It's not baseball that the two thirty-something 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�-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 his friends."
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."