By Scott A. Rowan
No other team in professional sports history has had more team members shot under mysterious circumstances than the Chicago Cubs. It isn’t a record to be proud of, but it’s also undeniable.
In 1932, shortstop Billy Jurges was shot by Violet Valli, a lovesick girlfriend who also helped blackmail the former player. In 1951, pitcher Hi Bithorn was shot and killed by a Mexican police officer who was eventually found guilty of murder and sentenced to eight years in prison. In 2012, former Cubs manager Dave Sveum was accidentally shot in the back and ear while quail hunting with Milwaukee Brewers icon Robin Yount. But none of these incidents had the historic impact of the story of Eddie Waitkus, who was shot by an obsessed teenager with a .22 rifle in 1949. Waitkus’ life became the basis for one of the most popular baseball movies of all time, The Natural.
Released in the second week of May 1984, The Natural debuted at No. 1, where it stayed for most of May thanks largely to the big-screen presence of star Robert Redford in the role of Roy Hobbs, a baseball player shot by deranged fan Harriet Bird (played by Barbara Hershey). Based on Bernard Malamud’s novel of the same name, The Natural was a fictional story largely based on Waitkus’ shooting by obsessed fan Ruth Ann Steinhagen on June 14, 1949.
The Natural is the tenth-highest grossing baseball film of all time, having earned $47 million in box office receipts, and most critics rank it as one of the best baseball films ever made. When the editors of ESPN.com ranked the all- time best moments in baseball film history, The Natural took three of the top 10 scenes—including the No. 1 moment, in which Hobbs’ knocks out a home run that hits a light tower. The other two were Hobbs’ home run off the clock tower, ranked No. 5, and Hobbs’ striking out “the Whammer,” ranked No. 10. (The only other film in ESPN’s list to earn more than one mention was Major League, which had two spots in the list of top 10 moments and had its own connections to the Cubs.)
ESPN.com also listed the Waitkus shooting as one of the top 10 real-life shocking moments in baseball history, placing it seventh on the list. The Waitkus shooting is fascinating for several reasons. First, Waitkus was a war hero, having served in the army in 1944 and 1945 in the Pacific theater and earning four battle stars. Second, Waitkus didn’t even know Steinhagen. This real-life attempted murderer was even more deranged than her counterpart in The Natural, who had at least met Hobbs before shooting him. Third, the shooting brought Waitkus, a former All-Star, closer to death than any action he saw in World War II and this strange, horrible incident altered Waitkus’ personality and career for the worse. Finally, while few athletes are ever attacked by a fan, and fewer still are shot by one, none have ever had a Hollywood icon the likes of Redford play them in a box-office hit about their story like The Natural.
After returning home from World War II, Waitkus proved himself a welcome addition to the 1946 Cubs, hitting .304 with 55 RBI and committing only four errors at first base. He finished 13th in Most Valuable Player voting in his first full season (he played only 12 games for the Cubs in 1941 before being drafted), and was “acknowledged as the best fielding first baseman in the league.” After going through a sophomore slump, Waitkus rebounded and was voted an All-Star in 1948 and 1949 (although he received the second nod largely for sentimental reasons after he was shot).
Waitkus was one of the few bright spots on an otherwise moribund Cubs team that finished under .500 for five straight seasons. That brought him some notoriety, which would normally be great for any up-and-coming starter. But Waitkus’ newfound fame garnered him the unfortunate attention of Steinhagen, a troubled young woman. After the shooting, Steinhagen confessed that as a child, she had killed the family’s pet canary and wanted to hurt her family members, saying, “At 10 or 12 years of age, I had a feeling I was going crazy, and a little later on I had a horrible desire to kill my mother.” Steinhagen later said that once she saw Waitkus, she became obsessed with him to the point that she saved every photo of him; created a shrine to him in her home; and pretended that he was walking, talking, and even eating dinner with her.
On December 14, 1948, the Cubs traded Waitkus to the Philadelphia Phillies in a four- player swap. Steinhagen was mentally and emotionally crushed. She sent letters to the Cubs and local newspapers beseeching them to bring Waitkus back. Her parents, knowing Steinhagen was unbalanced, took her to two psychiatrists, but nothing seemed to work. With the object of her fixation in Philadelphia, Steinhagen began talking about how she was going “to get Eddie.”
Knowing the Phillies were scheduled to play in Chicago in mid-June, Steinhagen bought a rifle at a pawn shop to avoid having to get a gun permit and made a reservation at the Edgewater Beach Hotel (GeoVerse™230), where the Phillies stayed when they were in town. On Monday, June 13, she checked into the Edgewater and was given the keys to room 1297-A, where she unpacked a three-and-half inch paring knife and a .22 caliber rifle. Her plan was to kill Waitkus with the knife and then kill herself with the rifle.
Steinhagen did not attempt to contact Waitkus during her first night at the hotel, having drinks in her room with a friend, Helen Farazis, instead. Farazis later told authorities that Steinhagen had talked about her plans “to get Eddie.” But Farazis hadn’t taken the comments seriously.
Sadly, the next day the world would learn just how serious the 19-year-old typist was. Prior to checking in to the hotel, Steinhagen had carefully prepared a note to lure Waitkus to her room. She paid a bellboy $5 to deliver her note, which read:
It is extremely important that I see you as soon as possible. We’re not acquainted, but I have something of importance to speak to you about. I think it would be to your advantage to let me explain this to you as I am leaving the hotel the day after tomorrow. I realize this is out of the ordinary, but as I say, it is extremely important.
Shortly after 11 p.m., Waitkus called Steinhagen’s room. She gave him her room number and asked him to come over immediately. Steinhagen let the ballplayer in. Moments later, she calmly said, “I have a surprise for you,” then pulled out her rifle and pointed it at Waitkus, ordering him to move toward the window. “For two years you’ve been bothering me and now you’re going to die,” she said, pulling the trigger. The bullet ripped through the right side of Waitkus’ chest, collapsing his lung before lodging near his spine.
“Baby, what did you do that for?” Waitkus asked, according to Steinhagen, who knelt by his side. Looking into his shooter’s eyes, Waitkus realized the horrible truth: “You like this, don’t you?”
Steinhagen rose to her feet, called the front desk, and emotionlessly stated, “There’s a man shot in my room.” When police questioned Steinhagen, her lack of sympathy was evident:
I’m not really sorry. I’m sorry Eddie has to suffer so. I’m sorry it had to be him. But I had to shoot somebody. Only in that way could I relieve the nervous tension I’ve been under the last two years. The shooting has relieved that tension.
Steinhagen also told police that Waitkus reminded her “of so many people, especially my father” and that “whatever I am in the mood for, I eventually do. . .. I just wanted to do away with him. I just wanted something exciting in my life.” When asked if she shot him for a thrill, Steinhagen replied, “Maybe that was it. I didn’t want to go back to typing.”
Two weeks later, a grand jury found Steinhagen legally insane and committed her to a local psychiatric ward, where she received electric shock treatment. She was released in April 1952, less than three years after the murder attempt.
Waitkus recovered from his wounds and was voted to the All-Star Game in 1949 despite only playing in 54 games that season. Sympathy was on his side, not just because of the shooting but because he didn’t press charges against the mentally ill Steinhagen. The year that his attacker was released from her mental institution was also the last year Waitkus played a full season. His playing time and production had steadily declined after the shooting, and 1955 saw the end of his career.
As he grew older, Waitkus tried to put the notoriety of the shooting behind him. When reporters asked him about it, he joked that “Air conditioning is okay, but it should never be done with lead in the cool of the evening.” He also said that if a woman ever gave him a note asking to meet again, he would give her a note back telling her to meet him at a local department store where he’d have “her frisked before going in.”
But according to biographer John Theodore, although Waitkus attempted to put a light-hearted spin on this ugly event, he was never able to get past what had happened to him. He developed a drinking problem, had a nervous breakdown, and suffered a failed marriage before he died in 1972 at age 53.
Steinhagen returned to the same Chicago neighborhood where she had grown up and lived a quiet life until her death in 2012 at age 83, her sordid history unknown to any of her neighbors until reports of her death caused her background to be revealed.
“Sports – Baseball, 1982-Present,” boxofficemojo.com, http://boxofficemojo.com/genres/chart/?id=baseball.htm, accessed July 2, 2013.
“Readers: Best baseball movie moments,” espn.gcom,http://espn.go.com/page2/s/list/readers/baseballmovie/moments.html, accessed July 2, 2013.
“Shocking moments in baseball history,” espn.gcom, http://espn.go.com/page2/s/list/baseball/shocking/moments.html, accessed July 2, 2013
Jerome Holtzman and George Vass, The Chicago Cubs Encyclopedia (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997), 67.
“Girl in Waitkus Shooting Pens Her Life Story,” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 24, 1949.
“Waitkus Life in Balance After Shooting by Girl Admirer,” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 16, 1949.
“Waitkus Shot; Quiz Girl,” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 15, 1949.
“Waitkus Life in Balance After Shooting by Girl Admirer,” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 16, 1949.
John Theodore, Baseball’s Natural: The Story of Eddie Waitkus (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002), 67– 68.
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