In the early 1900s, Minnesota saw one of its sons, Esten Hanson—born near Kerkhoven—become one heck of an amateur baseball pitcher/catcher. Not that there weren’t enough gifted athletes to go around, but the deaf Hanson prevailed in a day and age when a person with a disability was considered to be defective. He was almost as odd a novelty as the state’s black and Native American players. Typical of the day, before the dawning of political correctness—or even, seemingly, mere considerateness—Esten Hanson was saddled with the indelicate nickname “Dummy.”
You don’t have to be deaf or, for that matter, a baseball fan to appreciate Jim Johnson’s biography “Dummy” Hanson: A Deaf Baseball Pitcher’s Life in the Hearing World. It’s an engaging, reader-friendly account that doesn’t get bogged down in stats. Johnson has delivered a clear, exhaustively researched, look at one man’s very interesting life.
Johnson starts at the beginning; actually, earlier. He notes that 1858 was “the year…the Minnesota legislature decided to locate ‘a deaf and dumb’ asylum in Faribault.” He goes on to paint the similarly imperceptive climate in which the Minnesota School for the Deaf, which Hanson attended, was more popularly deemed a rehabilitative institution than a place of learning. All along the way, through Esten Hanson’s life and avocation, we get a matter-of-fact rendering of what he had to put up with and how resolutely Hanson transcended others’ limitations to lead a “normal” existence. The fact is, Hanson wasn’t as much an anomaly as one might assume. He played a game where all you really need, aside from athletic skill, is the ability to pay attention to what’s going on around you. Other deaf ball players, in fact, went professional. For instance, Luther “Dummy” Taylor pitched for the old New York Giants and found himself hurling against Cincinnati Reds star center fielder William Ellsworth “Dummy” Hoy. (Hoy got two hits, but the Giants won the game.)
Jim Johnson, who holds a doctorate from the William Mitchell College of Law, has played sandlot, American Junior Legion, and town team baseball and is a member of the Halsey Hall Chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research. He’s also a native of Kerkhoven.
How did you find out about Esten Hanson to ask your grandfather how good a pitcher Hanson was?
As a boy in the 1930s and 40s I spent a lot of time riding with my grandfather on his horse-drawn dray wagon, or a bobsled in the wintertime, as well as “helping” him haul hay he had cut along the right-of-way of the Great Northern Railway and U.S. Highway No. 12. During these times I inquisitively asked him questions about his baseball experience and I would assume, at this later date, that we discussed the “star” players that he played with, one of them being Esten Hanson—but he would have been referred to as “Dummy” in a matter-of-fact manner and not with a negative or demeaning connotation. I remember my grandfather pronouncing “deaf and dumb” as “deef and dumb,” not an uncommon pronunciation during his era.
What prompted you to research Hanson’s life and write this book? It wasn’t only because he was deaf, was it?
His deafness was definitely part of the equation. One thing led to another after I had written about a 1904 baseball game between Kerkhoven and the Boston Bloomers. Afterwards, I wondered what it would have been like to be deaf and play baseball and asked the simple question, “How do you call a deaf player off a fly ball?” The answer is: you don’t. Witness the above-mentioned 1904 game in which he did not pitch, but played as a “hired gun” whose arm was not to be tired in an exhibition game—so he played center field. The research became a challenge: tracing the life of a prelingual deaf Norwegian boy from the time of his birth in 1877 until his untimely death in 1908. He never married, leaving no heirs. I suppose the primary reason I spent seven years on the project was because Hanson was deaf. Just about every town and city had a baseball team at one time or another during that era, but how many had a deaf, publicly recognized pitcher? And, I must admit, as a hearing person I had no previous knowledge about the deaf community or ASL. Coincidentally, I acquired two hearing aids about a year or so after beginning the project.
Has it had any response or reaction from members of the disabled community? Access Press?
No. But I have enjoyed the overwhelming cooperation and assistance of the administration, faculty and students at the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf during the entire process.
Who was most helpful in rummaging through archives, tracking down sources, and otherwise rendering an authentic account of this athlete’s life and career?
Like Frank Sinatra sang, “I did it my way.” I guess that sounds like a very immodest way of saying I worked on the project without any assistant or collaborator. Other than one of Esten Hanson’s nieces, Verna Johnson Gomer—no relation to me—who is an unofficial historian of the Hanson family, and a published history of the Hanson family, all of the research was done by me.
Played much baseball yourself?
Like all small town boys in the 1930s and 40s, my baseball glove was a permanent fixture on my bicycle’s handlebars. Summer time was baseball time. I played high school baseball and town team ball, acquiring a modest reputation as a good second baseman. I like to think that had I chosen that route, I could have been hired by a semi-pro team in Minnesota more than 50 years ago.
Are you making any upcoming appearances at stores to promote the book?
Yes. On February 6, between the hours of 7:00 and 9:00 p.m., I will be making a presentation and book signing at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in the Har Mar Mall in Roseville. There is a very active deaf book club that meets there every Friday evening at 6:00 p.m., so arrangements have been made to have ASL interpreters present. There is a possibility that I will have a book signing in Willmar on February 21, but that is in the planning stages. On February 27, I will have a book signing and presentation at a book store known as—in Norwegian—the Kultur Hus, located in Sunburg, Minnesota, from 12:30 p.m. until 3:00 p.m. This small city is located about two to three miles from the farm owned by Esten Hanson’s family. It’s where Esten’s story began.
What’s next for you?
I wish I could answer that question. I do have an idea for another book, the central “character” of which would be a big, black, shaggy Newfoundland dog, which was the campus mascot at MSAD in the 1880s. The relationship of a dog with deaf students is intriguing and raises the question: who taught who ASL? But that is in the future, as “Dummy” is occupying my efforts at this point.
Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.
Correction 1/26/09: Harris Communications is not the distributor of “Dummy” Hanson, as this article originally stated, though the book is available for sale through that company.