It's not baseball that the two thirtysomething mothers of
toddler daughters wanted to discuss with former New York Yankee
Gil McDougald one morning last May at Bellevue Hospital in New
York City. Chances were the women had not even been born when
McDougald was a five-time All-Star infielder on the powerhouse
Yankees teams of the 1950s. What drew them together was a
remarkable device called a cochlear implant (a 1 1/2-inch disc
of titanium, silicone and platinum attached by a thin wire to a
microcomputer small enough to be worn in a pocket) that had
brought sound into the lives of the little girls and returned
McDougald to the hearing world.
For almost 25 years McDougald was profoundly deaf, the result of
being hit in the head by a batted ball when he was with the
Yankees, and the implant, which he received in 1994, has ended
the social isolation that came with his hearing loss. It has
helped him reconnect with old friends, and, more poignant, carve
out a new career as an advocate for the hearing impaired.
Since receiving the implant, McDougald has become a sought-after
speaker on the subject of deafness. Last October, for example,
he made seven appearances at events for hearing organizations.
He also joined Heather Whitestone, Miss America 1995, who is
deaf, before a U.S. Senate subcommittee that was taking
testimony on funding cuts for the disabled.
"When I quit baseball, I didn't think I'd ever have to do
another interview," says McDougald, 68, who approaches his new
mission with a homespun evangelical fervor. "But name
association is so important. I have a role to play, which is to
make people aware of the benefits of this technology. When you
meet little children with implants, it's amazing what they can
do. Look at them and you can feel the joy it gives them to be
able to communicate."
"I remember thinking that Gil could be somebody to help get the
word out," says Noel Cohen, chief of otolaryngology and a
leading cochlear implant surgeon at New York University Medical
Center, who performed the operation on McDougald. "He's really
taken to it."
Former teammate Bobby Brown has rediscovered the real Gil
McDougald. "Except for playing golf, Gil had really become a
recluse," says Brown, a retired doctor, an ex-president of the
American League and a friend of McDougald's for more than 40
years. "But since he can hear again, he's his old self and able
to contribute. It's an emotional thrill for all of us who are
The cause of McDougald's withdrawal from his friends occurred
during batting practice before a game in 1955. While standing
near second base behind a protective fence, he reached just
beyond it to pick up a ball as teammate Bob Cerv sent a line
drive in his direction. The batted ball hit McDougald above the
left ear. He collapsed and was later taken to the hospital.
Doctors thought it was a concussion and told him he would be
O.K.--in fact, he missed only a couple of games--but they failed
to detect that the accident had fractured his skull and damaged
his inner ear. He soon lost most of the hearing in his left ear,
and gradually the hearing in his right ear diminished.
McDougald left baseball after the 1960 season, though not
primarily because of his hearing loss. His decision to retire at
age 32 was the result of the wear of travel, the demands of
managing a burgeoning building-maintenance business and his
desire to spend more time with his wife, Lucille, and their
growing family. But by the early '70s, even with hearing aids,
McDougald was having increasing difficulty comprehending sounds,
let alone the conversation of friends. He retreated, even
leaving the dinner table early most nights because he couldn't
participate in family discussions. He could no longer have phone
conversations, so he stopped calling friends and no longer
joined the banquet circuit with old Yankees teammates. The
disability made running a business hard as well, and McDougald
sold his company in '85.
Over the years McDougald had tried a number of hearing aids, but
they had been ineffective. By 1975 the imperfect art of lip
reading had become his primary means of communication, but
McDougald says he would miss every other word.
Even McDougald's job at Fordham University, where he coached the
baseball team from 1970 to '76, became too difficult. "It was
getting so frustrating that I couldn't communicate when I wanted
to," he says. "I'd try to explain a point to one of the kids,
and it just didn't work, so I quit."
McDougald is not a compelling public speaker, but he makes
himself an effective advocate for the hearing impaired by simply
telling his story--how he went deaf, how he endured years of
isolation and how his life has changed since the cochlear
implant. "You can blame the Man Upstairs, but there's a reason
for everything," McDougald says. "You learn to just accept it
and be positive."
Cohen recalls that when he and McDougald appeared on Good
Morning America on Jan. 5, 1995 (two days after the implant had
been activated), to discuss the operation, McDougald was "scared
to death." After all, it had been 30 years since he had been in
the hearing world.
But with his hearing restored, McDougald's speech and diction
have improved, and with them his self-confidence and affability.
Barely a day passes when the phone doesn't ring at his rambling
22-room Spanish colonial house in Spring Lake, N.J.--just a
block from the Atlantic Ocean--with a request for McDougald to
address another group. And, finally, he can enjoy what has
become a very active retirement with Lucille, to whom he has
been married for 49 years, their seven children, nine
grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Gil's "new history," as Lucille puts it, started July 10, 1994,
the day that a story by sports columnist Ira Berkow appeared in
The New York Times telling of McDougald's hearing loss and
withdrawal from friends and business. That morning Lucille
received a call from Stephen Epstein, an otolaryngologist who
directs The Ear Center in Wheaton, Md., and is an avid Yankees
fan. Epstein recommended that McDougald consult Cohen.
"As soon as I examined Gil, I knew he was someone who could
benefit from a cochlear implant," says Cohen, who rooted for the
Brooklyn Dodgers as a boy. "It wasn't a question of whether he
was a good candidate; the question was when could we do it."
The 3 1/2-hour operation took place on Nov. 29, 1994. The
implant does not restore normal sound through amplification.
Rather, the microcomputer, about the size of a pager, converts
sound into electronic signals that are sent by wire to the
implant, which is a tiny receiver attached to an electrode that
stimulates the cochlea, an organ in the inner ear that processes
Not all deaf people can benefit from a cochlear implant. The
success of the device depends on, among other factors, how long
a person has been deaf and whether he or she learned to speak
before the onset of deafness. But for people like McDougald,
who have lost their hearing as adults, the implant can often
mean a dramatic restoration of hearing.
On Jan. 3, 1995--"a very memorable day," the understated
McDougald says--his implant was activated. With Lucille and one
of their daughters, Denise Costigan, by his side, Gil was given
a series of four words to repeat: football, sidewalk, cowboy and
outside. He heard them all and repeated each one perfectly.
"I didn't hear the words very clearly at first, but I heard them
clearly enough to know what they were," Gil says. "It certainly
was a surprise." Denise puts it more succinctly: "It's a miracle."
Today baseball dinners are again a joy for McDougald, who can be
persuaded to spin the occasional Casey Stengel yarn. There are
sports to watch and listen to on television--basketball is his
current favorite--and the ensuing good-natured grousing about
play-by-play announcers who don't understand the game.
McDougald figures that he gets about 50 letters a month from
hearing-impaired people and their families, and he tries to
answer every one. "There's a real need to build awareness of the
technology, particularly as you get farther out from the big
cities," he says.
"When you're fortunate and something good happens, even though
you weren't expecting anything, that's when the payback comes.
When you see the progress, particularly with little children,
it's so satisfying. It's like hitting a home run with the bases
Jim Reisler's three-year-old daughter, Julia, has a cochlear
implant like Gil McDougald's.
B/W PHOTO: MARK KAUFFMAN The 1950s' Yankees infielder now wears a microcomputer (on belt) that helps him hear. [Gil McDougald playing baseball]
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON [See caption above--Gil McDougald]
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMONAfter years of self-imposed isolation, McDougald can share a laugh with friends like Richard Day. [Gil McDougald and Richard Day]