The Way It Was In a tragic tale, Waitkus was a Nat­u­ral

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY DICK HELLER

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.”

Trag­i­cally so.

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