Congratulations to the cast and crew of Signs of the Time, winner of the Award for Baseball Excellence at the 2009 Baseball Film Festival, held at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. The award, “given to the film that excels in one or all of the following categories: research, historical context, appreciation of the game, and the embodiment of the spirit of baseball,” honors the film which examines the myths behind the hand signals used by umpires.
The feature documentary tries to determine who should get the credit: William Ellsworth “Dummy” Hoy, an outfielder for the several teams in the late 19th, early 20th-century, or Hall of Fame umpire Bill Klem, who also claimed to have been instrumental in popularizing the broad strokes to be more informative to the fans at the game.
Signs of the Time consists primarily of interviews with former baseball personalities such as Bob Feller, Brooks Robinson, Earl Weaver, Bill Werber,and Fred Lynn, among others, as well researchers and writers on the game and the deaf community. But Sign doesn’t just rely on a Ken Burns-type production; it also features actors portraying the ballplayers of Hoy’s era and umpire Klem and his contemporaries, not unlike Civil War re-enactors. Michael Barreca, who plays Dummy Hoy, is hearing impaired; Raymond P. Enright Jr. handles the Klem role.
A third component follows Doug Giaconne, a deaf high school ballplayer and the fellowship with his teammates after his coach has them all learn sign language.
Don Casper, producer and director of Signs of the Time, was kind enough to answer a few questions about the project for the Bookshelf.
Casper said the inspiration for this film came in the mid 1990s when he was working in the TV Department at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf where he “met a group of deaf folks that were campaigning to have Hoy recognized and inducted to the Hall of Fame. I never knew anything about Hoy before that and thought it was a unique take on something that most take for granted in the game. I also thought it had many interesting angles that could make an entertaining film.
By 2003, I had left NTID and was working at Crystal Pix (a production company in upstate New York) and was involved developing ideas to produce an independent film project. Once I began researching Hoy’s career and the controversy surrounding the innovation of hand signals, it became clear that the film had to be just as much about Bill Klem as it was about Hoy. We wanted to show differing viewpoints, but in the end allow the audience to piece the information together to make their own conclusions and tell a story that everyone could enjoy from baseball history enthusiasts to casual sports fans…. [I]t was attractive because it is mostly an untold story of how the actions of a few created a part of the game which was integral to it’s growth and popularity by breaking down the communication barriers for fans before technology could fill that void.
Joan Hoy Sampson, the ballplayer’s granddaughter, “was a huge asset to us by providing not only an interview, but access to many family photos and artifacts, some of which appear in the film,” Casper said. Hoy lived with Joan and her husband in the later years of his life after his wife had passed away, “so she was able to give us first hand perspective about who he was.”
“In planning the project we wanted the audience to “get to know” both Dummy Hoy and Bill Klem and understand their personalities. We do that through the stories of family and major-league ballplayers who knew them, but we also wanted to find signature moments from each of their careers that would explain who they were and then re-enactment them with actors. This would allow the audience to be transported back in time and see these things happen for themselves. We are a self-financed production so cost was always a concern. However, we tried to make it look as “big-budget” as we could without a Hollywood budget. Working in the production community for many years, we called in a number of favors, many of the actors and extras worked for nothing but a hot meal and having our own editing equipment was a big savings. But when we did spend money, we tried to spend it wisely on things that would have direct impact on screen.”
An extra coup was the participation of actor Richard Dreyfus in the film.
“We wanted to find a celebrity narrator that not only had a great voice but a connection to the content. Although Richard is not known for the baseball film genre specifically, his character from Mr. Holland’s Opus is about a man struggling to communicate with his deaf son,” Casper said. “In addition, he learned to communicate with the deaf actors on that production giving him firsthand experience with the themes of our project.
“Our film is really not so much about baseball as it is about breaking down barriers of communication with those around you. We felt there was a strong connection there.”
In addition to the Cooperstown prize, Signs of the Time won Best Documentary at both the SoCal Film Festival in Huntington Beach and the High Falls International Film Festival in Rochester, NY. (upcoming screenings are posted at the film’s web site).
Dummy Hoy is a real hero to many deaf people. My guess is that the average hearing person has no idea who Dummy Hoy is, but that is not the case in the deaf community. He is well known and admired. So far, our film has been received very well within the deaf community and is made accessible in all film festival screenings with subtitles so that all audiences, both deaf and hearing and participate. We wanted to make a film that would have a little something for everyone, more than just die-hard baseball fans, more than history-buffs, and more than just the deaf community, we wanted to make a film that all people would be able to appreciate and enjoy.