IM this article to a friend!

October 24, 2006

Local filmmakers explore origin of umpires' signals

From: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle - Rochester,NY,USA - Oct 24

(October 24, 2006) — It says on Bill Klem's Baseball Hall of Fame plaque that the Rochester native was the major-league umpire responsible for introducing arm signals for strikes and fair and foul balls.

Some baseball historians dispute that claim, arguing it was Dummy Hoy, the most celebrated deaf big-league player of all time, who invented the signals as a way of communicating with umpires.

Signs of the Time, a locally produced documentary scheduled to debut in time for the start of the 2008 baseball season, won't attempt to settle the debate. But it will give both men their due while exploring the profound effect the signals have had on the game and our culture.

"I don't know if any one person is responsible for inventing the signs," says director Don Casper, who, along with screenwriter Jim Hughes, hopes to pitch the film to a network such as The History Channel, PBS or ESPN Classic Sports.

"Like the origins of the game itself, there have been many debates about where these signs originated. I think they evolved rather than were invented. That said, from the research we've done, we believe Klem and Hoy were central figures in their evolution and acceptance."

Casper and Hughes are accomplished filmmakers, who work for Crystal Pix, a Fairport production company that has worked on projects ranging from historical documentaries to award-winning short films.

The two friends also are huge baseball fans, and have a deep and abiding love for the game's lore.

Casper, 38, says his greatest baseball memory occurred two Octobers ago when his beloved Boston Red Sox finally put an end to their long, wretched curse.

Hughes, 44, jokes that his most memorable baseball moment was throwing up his Cracker Jack at the 1970 Little League World Series.

But if this documentary takes off, as I believe it will, each may one day have a new favorite moment.

They're still in the early innings of the project. But they've already conducted lengthy interviews with Hoy's granddaughter and Bill Werber, a former teammate of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig on the famed 1927 New York Yankees.

Though 98 years old, Werber's mind remains razor sharp. He remembers the flamboyant, autocratic Klem, who umpired from 1905 to 1941. Werber recalls stepping up for his first National League at-bat during the 1930s with Klem behind the plate. The late umpire was known to players as "Catfish" because of his puffy lips and jowls. It was a nickname he absolutely abhorred, as Werber was quick to discover.

"I thought I would ingratiate myself with him a little bit," Werber recalls in the film's trailer. "So I said, 'Good afternoon, Catfish.' He yanked off his mask and there was tobacco juice spilling everywhere. He got his ugly puss right up against mine and said: 'Young man you are new in this league. Don't you dare ever call me Catfish again.' I can assure you, I never did. He was something else."

By most accounts, Hoy was Klem's polar opposite. At 5-feet-4, 145 pounds, he originally was thought to be too small to play in the big leagues. Being deaf since age 2 was thought to be an even bigger obstacle during a time when people who couldn't hear were ostracized. But Hoy proved everyone wrong, spending 18 seasons in the majors, and becoming a fan favorite as a hitter, outfielder and base runner.

Casper learned about Hoy while working as the television director at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at RIT. He became friends with John Panara, whose father, Robert Panara, was a former NTID professor and a long-time advocate for Hoy's inclusion into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. The elder Panara, like many others, regards Hoy as "the Jackie Robinson of deaf ballplayers" for overcoming the stigma associated with hearing loss back in the day.

"I wasn't familiar with the Hoy story until then," Casper says. "That was kind of what planted the seed in my mind for this project. And then, as I began to investigate things further, I realized that Klem needed to be a central figure in this, too."

The intention of the documentary isn't to drum up support for the Hoy induction campaign, though that certainly could be a welcomed by-product. Rather, the focus is to examine what an incredible innovation the adoption of arm signals was. It is an innovation that even the most die-hard of baseball fans takes for granted.

"You have to remember that there weren't electronic scoreboards indicating balls and strikes and outs, and there weren't any public address systems, so fans were often left in the dark," Hughes says. "The arm signals had an extraordinary impact on the fans' enjoyment of the game, and it also aided the players."

Casper and Hughes have shot action footage of Rochester Red Wings and local youth-league games. They've also filmed historical recreations of games from the 19th century involving two Ohio vintage baseball teams. They have several more interviews scheduled with players from the 1930s and '40s who knew Klem and Hoy, as well as interviews slated with modern-era players, such as Brooks Robinson.

"It's funny, but we interviewed Kenny Singleton and Fred Lynn when they were here, and despite spending decades in the game, they weren't aware of how the signs came about," Casper says. "It's become so commonplace that we just assume they've been there since the beginning of time."

We also take for granted just how universal the meaning of the signals has become.

"Who doesn't know that this is the out sign?" says Hughes, forming a fist with his thumb extended toward the ceiling. "That and other signs have become so ingrained in our culture over time."

Casper and Hughes hope to begin post-production on the film by next fall, so they can have it ready for Opening Day 2008.

You can view a trailer of the documentary and learn more about this work in progress at The producers can be contacted at that same Web site or by calling them at Crystal Pix (585) 377-3210.

© 2006, The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle