Babe Phelps Had Talent -- And Problems

January 2, 1935 was a cold an blustery day in Brooklyn but in the team's offices at 210 Montague Street the warmth of the 1934 season was still lingering. Despite finishing in sixth place, the Dodgers had beaten the Giants 5-1 and 8-5 in the final twogames of the season, knocking their rivals out of the pennant behind new manager Casey Stengel.

(Ed. Note: We had a number of comments about the previous catcher's hitting records, and wondering who Phelps was. Here is his story).

That afternoon in January, they obtained a young catcher by the name of Gordon Phelps from the Chicago Clubs at the waiver price. Used sparingly, Phelps had hit .286 in 1933 and 1934 and while Al Lopez was only 25 years old, the Dodgers thought Phelps would provide a backup for him and a strong left-handed bat off the bench.

Little did they realize that they were adding a catcher who would hit .364 and .367 the next two seasons and who would become a three-time National League All-Star before leaving when personal problems overwhelmed him.

The young man worked as a baggage handler for the railroad in Baltimore during the off-season and he arrived in Brooklyn with plenty of baggage of his own, some of which cut his career short.

He was born on April 19, 1908, in Odenton, Maryland. As he grew, the youngster attracted the attention of a team in Bowie, Maryland. Hired to play in a crucial series, Phelps was 6-for-7 at the plate, and was instrumental in the win.

The Washington Senators signed him and sent him to Hagerstown in the Blue Ridge league in 1930. He promptly battered the pitchers there for a .373 average. At the end of the 1931 season he saw his first major league action and was 1-for-3.

He split time in the outfield and behind the plate and he picked up the nickname 'Babe' because of his resemblance to the New York star. Blossoming to 6'2", 235-pounds just reinforced the name.

Sold to Chicago, he hit .286 in 1933 and 1934 each season while getting into only 47 games. The Cubs were contenders and with future Hall of Famer Gabby Hartnett behind the plate had no need for the 26-year-old.

Casey Stengel had just replaced Max Carey as manager of the Dodgers and he was quick to recognize Phelps' remarkable bat. Working in a platoon with Al Lopez, he banged out a .364 average in 47 games and impressing Stengel with his pinch hitting talents.

He was not a strong defensively catcher, but his bat was needed in the weak Brooklyn lineup.

Lopez was traded to the Pirates in 1936 and Phelps split the catching duties with Ray Berres. With the two catchers going righty-lefty as the need occurred, it was probably the first attempt by Stengel to utilize the platoon system he later perfected with the Yankees.

Phelps thrived, slugging .367 in 319 at bats over 115 games and finishing second in the National League to Paul Waner of Pittsburgh who posted a .373 average. Qualification for the batting title was to have played in 100 games. Phelps .367 mark is still the record for a catcher qualifying for the batting crown.

Stengel was fired in 1937, Burleigh Grimes took over the team and Phelps caught 111 games, recording a batting average of .313, and leading the team in doubles (37), extra base hits (47), and slugging percentage (.469).

Phelps helped end the streak of the Giant's Carl Hubbell, on May 31, 1937, at the Polo Grounds. Hubbell had won 24-consecutive games but the Dodgers banged out a 10-3 victory, keyed by a 5-for-5 day at the plate by Phelps.

Injuries limited Phelps playing time to only 66 games with 208 at bats in 1938 but he hit .308. With his girth expanding along with his success, he picked up the name 'Blimp' and it stuck to him the rest of his career.

He was named to the 1938 National League All-Star team, and repeated in 1939 and 1940. New GM Larry MacPhail added lights at Ebbets Field and Phelps caught the inaugural game. Cincinnati southpaw Johnny Vander Meer made it a night to remember by pitching his second consecutive no-hitter.

The same year, Babe Ruth was hired as a Dodger coach and he and Phelps became friends. The two engaged in an unofficial contest during batting practice before games to see who could hit the most b.p. home runs. With a cigar going to the winner each day, Phelps kept Ruth in cigars the remainder of the season.

The Bums finished a disappointing seventh in 1938, marking the end of Grimes' and making way for Leo Durocher in his managerial debut in 1939.

Phelps was again was the regular catcher in 1939. However, only played 99 games and recorded a batting average of .285.

During the 1939 campaign, Phelps caught for the Dodgers in the first televised Dodger game on August 26, at Ebbets Field. Cincinnati won 5-2 as Phelps singled and scored a run in the second inning, the Dodger runs ever to appear on television.

Under new manager Durocher, the Dodgers had finished third and the atmosphere was changing in Brooklyn. One of the changes came when MacPhail decided the Dodgers should fly between game.

After completing a three game series with the Cardinals on May 7, the Dodgers flew to Chicago. Phelps initially refused to go on the flight. Durocher, after much coaxing, finally convinced him but after they landed Phelps vowed he would never fly again. On the return trip from Chicago to Brooklyn, Phelps took a train and newspapers covering the Dodgers now called him "The Grounded Blimp."

The 1940 Dodgers finished second and Phelps appeared in 118 games, hit .295 and slugged a career-high 13 homers. But Durocher started looking for a better defensive catcher.

MacPhail was able to obtain veteran catcher Mickey Owen from the Cardinals. Owen was great behind the plate but was a light hitter and he seemed to be a perfect compliment to Phelps.

The Dodgers planned to spend much of the 1941 spring training in Havana, Cuba. Obviously, the only way you could get there was either by plane or boat and Phelps refused to use either mode of transportation so he returned to the Dodger base in Florida and waited for the team to return.

This incident angered Durocher and solidified Owen as his starting catcher for the regular season. The Blimp was starting to deflate.

When the season started, Phelps' came up with a sore arm that kept him out of the lineup. Then he broke a finger and was out for a month. He returned to the lineup before the team started a road trip on June 12, but he failed to show up at the train station.

Leo Durocher was unable to find his veteran catcher and he even delayed the train, hoping that Phelps would show up. He finally reached him by phone before the train left but Phelps refused to come to the station, citing health reasons.

Finally the team left without him.

Phelps, who had been checking with his doctor about what he felt was a heart problem, moved his family back to Maryland. Phelps seemed to feel that if his heart did not maintain a proper rhythm of beats, the result could be fatal. He personally would monitor the beating of his heart to the extent of staying awake all night.

MacPhail was furious and suspended Phelps for his unauthorized absence plus fining him $1,000.

Doctors examined the catcher and declared Phelps was basically healthy. They reported he was a neurasthenic -- a person who imagines things. Today he would have been called a hypochondriac.

Teammate Freddie Fitzsimmons, in an interview years later, commented that some players (perhaps speaking about Phelps) could not take the strain of bearing down every day in the heat of a pennant race.

Blimp returned home to Maryland, where he sat out the rest of the season, watching as his team nailed down the National League pennant and lose to the Yankees in the World Series.

In December. Brooklyn traded Phelps, along with Pete Coscarart, Luke Hamlin and Jimmy Wasdell to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Arky Vaughn after seven seasons in Brooklyn.

In 1942 Phelps again sharing catching duties with former Dodger teammate Al Lopez and hit .284 in 95 games while the Pirates finished fifth.

After the close of that season, Phelps was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for veteran first sacker Babe Dahlgren. Phelps retired after the season and stayed in Odenton to work for the railroad.

He died in 1992, probably never knowing he had recorded the highest batting average of any catcher in Major League history -- a title he still owns today. (Sources: Cort Vitty, SABR; Frank Graham "The Brooklyn Dodgers"; Baseball Reference. com, The Sporting News.)

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