Submit chat questions for Craig Goldstein (Wed Aug 5 at 1:00 pm EDT)

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 MetsCardinals 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.

Thank you for reading

This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.

Subscribe now
You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe

Hang in there. We're all rooting for you.
Absolutely!!!! and don't let anyone give you any gruff. As you noted, this is a physiological disorder, it has nothing to do with your mental state, your personality, or your emotions.

Good luck, dude. My daughter and mother-in-law hate to fly; my Dad did it for 2 decades and then simply refused to go airborne anymore; and my late Mom worked for TWA and NEVER ONCE took advantage of the employee flying privileges. Just remember, it could be worse - you could be allergic to chocolate or be a bocce fan (not that there's anything wrong with that...)
I appreciate your honesty and openness about your struggle. I hope this column gets forwarded to a number of people who can benefit by knowing that they're not alone. The picture you've painted is grim and I empathize with you. It does really make you think about people like Phelps who were afflicted during a time when there was little knowledge of these types of disorders in the medical community and there were no medicines or treatments (electroshock and lobotomy were the two main options available at that time to try to improve patients considered to have a mental defect) to help with the symptoms. To have to try to deal with these types of feelings in a public forum and during a time when physically healthy people of the same age were going to fight the 'war to end all wars' must have been extremely difficult. I don't mention this to discount in any way what you are living with; just as a nod of appreciation for the age we're living in and the progress yet to be made both in medical options available and in the public perception of these types of illnesses.
Having (fortunately) never had to experience something like the condition you write about, Steven, I am somewhat at a loss for how to wish you well. I do hope that one day you are able, somehow, to over come your affliction to what ever extent that makes you happy. Further, I am thankful Philadelphia is close enough for you to travel to during the annual BP book tours, and hope the sometimes off beat people of this fine city do not trigger your illness. I admire your candor as well as your writing, and wish you the best of luck with everything.
Awesome article. Really good.

Oh, and one thing my mother always said was that if emotions were rational, they wouldn't be emotions and that if you could control it, it wouldn't be a compulsion. I wouldn't beat yourself up too much.

After all, you still have an absolutely kick-ass job.
I hope this doesn't come off the wrong way.

As someone who has had mild anxiety related to house break ins I've been able to control it by throwing myself behind an objective lens for the past several years saying to myself "You live in a safe, suburban neighborhood. There are never any break ins and the chances of there being one now are close to nil." I think its a Hindu concept to look at your life in the third person in order to evaluate things objectively. Have you ever tried saying "Steve, tens of thousands of people fly every day without incident. Its makes no sense to think you're the exception?"

Again, I hope this doesn't come of as insensitive. I'll concede I may not be capable of being sympathetic to more severe cases of anxiety since I've never experienced them. Really, I only post this out of a genuine curiosity of how out of control people feel under these anxiety attacks.
That's what makes a mental issue a mental issue. If you're upset because you lost your job, you aren't depressed--that's rational. Depression or anxiety disorders exist when you can tell yourself, with the rational part of your brain, "there is no reason I should feel this way," and it doesn't work. The fact that you can't reason yourself out of it is what makes it a disorder and not just a reasonable reaction to unfortunate circumstances.

I was very close with someone who suffered from depression and the Lexapro didn't actually make her happier, it made her able to control her emotions. She still got upset, but when she went into a funk she could pull herself out of it in a reasonable amout of time rather than staying there long after what caused the problem was gone. it was a blessing

Jack, what you describe in your second paragraph is the way that antidepressants work for me. The doctor who prescribes these things for me once said, "You seem okay, but you don't really seem happy."

I said, "Well, you're right, but I didn't think the pills were supposed to do that. If you want me to be happy, why don't you prescribe something that induces euphoria?"

"I'd like to," he sighed, "but those are all illegal."
I would have throughly enjoyed your article if it were half as long and only talked about your own personal experience with anxiety. Tying in Babe Phelps' struggle with the same problem was genius, and this has ended up being one of my favorite BP articles of the last five years.

Thanks for writing.
Follow up thought: From the logos, this looks like an article restricted to subscribers of Baseball Prospectus. If there's a way to turn off that restriction for one article, I'd recommend doing it for this one. I'd love to link to it, but it'd be sad if people could only read the first two paragraphs...
Already anticipated that request, smdavis, and already opened up for the consumption of one and all. Definitely appreciate the thought, to be sure. ;)
Excellent piece, Steven. I wish you the best in your fight against depression, as well as the best to those who support you.

By the way, any chance to mention Walter Johnson is one that can not be passed up on!

Again, good luck to you and yours. Writing can be some of the best medicine, so I look forward to the onslaught of well written articles that will come from your "pseudo-shut-in" lifestyle!
Great stuff, Steven. I love the statistical analysis that BP brings on a daily basis, but it's always refreshing to get some personal info on writers. I don't know if it helps inform future articles on baseball, but it gives me a little more insight on who I'm reading, which makes me generally connect better with the piece.

It would seem that Mr. Goldman didn't have the Spirit of St. Louis rushing through his veins that day. Can't say that I'm much of a fan of flight, myself.
Steven, I am convinced I am going to die every time I fly so I enjoyed that aspect of the article because I can relate. My friends and family all this it's hilarious as well, which I don't get, but I fly regardless without medication. Well, there is always the occasional stay up all night or have a drink or two, but that's not always feasible. I digress, but I really enjoyed the article.

So I was interested in the article for a few reasons, the first having to do with flying and the second with baseball history. I know very little about the history of baseball other than the books I have read and other programs I have watched. The same people who laugh about my flying, also think it's funny that I love baseball. So I received the token Christmas present; Sporting News page a day calendar (shaped like a baseball for irony) for my desk at work. I usually can nail all the rule questions and post 2000 questions, but when they ask a trivia question as it relates to old stats, usually I am in the dark and just guessing. Not today Steve, because I finished your article and the baseball said....................

Since 1900, who had the highest batting average among all catchers?

A. Piazza
B. Dickey
C. Phelps
D. Campanella

Oh the irony, it almost hurts. I learned something today and hopefully I won't get fired for my internet usage leaving this message.

Good luck with the anxiety in the future sir!

Never before have biography and autobiography been so seamlessly melded together in such a pertinent, informative and entertaining fashion. Excellent!
I, too, have experience with manic-depressive attacks. I received them with some regularity during high school and a little less frequently while serving in the Israeli army. And then they disappeared. I cannot now remember my last bout, but I can recall the sensation of absolutely crippling gloom. I would be unable to so much as swallow or chew.

I can offer no advice but to persevere - you are a highly talented writer and thinker. I recently read "Forging Genius" wishing only that more biographies were written in so thoroughly researched yet imminently readable style.

Today, my respect for you has grown.

Southwest Airlines has a 100% Boeing 737 fleet.
I first came across Babe Phelps's very fine track record about 20 years ago while searching for the best Maryland-born players, but had no idea about the rest of the story. Thanks for all these narrative profiles of semi-forgotten greats, Steven; this column is like the "In Search Of"/Paul Harvey corner of BP.

Best of luck managing your condition.
Fantastic article Stephen. Mixing the personal with the historical is risky business in so many ways, but you've got control of your keyboard, for sure. And listen to your doctors.

drawbb: Grove, Phelps, Texiara, Ripken, Dugan, Ripken, Kaline, Anderson, Ruth, Foxx at DH. As long as the team plays all its games at home, it would be tough to beat.
Thank you for sharing this Steven. Hopefully it was cathartic to write.
I also am diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, though it doesn't show itself in airplanes, particularly. My biggest thing is driving on an Interstate. If I'm surrounded by cars going 70 or 80, I panic. Needless to say, this is not a great time to think you're going to faint.

Like you, I sometimes take my drugs (Lexapro and Klonopin), and then stop. I don't like the idea of my life being run by something other than me, though the rational part of me sees the fallacy in this.

Good luck to you.
I suggested to Alex Belth that we excerpt your story for a piece on the "Banter", and we worked together to put this out there: