Archive for Wednesday, March 15, 2000

Deaf baseball player was a spectacle on the ballfield

March 15, 2000

Even around here, the memory of Luther Taylor is silent. Silent as a roaring baseball stadium. Silent as a screaming umpire. Silent as the streets of New York City on game day.

That silent.

Dummy, as he came to be called, couldn't hear or speak, but during the first part of the century whirled a legendary pitching arm for the New York Giants.

His talent was harvested in Kansas on dusty diamonds filled by home-town players. For him, Baldwin was home, when the Polo Grounds in New York wasn't.

Taylor won 115 games for the New York Giants from 1900 to 1908. He threw 767 strikeout pitches and 21 shutouts and helped the Giants win two pennants before injuring his pitching arm. After playing until 1913 in the minor leagues, he coached at deaf schools in Kansas, Iowa and Illinois.

Famous by Baldwin standards, impressive even by baseball standards, Taylor's name faded with the years. He died in 1958 at the age of 82 and was buried in Prairie City Cemetery, south of Baldwin.

Certainly, memories of his glory days of baseball linger. Darryl Brock is making sure they stick around permanently in "Havana Heat," a novel about Taylor's career. It's due out nation-wide April 17. Chapter one is set in 1911 in Baldwin, as are other parts of the novel.

Brock, a former history and English instructor who lives in Berkeley, Calif., visited Baldwin for a day two summers ago. He followed what could have been Taylor's footsteps and learned some local facts from Baldwin historian Katharine Kelley.

"She is a national treasure," Brock, from his California home, said of Kelley. "She is wonderful. She welcomed me. She fixed lunch for me. We drove all around in her car."

From the time she started corresponding with Brock, Kelley started collecting what information she could find on Taylor.

"Every once and a while, I'd run across something from the newspaper and file it," Kelley said of learning more about the baseball great herself.

Several accounts don't even mention Baldwin, except as the place of his burial. Kelley and Brock know better.

"Where I got the connection was through Sporting News magazines from the first part of the century," Brock said. Off-season plans of baseball player's were printed in the magazines. "Almost every year there was reference to him having a fine farm near Baldwin, where he was a grocer."

Kelley said local news clippings also show that Taylor's name was bandied about come baseball season.

"It's high time Baldwin became known," Kelley said of Taylor's accomplishments. "He felt this was home. I think we can claim him."

Taylor was born in 1875 in Oskaloosa and educated at the Kansas School for the Deaf in Olathe. Of the six children in his family, he was one of three who were deaf. His parents moved to Baldwin after he graduated from school.

Brock, who calls himself a "certifiable baseball nut," said Taylor is a heroic character who played for the Giants in the era of manager John McGraw and legendary teammate Christy Mathewson on a crowd-attracting team.

"The first time I heard of him as a baseball player, I thought 'how interesting,'" Brock said. "As a writer, I thought I would be challenged to have a man who never had a voice telling the story. I wanted to portray him as a hero. He no way saw himself as having a handicap."

His teammates learned sign language, and McGraw incorporated Taylor's language into field signals, spelling out "steal" or "bunt" on his fingers until opponents caught on. And despite his inability to hear or speak although he did use sounds to rattle opponents and could sound a few words Taylor was anything from quiet on the field.

"He was a wonderful character, too upbeat, colorful, free-spirited, a natural clown," Brock said. "Not to mention a most creative umpire-baiter. But one day he got crossed up while cussing an ump in sign from the mound. Suddenly the ump signed back, "You're out of the game and it'll cost you $25!" It turned out he had a deaf relative. Dummy was shocked, and in those days it was serious money."

On rainy game days, Taylor was known to come onto the field dressed in a rain slicker and goulashes, carrying an umbrella his way of telling umpires to call the game. In another instance of wanting the game called, it was raining and beginning to get dark when Taylor offered a lighted lantern from the dugout to the umpire and was chased for his actions.

"All I had to do was twirl my finger near my ear to indicate that they (umpires) had wheels in their heads, and I got the afternoon off," Taylor wrote to an interviewer.

Although Brock's novel places Taylor in Baldwin with his wife Della and brother Sim (short for Simpson), he is in the twilight of his career, longing for the opportunity to prove his pitching arm is back.

"In my story, he doesn't want to be there right then," Brock said of Baldwin. "He wanted to be in the bright lights again."

Brock said he imagined how Taylor dealt with the injury of his pitching arm the emotions he experienced, the memories he wasn't prepared to let go. And Brock is who gave Taylor that second chance playing in Cuba with the Giants in the off-season. However, Taylor never went to Cuba, and started coaching after ending his pitching career in Topeka.

"This is fiction," Taylor said. " It's a story of what might have happened. His life was changing then. He was coming down to reality. I figured he had to be dealing with that at some level.

"Taylor never went to Cuba. I stuck by the facts where I had them. I decided to dramatize that change from playing to coaching.

"In 1908 the real Taylor hurt his arm and never performed as well again, though he hung on a few more years in the minors. Like it or not, he had to adjust and what my novel does is take him on an imaginary journey that dramatizes his adjustment."

Brock's first novel from 1990, "If I Never Get Back," tells the story of the nation's first salaried ballplayers, the Cincinnati Red Stockings. For both novels, the history teacher in Brock researched his subjects and the era they lived in to the smallest detail such as the practice of rubbing pennyroyal leaves to fend off mosquitos.

"My training is in history," Brock said. "Writing novels is always something I wanted to do. I love historic research gathering all the exhausting facts I can find. I always like to know those things if I can."

Brock traveled to Cuba in December, following the writing of his novel, where of all things he watched baseball.

While in Baldwin, Brock was able to talk to a living relative of Taylor's, Mary Lou Rockers, who has since died. Brock said Rockers remembered Taylor as a big man who could roll a baseball down both arms and across his shoulders and who loved life. Brock said it was obvious Taylor loved life from the information he gathered to write "Havana Heat." Much of that information came from Taylor's file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, N.Y.

"Because he was a character and was interesting and was one of a few deaf players to get to the top, he was interviewed regularly," Brock said. "I was able to get a sense of his life."

sidebar:

"Havana Heat" can be read on the Internet prior to its release in stores. Eight chapters are currently posted, with a new chapter added every three days. The address is: www.totalsports.net/books

Pictures from Cuba and the United States, from Luther Taylor's time and today, and baseball statistics of the players of that era, are included on the Internet site.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.