The Way It Was In a tragic tale, Waitkus was a Natural
When 29-year-old first baseman Eddie Waitkus of the Philadelphia Phillies returned to Chicago’s Edgewater Beach Hotel on the shores of Lake Michigan around 11 p.m., he found a mysterious note from a young woman in his mailbox.
“Mr. Waitkus, it’s extremely important that I see you as soon as possible,” it read. “My name is Ruth Anne Burns, and I am in [Room] 1297-A. [. . . ] I won’t take up much of your time.”
The date was June 14, 1949, the tall, attractive woman’s name was really Ruth Ann Steinhagen, and as promised she didn’t take up much of Waitkus’ time. Shortly after he stepped through the door and sat down in a chair, she said, “You’re not going to bother me any more. If I can’t have you, nobody can.” Then she shot him in the chest with a .22-caliber rifle.
If this sounds vaguely familiar, it should. Years later, in a book called “The Natural,” author Bernard Malamud adapted the grim story with his hero, Roy Hobbs, as victim. In 1984, Robert Redford played Hobbs in a memorable movie of the same name.
For Waitkus, however, this was no imaginary tale. Steinhagen was a 19-year-old stalker who had idolized Eddie for years and wept bitterly when her hometown Cubs traded him to the Phillies after the 1948 season.
As you might expect, her fragile psyche was riddled with contradictions. Waitkus, who was hit- ting a career-high .306 in 54 games at the time, surely would have bled to death had Steinhagen not called the hotel desk and said, “I just shot a man.” Then she sat by Waitkus and held his head in her lap until police and an ambulance appeared on the bloody scene.
From his hospital bed the next day, Waitkus identified Steinhagen as the shooter and told police, “She had the coldest face I’ve ever seen.” Eventually, he underwent four operations before returning miraculously the next season to hit .284 in 154 games as the Phillies won their first pennant in 35 years.
As she was being arraigned June 30, Steinhagen said she wasn’t sure why she had shot Waitkus and added, “I’m sorry that Eddie had to suffer, but I had to relieve the tension I have been under the past two weeks.”
A jury found her legally insane, and she was committed to a mental institution. After undergoing shock treatments, she was de- clared sane and released April 17, 1952 — and promptly disappeared into the mists of history.
Waitkus, a slap hitter and fancy fielder, played 11 major league seasons, batting .285 with just 24 home runs and 373 RBI. He was a charter member of the major league Baltimore Orioles in 1954 but played in just 71 games for them in his final two seasons.
Once a gregarious, friendly sort, Waitkus turned understandably suspicious and wary of the world following the shooting. Who could blame him?
After his career ended, things went downhill for Eddie. He worked as a counselor at Ted Williams’ baseball camp but also frequently needed unemployment insurance to get by.
“Eddie was magnificent with the kids,” Williams said. “I always knew Eddie was a great ballplayer, but he was a hell of a man, too.”
Richie Ashburn, a teammate with the Phillies, saw Waitkus in a different light.
“Eddie wasn’t the regular, normal ballplayer,” Hall of Famer Ashburn said. “He wasn’t a rough guy. He didn’t go [into bases] with his spikes high, and he didn’t fight. He was almost an aberration. He read Latin, loved poetry and classical music and was an expert in ballroom dancing. I used to think it was a shame he had to play baseball.”
And even worse, to be a target for a deranged fan who might have succeeded indirectly in killing him 23 years later.
“Cancer of the lung or esophagus can take up to 20 years or more to be fatal,” his son, Eddie Jr., said after Waitkus’ death from the disease at 53 on Sept. 15, 1972. “My dad was never diagnosed with cancer. It wasn’t until after the autopsy that this came out. So I think Ruth Steinhagen might have been more successful than she thought.”