to see the film think that it will be just about baseball history, or just about Hoy. But in reality these are secondary elements in the films greater message of triumph over adversity and breaking barriers of communication.”
“The success of the film transcends across all audiences—not only history buffs or baseball fans,” added Casper.
See the trailer at www.signsofthetimemovie.com for upcoming showings and DVD sales.
With the all the possibilities considered, how could Klem have achieved a consensus that he invented the signals? There are several theories.
Klem was the first umpire inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame and his authoritative umpiring style is still taught in umpire academies. His contributions to baseball come without question; his boastful claims for inventing baseball signs have grown with the times.
In the film, Klem is shown asserting that he invented the standard safe and out signals used today by umpires and goes as far as to say that “… these innovations are all mine.”
We have a penchant for drama– the animated series of actions exerted by an umpire in calling a decision invokes sentimental emotions. The more empathic, authoritative the call, the more believable, confident the umpire is.
The colorful character, the contributions, and the tales created a case for Klem.
“The Hall of Fame plaque text is written in a group effort by Hall of Fame staffers,” shared Craig Muder, Director of Communications at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. “The facts and statistics used on the plaque are the best available information at the time of the inscription.”
The thoroughness of the documentary creates new perspectives and credible evidences to the contrary.
Casper was asked what new conversations he is observing about Hoy’s place in Cooperstown as a result of the documentary.
“Although our film is not solely about Hoy, it has definitely raised awareness of who Hoy was,” shared Casper. “Hoy was a modest person and did not self-promote during his life/career which is perhaps why history has not recorded his contributions, so in a small way maybe our film can speak on his behalf a hundred years after the fact.”
The window of opportunity for Hoy to be enshrined in Cooperstown dims as living testimonies die with the time. This film breathes life into Hoy’s contributions through the testimonies among baseball experts and players associated with Hoy.
The film has spurred on some conversation among baseball enthusiasts according to Casper. “Many hearing people who come to see the film have never heard of Hoy and many leave the film fascinated with his story and want to know more about what can be done,” said Casper.
It would be a vastly different ball game if appropriate credits are given to Hoy among the collective contributors to hand signals. Until then, this is a debate worth fighting for and the documentary, reaching an international, mainstream audience does a great service.