written by: Rebecca Scudder
• edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch
• updated: 9/11/2012
The favorite American sport could not be played the way it is if there weren't a plethora of signals passing between the players during a match. Learn about signs, deaf players and ethics.
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Baseball Sign Language
It's estimated that during a nine inning game about 1000 signals pass between catcher and pitcher, coach and batter, fielder and fielder and anywhere in between. A few are obvious, but many are clandestine touches, twists and even mimicry which an outsider has difficulties even noticing, let alone understanding.
Although it appears that there are several signs which are common to all games, the idiosyncrasy of baseball sign language is that it's highly flexible. The majority of signs are devised and agreed upon for each individual game in advance. They are different from coach to coach and may even be changed during the match. The catcher, who directs the defense from his position behind home plate, is a crucial figure in sign language communication. Signs direct the game and play a major role in winning or losing the match.
Here are a few basic signs and signals from catcher to pitcher:
1 finger up for fastball
2 fingers up for a curve
3 fingers up for a change up
Fist slammed on palm for a squeeze bunt
The catcher will also -through subtle hand and body movements -indicate the pitch location, for example high and outside and signal his set up.
These examples are just scratching the surface. There is an interesting video to watch. Manager Bill Masse of New Hampshire Fisher Cats explains some signs. Look at it at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=bLBT7H2P8vE. The video lasts only 1 min 47 sec and shows a few signals, but it makes clear how fast these signs are passed and gives a good first impression.
Another source of information on the subject is the book "The Hidden Language of Baseball" by Paul Dickson, published at Walker Books.
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Considering how important signs are to the outcome of a baseball game, it doesn't come as a surprise that the 'sport' of stealing signs is as old as the invention of the signals. Generally speaking, stealing is unethical, but many enthusiasts take the view that it's just a way of 'baseball life'. As long as the stealing is done by keen observation it's probably acceptable, but as soon as real espionage and electronic gadgets are employed, the line is crossed. A code of ethics takes care of these violations, which have caused spectacular scandals in the history of baseball.
A particularly objectionable method of stealing is called 'peeking'. It involves the hitter glancing back while at the plate and trying to figure out the signs from the catcher with a view of passing them on to his team mates. The catcher, trying to conceal his movements and prevent stealing, often often signals shielding his hand between the knee and the mitt.
Baseball has a history of deaf players. It's the enormously successful William Ellsworth Hoy, a player of the late 1800, who is often credited with the invention of baseball sign language. Luther Taylor, who was also deaf, helped the Giants win in 1904 and 1905 and Edward Dundon became the first professional deaf umpire. All of them had influence over the development of baseball sign language.