June 22, 2009

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. 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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