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April 28, 2009

You Could Look It Up

Why Babe Phelps and I Weren't in St. Louis Last Week

by Steven Goldman

Last Thursday, Baseball Prospectus had its last event of the 2009 book tour in St. Louis. I was on the bill, and greatly looked forward to being there. I had even arranged a press credential for that day's Mets-Cardinals game, intending to do some comparisons of the newish Busch with the new Yankee Stadium. I never got there, though not for lack of trying. I drove to the airport in plenty of time, patiently and calmly waited at the gate, and boarded my plane. I took my seat, buckled my seatbelt, and rapidly realized that I could not stay. Grabbing my bag, I lowered my shoulder, pushed back down the narrow aisle past passengers still trying to board, and fled.

As I sat at the gate at Newark Liberty Airport last Wednesday morning, excoriating myself, filled with self-disgust, watching my plane roll away, among the many things I said to myself is, "Congratulations. You've officially become Babe Phelps. Now you too are the Grounded Blimp."

Gordon "Babe" Phelps was one of the best-hitting catchers of all time, albeit in a very short career during that golden age of platoon catchers, the 1930s. In one small sense he was, at least for awhile, the greatest hitting catcher of all time—playing for the Dodgers in 1936, he batted .367 in 349 plate appearances (.367/.421/.498 overall), and under the rules of the time was in contention for the batting title. It is still the second-highest batting average for a catcher in a season of 300 or more plate appearances, surpassed only by Smoky Burgess's 1954 batting average of .368 in 1954; Smoky got there in 392 plate appearances. (The highest batting average by a catcher in a full season is .362, a mark shared by Bill Dickey, who got there in 472 PA in 1936, and Mike Piazza, who reached that level in a more-impressive 633 PA.) Phelps was neck and neck with Paul Waner for the National League batting title until the last days of the season, but refused to sit to protect his average, and Big Poison passed him, finishing at .373.

This wasn't the only strong season in Phelps' catalog, and except for a few problems—including my problem—he might have put together a truly remarkable career. Phelps made his minor league debut at 22 years old in 1930, batting .376 with 38 doubles, 19 triples, and 19 home runs. The next season he batted .404 with 15 home runs. The Maryland native made his major league debut with the Washington Senators that September, a three at-bat cup of coffee. Though the Senators didn't have anything great at catcher—they would soon trade for Luke Sewell, who would be the receiver on their 1933 pennant winners—they sent Phelps back out. It's easy to imagine the reason. First, Phelps hadn't yet reached the high minors, so he was inexperienced. In addition, Phelps was never a polished defensive catcher, and had only just been converted to the position from the outfield. It's likely that at this stage of his career his glove game seemed inadequate to those running the team at the time, the old pitchers Walter Johnson (then the manager) and owner Clark Griffith.

Phelps went back to the minors and kept socking, batting .373 with 47 doubles and 26 home runs in 1932. He would get the major league call again the next season. Unfortunately, he was now the property of the Cubs, who had a future Hall of Famer behind the dish in Gabby Hartnett. Hartnett played every day and hit like an outfielder besides, so Phelps sat behind him for the entire 1934 season. They thought so much of his defensive work that that August they signed the 37-year-old catcher Bob O'Farrell to back up Hartnett, so for a while Phelps sank to third on the depth chart.

The Dodgers claimed Phelps off of waivers in January, 1935, but he again found himself stuck behind a veteran catcher eventually bound for the Hall of Fame, this time Al Lopez. Lopez couldn't hit like Hartnett, but was considered solid—in 1935 he was coming off of back-to-back seasons of .301/.338/.376 and .273/.349/.383; the aggregate was just a shade on the good side of league average. Lopez was also considered to be one of the best defensive catchers in the game, garnering frequent "honorable mention" votes in the MVP balloting, votes based purely on his glove work.

Unlike Hartnett, Lopez took the odd day off, so Phelps received 130 plate appearances, a career high to that point, and ran with them, batting .364/.408/.579. For the National League of 1935, where the rabbit-ball action of previous years had calmed down quite a bit, these were sterling numbers. That winter, Phelps caught another break—sort of—in that the Dodgers had quite literally reached the end of their financial string and needed to purge salaries. Their two best players, Lopez and second baseman Tony Cuccinello, were dealt to the Braves. A starting catcher's job, or at least a platoon share of it as right-handed backstop Ray Berres (ironically one of the worst-hitting catchers of all time, with career rates of .216/.260/.255 in 561 career games) had come over from the Braves in the deal. Finally free to play, Phelps had his remarkable 1936 season.

For the next several years, Phelps settled in as a regular, giving the Dodgers enough above-average offense to make three All-Star teams. Defense and game-calling remained a problem. Casey Stengel, Phelps' 1935-36 manager, once asked him why he had failed to call for Dutch Leonard's knuckleball in a crucial game situation, letting the pitcher get beaten on a secondary pitch instead.

"It's hard to catch," Phelps replied.

"Did it ever occur to you," Stengel asked, "that if it's hard to catch it might be hard to hit too?"

Phelps allowed he hadn't thought of that.

Phelps broke his hand three times in 1938, which seems to have affected his offense in 1939, when he had his weakest season at the plate, hitting .285/.336/.418, but he recovered his form in 1940, hitting .295/.349/.492. Phelps was already known as Babe, some say for the way his home runs resembled Ruth's, but this seems unlikely, as he wasn't that kind of power hitter. Any photograph of Phelps suggests a strong alternative reason—he was a heavy, round-headed man. Squatting behind the plate, he looked like a giant baby. By 1938, the weight had earned him a second nickname: "Blimp."

Ironically, Phelps didn't like blimps or any other form of air travel. "The train was fast enough for me," he once said. He was hypochondriacal by nature, with a habit of listening to his heart to make sure it was still beating. Planes frightened him; as it turned out, boats did too. When Larry MacPhail took over the Dodgers and inaugurated the age of air travel in baseball, Phelps' career began to unravel. He tried one flight, hated it, and after that he simply wouldn't get on a plane. The writers started calling him the Grounded Blimp. After 1939, the Dodgers flew to most away games. Phelps took a train and got there when he got there.

I have boarded many planes, though it has never been something I enjoy doing. I used to be afraid of crashing, but except for a brief moment or two of involuntary alarm during takeoff, I no longer worry about that, and once the plane is in the air I always feel fine. My problem is that I have an anxiety disorder centered around claustrophobia. I get into any small space, like a small airplane, and my limbic system goes haywire. My heart rate shoots up. My chest tightens. The ironically named flight response is incredible.

The plane to St. Louis was quite small, not quite a puddle-jumper, but the next step up. The low ceiling scraped my head. My overly large frame barely fit in the seat. The way the aisle was blocked by incoming passengers made me feel as if there was no exit. I imagined what I would feel like when they closed the door. The thought was terrible. I did not panic... but realized I probably would if I stayed, and that even if I was able to tough out the three-hour ride to St. Louis, I might never be able to convince myself to board the plane back home. I had taken two Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication, an hour before boarding, because I have been dealing with this stupid, frustrating, annoying thing for eight years now, and I knew it was possible that I might feel this way. The pills did not help. I felt helpless.

There is a classic Sly Stone song, "Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin)." I would like to be myself again. Until I was about 30 years old I led an anxiety-free life. I did what I wanted, when I wanted, and went where I pleased. One day, somewhere in the summer of 2000, I went out to run an errand and found I could not breathe. Frightened, I returned home, and the symptoms ebbed. This situation repeated itself periodically over the next several months. I went to doctors. They said nothing was wrong with me. One laughed at me and handed me a nebulizer. As the year went on, the feelings became more frequent, and I had an increasingly difficult time getting myself to leave the house. Even when I seemed to be breathing normally, I would start thinking about my breathing, and that was enough to trigger another attack. There were days when I could not only not bring myself to leave the house, but I had a difficult time convincing myself that it was safe to get out of bed.

In 1941, the Dodgers held spring training in Havana, Cuba. Phelps trained down in Florida, but couldn't bring himself to get on the boat. His manager, Leo Durocher, later remarked that apparently Phelps wasn't cut out to be an amphibious blimp either. He waited in Florida for the team to come back. Injuries kept him shelved for the early part of the season, but he had barely gotten back into the lineup when his grounded blimp problems came to a head. Ironically, a plane wasn't even involved. On June 12, the Dodgers were to take a train to St. Louis. Phelps was late. Durocher held the train until it became clear that Phelps wasn't going to show at all. His roommate, third baseman Lew Riggs, confessed to Durocher that he and Phelps had shared a cab to the train station, but that when it came time to get out, Phelps had said he felt ill and wasn't going to go on the road trip. By the time the Dodgers found Phelps, he was back home in Maryland, worrying about his heart. The Dodgers, who had had the 33-year-old thoroughly examined at an earlier date, fined him $1,000, suspended him, and suggested to the press that he had a psychological problem.

When my world had shrunk to the size of a small room, I realized that I needed help. Thus began my eight-year pharmacological odyssey through the world of antidepressants, Paxil, Celexa, and so on. They have crazy side effects, which in my case have most visibly manifested themselves in the form of amazing weight gain. Unfortunately, they are necessary in my case, and they largely work. I still have a bad day every once in awhile, but on the whole I am back to going where I want to go and doing what I want to do. Sometimes I have to think about it a little beforehand, but I always go. I don't like to give in to this thing I have.

The frustrating thing is that I still feel like myself. I don't feel afraid inside. Even when I was in the grips of the worst of the attacks, the rational me was still in here, trying to manage the situation. On the plane to St. Louis I was, at least mentally, completely calm. The physiological reaction was like an overlay, a computer virus that was attacking the mainframe. I wasn't thinking, "Aaagh! Let me out of here!" I was thinking, "Okay, how do I deal with this? How do I overcome this feeling?" It was a measured weighing of pros and cons that led me, in this instance, to get off of the plane. It was the right decision, but I still felt immensely disappointed that I had not been able to push it away, to rise above.

From time to time, I try to quit the drugs that I am on. I hate the side effects, which disrupt my sleep schedule, my short-term memory, and other aspects of day-to-day living. Yet, when I have attempted to quit, as soon as the half-life of the pills has ended, I go back to not breathing again, to the inexplicable fear. "Inexplicable" really is the right word; I've been twice diagnosed with cancer and didn't have a panic attack either time, but stick me in an MRI machine, or Goldfinger's mini-plane, and I can't function despite having a rational understanding of everything that is happening. The chemical process of grounded blimpism overrides all else.

Babe Phelps refused to return to the Dodgers, preferring to load baggage instead. "Preferring" may not be correct, and neither may "choosing." Given his problems, he may not have had a choice. That December, the Dodgers traded him, along with three lesser players, to the Pirates in return for the future Hall of Fame shortstop Arky Vaughan, a heck of a deal for Brooklyn given Phelps's problems. Phelps got into 95 games for the 1942 Pirates, hitting a solid .284/.345/.440. This was his last season in the majors. He didn't play in 1943—I have not been able to ascertain if he was injured, and he doesn't appear to have been in the military. He was traded to the Phillies that December but did not report. The Blimp sailed—or perhaps more properly, walked—into the sunset.

As for this grounded blimp, I will persevere with air travel. I've not had a problem flying on larger planes, so I guess I'm more likely to appear at the next BP event on the West Coast than on anything that requires a short hop to the Midwest on an X-Wing fighter. I remain committed to losing my Paxil 50 (60? 70?) so perhaps one day I'll be more of a grounded balloon, or grounded sausage casing, or something like that. I'll never hit .367 like Phelps did, but looking on the bright side, being a pseudo-shut-in gives you plenty of time to write, and perhaps one day that will lead to a book of nearly that quality. Though the body can't fly, the mind remains untethered.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

Related Content:  Out Of My League,  Back,  The Who,  Time,  Trade To Dodgers

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