By Paula Damon
“Taps, touches, tugs and tips… they carry complex messages among pitchers, batters, coaches and managers. The wordless codes can be raised to an art level and are protected as if they are state secrets.” – Kevin Baxter, reporter, Los Angeles Times
I love watching baseball, and for a long time now, I’ve intently studied the many strange hand signals used on the mound, from the dugout and on the bases.
Signing in baseball, has been around for a very long time, was originally devised by William Ellsworth Hoy, a hearing impaired center fielders who played major league baseball before and during the turn of the 20th century. Hoy began signing when he could not hear coaches during games, the method caught on and prolifically used to this day.
Whether brilliantly developed or crudely handed down through the leagues, signals in baseball today actually drive games and determine outcomes.
This mysterious and clever telegraphing of simple commands – what to do and how to do it – make players into chewing maestros conducting orchestral bodies through symphonic performances played out on diamonds all across the United States.
These baseball “signers” offer fingertip directions that butterfly about their bodies: tugging ear lobes; touching noses; pinching or sliding thumbs along the brims of their ball caps, chest or sleeve; tapping shoulders and toddling hands from side to side with anywhere from one to four fingers extended as their monologues continue inning after inning after inning.
At times light and fleeting, other times genteel and jerky, such a code is an artful playbook of sorts, silently directing teams in a trickledown of commands from managers in the dugout to third-base coaches, from third-base coaches to batters, from first base coaches to runners.
Exhaustively applying every conceivable bodily gesture, coaches dramatically rotate their arms like massive windmill blades propelling base runners, telling them to go, stop or slide.
While umpires have more speaking parts, like “Play ball!” to start the game and “Strike,” “Ball,” “Foul ball” and “Time” when calling the game, they, too, use speechless codes to help players and fans navigate games.
With hands raised, an ump gives the count by signaling the number of balls with his left hand and the number of strikes with his right.
He indicates a fair ball by pointing toward the field with his right arm. For foul balls, he raises both hands with palms open and each elbow bent to a 90-degree angle. Signaling a timeout, he raises both arms in the air with hands straight up.
Left to interpretation, baseball’s nonverbal language is simultaneously vulnerable and virile.
Mostly masked and indiscernible to viewers, this sign language is part dance, part boyish, part archaic communication, part methodical, part sporadic and part trinitarian as to how the game was, is and will continue to be played.
Whether the ball is in the alley, around the horn, a backdoor slider, base hit, a Baltimore chop or a moonshot, baseball’s marvelously masked and mesmerizing silent speak sends batters running, fielders moving and pitchers catching.