Happy Birthday, Reuben Stephenson!

Reuben Crandol StephensonThough not as accomplished as a ball player as Billy Hoy or Luther Taylor, there’s no doubt that Reuben Stephenson was a remarkable athlete with no small amount of fame, especially among the deaf community, in the last decade of the 19th century.

“There were two on bases and two out when the tall ungainly form of ‘Dummy’ Stephenson shuffled up to the plate. The people cried: ‘Knock a home run, ‘Dummy,’ there’s a big schooner waiting down at Sullivan’s for you.’

“‘Don’t drink,’ motioned ‘Dummy.’

“Just then Bayne threw a swift drop with all his weight on it. Stephenson winked his eye at the spectators and banged away. The ball went over Haddon avenue station – somewhere outside of the fence anyway. Three runs were scored and a new sphere was tossed up.”

“The Umpire Hooted.”, Camden Daily Telegram, 21 June 1892, Page 1.

Reuben Stephenson arrived in this world on 22 September 1869, the fifth child of Leaming and Harriet Crandol (sometimes spelled as Crandal) Stephenson.  Harriet died months after Reuben arrived – Leaming would get help raising children from her sister, Hannah.  As you can imagine, Leaming fell for Hannah, too, and they had five more children, four of whom would live to adulthood.  Brian McKenna, who wrote his really well researched biography for SABR, surmises that Reuben likely lost his hearing as a young child, as he was the only deaf child of the lot – much like a young Billy Hoy did.  Leaming was a miller – they lived in Upper Cape May, New Jersey where each of Reuben’s family had grown up – though on separate sides of the county.

Reuben was educated at the New Jersey School for the Deaf in Trenton where he was adept at his studies and at sports.  He played on school teams and some local clubs earning notice for his prodigious power.  Stephenson was a thick six foot tall athlete – 170 pounds in his early days, then filling out to a solid two bills in his later years.  It didn’t take long for him to earn local notice, and when Ed Delahanty went down with an injury in September, Philadelphia brought the young slugger to take his place.  For eight games, Stephenson played centerfield where he proved capable of playing the position.

Delahanty is still confined to his bed from the injury he received in Wednesday’s game, so Stephenson, the deaf mute, again took care of centre field. Manager Wright was very much pleased with the latter’s work yesterday, the Camdenite making three difficult catches and having a two-bagger and a single out of four times at the bat.

“Won By Hard Hitting”, Philadelphia Times, 11 September 1892, Page 14.

Despite hitting .270 in his limited opportunity, there were issues – starting with the fact that the Phillies outfield was LOADED when healthy (Sam Thompson and Billy Hamilton were the other starting outfielders) – and once Delahanty came back Stephenson was back to playing semi-professional and minor league baseball.  In one game, an inside pitch hit Stephenson, who had awkwardly tried to get out of the way.  Stephenson thought the umpire had signaled that he was out – and started to walk to the dugout – when his manager, Harry Wright, argued that he had been hit by the pitch.  At some point, the umpire relented and allowed Stephenson to take his base.

And no other team, including the three teams that saw Stephenson play and might have needed someone with Stephenson’s skills, chose to give him a call.

The next time you flip through your baseball encyclopedia or click through Baseball-Reference.com or Retrosheet.org check out Hoy’s career numbers.  More importantly, check out the fact that Hoy played for a bunch of different teams – he bounces around a lot.  Now, some of that is because of the era he played in – he jumps a team to play in the Players League, for example.  But after that, even after a good season, Hoy only makes it a few years (or less) before he is looking for other work.

For Stephenson, his getting bounced around is done at lower level leagues.  And in some years, he plays for three or four teams in the same league in the same season.  He plays for two teams in the Pennsylvania State League in 1893, three teams in 1894, and four different teams in Virginia in 1896.

“(Reuben) Stephenson, the big deaf outfielder, formerly with Harrisburg, has soured on the State League and signed with his old love, Camden, N. J. He says that he will never again play with the minor league clubs, and particularly with the Pennsylvania League. He says the life spent by professional ball tossers is entirely too swift for him; that the players have very little idea of the value of money, and, after a day’s play, they eat supper and then start out to ‘do’ the town and all its suburbs. All have their particular hobby. Some play poker, others go to dances and a great many get up private sporting events, such as cock and prize fights. Stephenson claims that a man who tries to save his money has a hard road to travel in such company. He refused to go out with ‘the boys,’ and for that reason found that in every town he went his fellow-players were doing all in their power to handicap him and have him released from the team with which he played.”

“Stephenson Scores Minor Leagues.”, Harrisburg Telegraph, 19 March 1895, Page 1.

I’d also gather that in some cases, players were not always comfortable around Stephenson.  Like Hoy, Stephenson was intelligent and practical (not all of us are that way).  Later in his career, like Hoy, Stephenson married a woman who also was hearing impaired and incapable of speech – he spent his time with her rather than teammates.  And, the language barrier certainly would get in the way; if you cannot understand sign language, you cannot communicate.  On the field, you couldn’t communicate with him by calling for the ball or getting him to adjust on the fly to something by yelling at him.

“Stephenson, the deaf mute, who plays in the field for the local men (Philadelphia), was responsible for the runs in the fifth inning. He is a first-class ball tosser, but cannot hear when orders are given to him from the bench. To-day he ran for a ball that was not in his territory, and despite the fact that the spectators roared themselves hoarse, he failed to understand that another man was after it. The result was a misplay, on which the visitors galloped around the bases and scored.”

“Allentown’s Alertness.”, Pittsburgh Press, 22 July 1894, Page 8.

And yet all that Reuben did was hit.  Not all of his seasons come with a statistical record – but the few that do tell you a story about a guy who could just rake.  Even allowing for the levels of his league, he hit .270 in the majors in 1892, .331 in the Pennsylvania League in 1893, close to .300 in 1894, .341 in Virginia in 1896 and .325 in 1897.  You’d think that players would want a teammate like that and might learn a few things to help a player like Reuben fit in and feel more like a member of the team.  Instead, of course, Stephenson was tagged with the nickname ‘Dummy’ because he couldn’t speak.  And he was regularly sent packing, requiring Stephenson to regularly look for teams that would bring him on for short portions of a season.

Stephenson’s professional baseball days ended around the turn of the century.  He would marry well (the Camden Daily paper once wrote that he “married rich”).  His wife, Josephine Hattersley was the daughter of a well-known Philadelphia music dealer and composer, Charles Hattersley.  They had a large wedding in October of 1898 that got a full column article in the Trenton Evening Times.  The bride was known for her beauty and her expressive ways that she could recite poetry using a combination of sign language and other interpretive motions.  They would have three daughters, all of whom could hear and speak.

Reuben Stephenson would make his way as a potter, known for his skilled artwork when painting his work.  He’d have other jobs, too – he was a shipbuilder during the First World War – and would coach baseball for the New Jersey School for the Deaf.  He’d serve two terms as the president of the New Jersey Association for the Deaf as well.  His last job was with the State Highway Department in Trenton.  In 1924, though it is not noted anywhere, he must have come down with tuberculosis.  This is admittedly a guess, but his demise reminds me of that of George Edward Waddell, who was a couple of inches taller but a similar body type.  Both Waddell and Stephenson would lose nearly half their body weight as illness wasted their bodies until their deaths.  For Stephenson, death came on the evening of 01 December 1924 at a hospital in Trenton, New Jersey.

A copy of his obituary, which looks like it might have been printed in The Silent Worker, a Trenton-based publication that served the deaf community during Stephenson’s lifetime, was recently uploaded to Ancestry.com by Stephen Higham in 2012.  I’ll include that here.

Reuben Crandal Stephenson

Reuben C. Stephenson passed away at a hospital in Trenton, N. J. on Monday, December 1st, at 9:30 o’clock in the evening. He is survived by his wife, Josephine, and three daughters, Mrs. Josephine Poole, Miss Marjorie, and Dorothy Stephenson.

The funeral services were held at the mortuary chapel of Coleman, Bray and Lawrence at 8:30, Thursday evening, and the following day the remains were conveyed by motor hearse to his last resting place in South Dennis, N. J., the place of his birth.

The funeral services were conducted by Rev. Samuel P. Steinmetz, rector of St. Michael’s P. E. church, assisted by Rev. Charles H. Elder. About fifty deaf and hearing friends and relatives of the deceased were present.

Floral offerings were received from: Family, Mr. and Mrs. Edwin C. Stratton, classmates of Dorothy, Mr. Charles O’Reilly, and Dobbins, Thomas and Elizabeth, Mr. and Mrs. John Hackenberger, employees New Jersey State Highway department, friends of St. Michael’s church and friends from New Jersey School for the Deaf, H. F. Pierson and family, Hattie Murphy, Mr. and Mrs. H. D. Leavitt, Mrs. C. C. White of New York, Mr. and Mrs. J. H. Backes, Miss Laura Kafer, Mr. and Mrs. Elijah Terry, Mr. and Mrs. Aaron Stephenson.

Mr. Stephenson was 56 years old at the time of his death, and up to about two months ago was in the employ of the State Highway Department in Trenton.

During his confinement at the hospital he was visited frequently by his Trenton deaf friends who made every effort to cheer him up.

He was a member of the Newark Division No. 42, N. F. S. D. which was represented at the funeral by Fred King, of Jersey City, and Mr. John H. Ward with Mrs. Ward, of Newark.

Years ago Mr. Stephenson distinguished himself as a professional baseball player. Of powerful build, he stood over six feet and weighed over two hundred pounds. At the time of his death he weighed scarcely a hundred and was but a shadow of his former self.

The deceased was always interested in the affairs of the deaf and served the State Association two terms as its president. He was married to Josephine Hattersley, daughter of a prominent piano dealer, who bore him three fine hearing and speaking girls.


1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920 US Census
New Jersey Birth Records
New Jersey Marriage Records

Obit – Ancestry.com (Originally submitted to Ancestry.com by user Stephen Higham on 06 February 2012.)
FindAGrave.com (Also source of image included here and uploaded to that site by Gordon Brett Echols.)
SABR.org – Brian McKenna’s fine biography of Stephenson.

“The Umpire Hooted.”, Camden Daily Telegram, 21 June 1892, Page 1.

“Won By Hard Hitting”, Philadelphia Times, 11 September 1892, Page 14.

“Pirates Win Again”, Philadelphia Times, 16 September 1892, Page 6.

“Base Ball Chat.”, Harrisburg Telegraph, 06 December 1893, Page 1.

“Stephenson’s Long Drive.”, Philadelphia Times, 10 May 1894, Page 2.

“On the Diamond.”, Harrisburg Telegraph, 14 May 1894, Page 1.

“Allentown’s Alertness.”, Pittsburgh Press, 22 July 1894, Page 8.

“Stephenson Scores Minor Leagues.”, Harrisburg Telegraph, 19 March 1895, Page 1.

“Passed Balls.”, Hazelton Plain Speaker, 03 July 1895, Page 4.

“Cross May Play Short”, Philadelphia Inquirer, 26 March 1896, Page 5.

“Negotiating a Trade.”, Boston Globe, 18 May 1897, Page 5.

“Miss Hattersley’ Wedding Day”, Trenton Evening Times, 26 October 1898, Page 8.

“Looking Backward.”, Camden Daily, June 1899, Page 1.

“Camden Downed at Capital City”, Camden Post-Telegram, 13 August 1903, Page 2.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s