Waite "Schoolboy" Hoyt helped spark and define the New York Yankees dynasty
I had known Christopher Waite Hoyt for at least two years before he first mentioned his famous father. We were driving back to Connecticut from a meeting at Ogilvy & Mather some 30 years ago and I think Chris was just bored and trying to make conversation.
“My father was a Hall of Fame pitcher for the 1927 New York Yankees,” he intoned out of nowhere, giving me a sideways glance, and then waiting for my reaction. I sat up straight and excitedly asked, “What was his name?” When he replied, “Waite Hoyt” I nearly said, “Who … What Hoyt?” I had no idea who he was.
In his day – a hundred years ago now – Waite Charles Hoyt was fabulously famous. At age 15 he was headline news. He was the “schoolboy wonder,” the youngest athlete ever signed to a major-league baseball team. Even while he was dragging himself through the muck of Minor League baseball, ostensibly in preparation for his inevitable Major League debut, he was recognized and feted as a teenage sensation.
While playing for a team in Lynn, Massachusetts, he paid a visit to Fenway Park during a day off to watch Babe Ruth pitch and was announced to the crowd, celebrity-style. Soon after making it to the bigs, he became a pop-culture fixture, so much so that his name alone could sell out the biggest venues in vaudeville. Everybody wanted to see the great Yankee pitcher sing and dance.
Waite Hoyt was not Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig famous, but he was Ruth-Gehrig adjacent. The rest of the team was, too, but other than perhaps the manager, Miller Huggins, none is well remembered, either. Most people today couldn’t pick Herb Pennock, Tony Lazzeri or Joe Dugan out of a starting lineup.
People came to the ball parks to see home runs, not fastballs. Ruth had an outsized persona that defined baseball as the national pastime. He also had a publicist. His legacy endures because he personified the game, and still does. Gehrig brought a certain wholesomeness to the game, and of course the tragic end to his story still echoes in the heart and soul of popular consciousness, not just that of baseball fans.
Waite stands apart because the combination of his power pitching and Ruth’s and Gehrig’s power hitting, set the standard for the Yankees dynasty for decades to come. While no one had a personality as big as Ruth’s, Waite was easily one of the most colorful characters on the team, and in all of baseball. He was funny, astonishingly articulate, and loved the limelight.
Beyond his vaudeville theatrics, where he twinkled with the stars of the day, he was a part-time mortician and great tabloid copy. He even married a glamorous and then-prominent socialite, Ellen Burbank, who is now even more forgotten than Waite.
On the flip side, precisely because his lifestyle was noteworthy outside the diamond, he never fulfilled his potential as a baseball player. Even during his decade with the Yankees, in the 20s, his brilliance flashed brightest in just three seasons: 1921, 1927 and 1928. After he was bounced from the team in 1929 he intermittently exhibited glimpses of his gifts, but his taste for show business and the nightlife mostly got the better of him. He ended his career with 237 wins, which isn’t bad, but it also isn’t the 300 games that Waite, himself, believed he could have otherwise achieved.
Other than the vagaries of time itself, which has sent many erstwhile celebrities into obscurity, Waite Hoyt surely would be better remembered had he performed more consistently. No argument there. But he did make it into the National Baseball Hall of Fame (along with a lot of other long-forgotten stars), which isn’t nothing.
Waite did, of course, enjoy a second round of fame as the beloved voice of the Cincinnati Reds, a role he played for 24 years. He was amused that so many of his fans knew him better as a radio personality than a baseball player, and not surprisingly he is best remembered in Cincinnati today. Such is the power of recency, not to mention the fickle flame of fame.
Given his place as the youngest of players in the early days of baseball, the pitcher who sparked the Yankees dynasty; his heroics when he was hitting on all cylinders; personification of all that was the Roaring ‘20s; and his pioneering role as one of the first former athletes to succeed in the broadcast booth, the “who, what, when, where, and why” of Waite Hoyt should be better remembered.