Maryland's other 'Babe' was a star, too

John Steadman

December 11, 1992|By John Steadman

His name in the major-league record book is accompanied b a performance year that shows a batting average of .367, second highest of all time for a catcher, which puts Ernest Gordon "Babe" Phelps in an elite category. He also was a standout in every way the human race is measured before death lowered the curtain yesterday at age 84. Now only the beautiful memories remain.

A member of the Maryland State Athletic Hall of Fame and the Dodgers' Hall of Fame, he played 11 years in the big leagues, seven with Brooklyn, and established a lifetime average of .310. Three times he was named to the National League All-Star team.

He was called Babe after the most famous Babe of them all, Ruth, a fellow Marylander, and they got to know each other with the Dodgers in 1938. Ruth coached first base and gave exhibitions in batting practice that season, an occasion that became pure fun for both men named Babe.

They bet cigars on the number of balls each could hit over the fence in what was a personal contest. "Fans cheered every time Ruth swung the bat," Phelps related in an interview last year. "Take my word, there was never a man to equal him. I was deeply upset when Baltimore didn't name the new park after its greatest hometown hero, who started as an Oriole."

Phelps recalled having a prominent part in stopping the 24-game winning streak of the New York Giants' Carl Hubbell that extended into two seasons. The Dodgers loaded the lineup with left-handed hitters, even though Hubbell was an imposing southpaw. The idea was for the left-handers to move to the front of the box and hit the famous screwball before it broke.

That day, Phelps went 5-for-6, including a homer and triple, as the Dodgers won, 11-2. When Babe reported to Brooklyn, after being claimed on waivers from the Chicago Cubs, manager Casey Stengel congratulated him for a record home run.

"I didn't know what Casey was talking about," said Babe. "Then he explained about an earlier pitch I hit off 'Boom-Boom' Beck. He was then sent to a club in the Pacific Coast League. As Casey figured, it was a 3,000-mile home run."

Before going to the Cubs, Phelps led three minor leagues with awesome batting totals. He was .376 at Hagerstown in the Blue Ridge League, .406 at Parkersburg in the Mid-Atlantic League and .372 at Youngstown in the Central League. Still, after he got to Chicago, he was expendable. The Cubs had Charles "Gabbby" Hartnett, destined for the Hall of Fame, doing their catching, which is why they dispatched Babe to the Dodgers.

The season when Phelps hit .367 is the second best by a regular catcher. Only Forrest "Smoky" Burgess of the 1954 Philadelphia Phillies topped Phelps, and by a mere point. With only two days left on the 1936 schedule, Phelps carried a mark of .372. Stengel gave him the option of staying out of action in an attempt to protect the average and possibly lead the league.

"But I told him I didn't want to do that even though it was nice of him to consider me," Phelps said. "Win or lose the batting title, I wanted to fight it out. And when Paul Waner won it with .373, that was certainly no disgrace, considering the truly wonderful hitter he was."

The only difficulty Phelps had with a manager was when Burleigh Grimes, calling signals from the dugout, was indecisive. Wiping a hand across his chest meant fastball; across his legs, it was to be a curve. With 3-2 on Al Kampouris of the Cincinnati Reds, Phelps looked over and Grimes deliberated. Then he made a sweeping motion, touching his chest and legs.

Phelps accepted the first part of the ambiguous double sign and called a fastball, which Kampouris hit over the fence. Grimes BTC was furious and told Phelps, when he got back to the dugout, he "had caught enough for me today." Babe threw his chest protector toward first base and fired the shin guards in the direction of home plate. Not another word was spoken.

The next day in a team meeting, Grimes asked if there were any questions. "Yes," said Phelps, "was that sign you gave me yesterday for a changeup?" The room rocked in laughter, Grimes enjoyed the light humor and all was forgotten.

Leo Durocher followed Grimes as Dodgers manager and Phelps enjoyed playing for him but didn't respect coach Chuck Dressen.

"I regarded him as a stooge for Larry MacPhail, the club owner, and he once carried a made-up story to the front office that I didn't want to face Max Lanier," he recalled. "That was crazy. I didn't appreciate Dressen telling a lie."

Phelps also was unhappy when the Dodgers became one of the first teams to use airplanes for road trips. "Trains were fast enough for me," he quipped.

The personal stability of Phelps and his church-going ways were recognized and respected by all his friends. The marriage to Mabel, which ended in his death, lasted 63 years.

A viewing for Phelps will be held tomorrow at the Singleton Funeral Home in Glen Burnie with final services at 3 p.m. Sunday at Nichols Bethel United Methodist Church in Odenton, which is only a short pop fly from where he made his lifetime home.

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