Sundays won't be same for the Phelpses

SIDELINES

December 11, 1992|By PAT O'MALLEY

Sunday afternoons at Granddad's playing baseball may neve be the same, but the family of Ernest Gordon "Babe" Phelps need only look out in his Odenton back yard and close their eyes.

It shall always be their field of dreams.

For all of his 84 years, Babe, who died yesterday morning with Mabel, his wife of 62 years, at his bedside, lived in Odenton. He lost a yearlong bout with cancer.

"Our fondest memories will be playing baseball in Granddad's backyard every Sunday after church," said Craig Engler.

"Granddad put in a home plate and pitcher's mound and my brother Kevin and I used to play home run derby out there. And often, he and my dad would come out and play, too. It was something we did every Sunday."

Phelps, who caught 11 seasons in the major leagues and had a .310 career batting average, will be buried Sunday next to the Nichols Bethel United Methodist Church in Odenton. A 3 p.m. service will be held.

Outsiders knew Babe as a great major-league catcher who played for the Washington Senators, Chicago Cubs, Brooklyn Dodgers and Pittsburgh Pirates, but to his family and friends, he was a big-league man.

It was in January 1985, that Rev. James Manning, the pastor at Nichols Bethel, gave Babe the surprise of his life. From the pulpit at Sunday service, the reverend informed the congregation that Phelps was to be inducted into the Maryland Athletic Hall of Fame.

TC "When he read the announcement, everybody got up and gave me a big hand," Babe told me back then. "We have a wonderful congregation and everybody knows me and that was probably the biggest surprise I've ever had."

That was the first of Babe's three Hall of Fame inductions. He laterwould be inducted into the Brooklyn Dodgers Hall, and last year he was the first of five to be enshrined at the Anne Arundel County Sports Hall of Fame inaugural.

His inductions were the result of his colorful major-league career, most of which was spent with the Dodgers. Babe broke in with the Senators in the American League in 1931 and played in three games with the Cubs in 1933 before being traded to the Dodgers, where he had his best seasons.

An imposing 6-foot-2, 225-pound left-handed-hitting catcher who got his nickname from his resemblance to Babe Ruth, Phelps served notice early that he could swing the bat. He batted .374 while making $500 his first season in the minors.

Phelps, who hit .300 or better five times in his career, had arguably the greatest year ever by a major-league catcher in 1936. Of the 12 catchers in the Baseball Hall of Fame, none ever hit .367 in a season.

The .367 clip, including 57 RBI and five homers, was second only to the .373 put up by National League batting champion Paul Waner of Pittsburgh.

In Brooklyn, Babe played under legendary skippers Leo Durocher and Casey Stengel.

"I hated Leo's guts when I played against him, but when I played for him, he took to me like a glove," Babe once told me. "As for Stengel, Casey was one of the smartest baseball minds ever. Everybody thought he was dumb, but he wasn't."

Babe's big-league career wasn't without excitement off the field . He only played 16 games in 1941 because he was suspended by Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis for refusing to make a trip.

"I took a train to Miami, but then they wanted me to take a boat trip to Cuba," Babe recalled in 1985. "But I told the ballclub, the hell with it, I'm not going to any damn Cuba."

The following season, which was to be his last, he became the only man in major-league history to be suspended for not signing his contract.

Landis got him again, sitting the catcher down for a few days after he refused to sign his contract by May 1.

Babe ended up playing in only 95 games with Pittsburgh in 1942 and announced his retirement at age 34 to serve his country in World War II. Phelps became a train dispatcher at Fort Meade, handling troop movements at one of the country's busiest induction centers.

"He taught us to be committed and never give less than 100 percent," said Engler, who is one of Babe's four grandchildren. Babe has five great-grandchildren as well.

And maybe that Sunday ritual in which Ed and Janet (Babe's daughter) Engler used to take their kids -- Kevin, Craig, Gwen and Keith -- over to Babe's after church will become their children's ritual.

Craig's 3-year-old son Christopher might want to play catch out back with his dad.

"My son sat on Granddad's bed the night before he died and told him he wanted to be a baseball player just like him," said Craig.

His reward was a kiss and a twinkle in Granddad's eyes.

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