Imagine you are a 29-year-old man returning to your hotel room around 11:00 p.m. You stop at the front desk for messages and you discover you have received a note on hotel stationery that reads as follows:
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 it to you. As I am leaving the hotel the day after tomorrow, I’d appreciate it greatly if you could see me as soon as possible. My name is Ruth Ann Burns, Room 1279-A. I realize that this is a little out of the ordinary, but as I said, it’s rather important. Please come soon. I won’t take much of your time, I promise.
Would you crumple the note and throw it in the trash? Or would your curiosity be piqued? Prudently, you call her room before going up there, but the young woman in question says she won’t discuss the matter over the phone. She asks you to come up to her room a half hour later.
Then what do you do?
Well, as you have probably figured out, the above is not a hypothetical situation. It really happened to a ballplayer named Eddie Waitkus in 1949.
Now you may not have heard of Eddie Waitkus, but you may have heard of Bernard Malamud, author of The Natural, a 1952 novel that used an Eddie Waitkus-like incident as a narrative springboard. More than likely, you are familiar with the 1984 movie (starring Robert Redford) based on the novel.
In the book and the movie, the woman has already met the ballplayer (Roy Hobbs) and has invited him to her room. The reader/moviegoer has been informed that there is a screwy woman out there who gets her kicks killing athletes and has already offed an Olympian and an All-American football player. She uses .22 caliber silver bullets for the killshots. Unfortunately, Roy Hobbs didn’t get the memo about the “woman in black,” and he pays a price for it. Fortunately, he eventually recovers from his wound, and we flash forward to his attempt at a comeback at an age when most players are retiring. The Eddie Waitkus story is very different
Edward Stephen Waitkus, the son of Lithuanian immigrants, was born on September 4, 1919 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. An outstanding student and athlete at Cambridge Latin High School, he signed a contract with the Chicago Cubs before the 1939 season. He played four seasons in the minor leagues with only a taste of the big leagues (28 at bats) at the beginning of the 1941 season. His 1942 season with the Los Angeles Angels (then a minor league franchise in the Pacific Coast League) showed he was ready for permanent promotion to the Cubs. He led the league in hits with 235 and batted .336.
Unfortunately, Uncle Sam overruled the Cubs and Waitkus spent 1943 through 1945 in military service. In the Pacific Theater, he earned four bronze stars after experiencing combat in New Guinea, Morotai, Bougainville, and Luzon. His official rookie season was delayed till 1946, but he had successfully dodged Japanese bullets and made it home in one piece.
Unlike most first basemen, Waitkus had never exhibited much power, but he compensated by hitting for a high average; also his fielding skills at first base were outstanding. In 1948 he was good enough to make the National League All-Star team. The same was true in 1949, though he could not play as a result of an injury suffered when he visited the hotel room of the woman who wrote the above note.
On Tuesday, June 14, 1949, Waitkus was playing at Wrigley Field in Chicago. It was, of course, an afternoon game, as Wrigley Field was the lone holdout when it came to installing lights for night baseball. For Waitkus, the game was a ho-hum affair. He went 1 for 4 with a single and scored 2 runs. Two months into the season, Waitkus had been performing pretty much as expected. He was hitting .306 but with just one home run. As for defense, “the Fred Astaire of first basemen” was living up to his reputation. He was leading in the fan balloting for starting National League first baseman for the All-Star Game.
The big difference was Waitkus was no longer with the Cubs. Having been traded before the 1949 season, he was now a member of the Philadelphia Phillies, who defeated the Cubs 9-2 that afternoon in the first contest of a four-game series. So Waitkus was staying with his new teammates at the Edgewater Beach Hotel on Lake Shore Drive.
After the game he had gone to dinner with pitcher Russ Meyer (the winning pitcher that afternoon), Meyer’s fiancée, and his family, who were from a small town west of Chicago. The Philadelphia victory had brought the team to within three games of the first-place Dodgers, so it had been a good day all around…until some violent thunderstorms tore through Chicago upon Waitkus’ return to the hotel. An omen?
After Waitkus read the note, he checked with the front desk and found out that Ruth Ann Burns had checked into the hotel after the game that day. Her hotel registration indicated she lived on Portland Street in Cambridge – Eddie’s old address.
Camp followers or groupies have long been a part of baseball road trips. Called “queens” in the old days, they were later known as “Baseball Annies” (think of the Susan Sarandon character named Annie in the movie Bull Durham). Waitkus must have wondered if a queen was trying to seduce him. She could be a hottie, or she could be a middle-aged train wreck. On the other hand, he was likely intrigued by the woman’s name, as his mentor in Cambridge was a former major league player named Jack Burns. If Ruth Ann was from Cambridge, perhaps she was a relative. There was only one way to find out.
At 11:30 p.m. he went to her room. When she answered the door, he went in and immediately sat down. He must have been pleased to see she was a young, statuesque brunette. Maybe he noticed the drinks she had ordered from room service. When all was said and done, it was a nightcap he would never forget.
After Waitkus sat down, the young woman pulled a .22 rifle from the closet and said, “For two years you’ve bothered me. Now you’re going to die.”
At first, Waitkus thought it was some sort of practical joke set up by his teammates, but he quickly learned otherwise when the bullet pierced his lung. Waitkus later observed that she had “the coldest-looking face I ever saw.” He slumped to the floor, mumbling over and over, “Oh, baby, why did you do that?” It turned out to be an imperfect murder attempted by a perfect stranger – “a crazy honey with a gun,” as Waitkus later characterized her.
It may sound like a scene right out of film noir, but it was for real. The shooting set the stage for a classic “murder followed by suicide” incident, but Ruth Ann Steinhagen (her real name) had second thoughts after Waitkus arrived. Her original scenario was to stab him with a paring knife and shoot herself. Instead, she decided to shoot him and spare her own life. As she observed later during her trial, “In my entire life, I don’t think there has ever been one thing that turned out the way I wanted to.”
Having attempted murder, she then saved her victim’s life. She put away the rifle, knelt on the floor and comforted him, then called the front desk, announcing, “I just shot a man.”
She was still there when the doctor and the house detective arrived. Apparently, no one on the floor had heard the shot. She could have walked away scot-free, while the Chicago police tried to track down Ruth Ann Burns of Cambridge, Massachusetts. While in the hospital, Waitkus identified her as his assailant. “Four island invasions in the Pacific and not even a headache,” he later mused.
Doctors determined that the bullet had gone through Waitkus’ lung and was lodged in muscle tissue near his spine. The .22 bullet had come within a quarter-inch of his pulmonary artery. “A little bullet could make you feel as though six men had slammed you against the wall,” he noted. Doctors rated his survival prospects as 50/50. He underwent four operations and spent a month in the hospital before he was discharged. Being young and in good shape tilted the odds in his favor.
19-year-old Ruth Ann, who worked as a typist for the Continental Casualty Company in Chicago, was arrested for attempted murder. Naturally, people assumed the incident was the result of a lovers’ quarrel (a similar incident had occurred in Chicago in 1932 when Cubs’ shortstop Billy Jurges was shot by an old flame at a hotel near Wrigley Field). But it soon became obvious this was no sex scandal.
Steinhagen, a Chicago resident, had became obsessed with Waitkus during his tenure with the Cubs and often sat near first base at Wrigley Field. After games, she frequently hung around the clubhouse exit with autograph hounds but never interacted with Waitkus.
The average fan may not realize just how vulnerable a player is in these situations. Someone with mayhem on his mind could really do a number on a player. A star athlete, or any other celebrity, is in a weird position in a crowd; as soon as he walks in, everyone knows who he is, but he doesn’t know who anybody is. A loon could be lurking just a few feet away.
Though Ruth Ann had never confronted Waitkus before, she had done her homework. She already knew just about everything there was to know about him.
She knew where he lived.
She knew who his neighbors were and their addresses.
She knew where he’d grown up.
She had studied the Lithuanian language.
She listened to Lithuanian radio broadcasts (not so hard to do in Chicago, since the city had a large Lithuanian population) and even called in to talk shows to practice her language skills.
She began eating baked beans, a renowned favorite in the Boston area, where Eddie had grown up.
She often set a place for him at her dinner table.
She collected phonograph records released in 1936 because Waitkus wore uniform No. 36 when he was with the Cubs.
Her bedroom was a collage of Eddie Waitkus pictures and press clippings, as well as ticket stubs and scorecards – even on the ceiling. The shrine was dominated by a life-size (4’ x 6’) poster blown up from a photo.
Even after the shooting, her prison cell was adorned with a recent picture of Eddie Waitkus in his hospital bed.
Ruth Ann’s fixation on Waitkus had not gone unnoticed by her parents, who sent her to psychiatrists to no avail. When Waitkus got traded to Philadelphia, they thought the obsession would peter out. Instead, it went in another direction.
But why Waitkus and not some other player? On the field, the Cubs were no great shakes but there were 25 men on the roster to choose from. (Before Waitkus, she had a non-lethal crush on Cubs’ outfielder Peanuts Lowrey.) If she wanted, she could have gone down to Comiskey Park on the South Side and checked out the 25 members of the White Sox (actually, both the Sox and the Cubs were pretty lousy in the late 1940s). Given the fact that visiting teams from both the American and National Leagues played in Chicago (in those days, when there were only eight teams in each league, each visiting team played 11 games in Chicago), she could have singled out any major league player. But Waitkus won the lottery:
As time went on, I just became nuttier and nuttier about the guy and I knew I would never get to know him in a normal way…And if I can’t have him, nobody else can. And I then decided I would kill him.
Apparently, it was the culmination of some sort of pressure that had been building up for a couple of years. One police officer called her a “thrill killer.” Today we might call her a stalker. But that doesn’t say why she focused on Waitkus.
From my experience as a fan, I have noticed that women who call themselves fans of a team are usually the fans of a specific player or players, and they root for the team by default. Most men care about a player only so long as he is productive and helps the home team win. If he can’t hack it, he’s a bum. Women, however, tend to bond with an individual player, not a whole team. In a sense, they form a vicarious pair bond with the player. Sometimes it is with the likes of Mickey Mantle, other times it is with a lesser player, occasionally a much lesser player. The female fan cannot join the elite male group better known as a major league baseball team, but in her mind she can bond with an individual player. It is not unlike a teenage girl picking her favorite member of the latest boy band.
At her trial on June 30, 1949, Ruth Ann said she didn’t know why she did what she did and that she had been planning on killing him since early May:
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 receive the nervous tension I’ve been under the last two years. The shooting has relieved that tension.
No surprise that the jury (an equitable blend of six men and six women) found her not guilty by reason of insanity and sent to the Kankakee State Hospital (founded in less sensitive times, it was originally known as the Illinois Eastern Hospital for the Insane). Fittingly, the institution had already chalked up a couple of footnotes in baseball history. Negro League pioneer Rube Foster spent the last few years of his life there before dying in 1930. Two decades before that, a short-lived minor league franchise, the Kankakee Kays, played at a ballpark across the street. The team’s claim to fame was that Casey Stengel launched his professional playing career there. The unofficial team nickname was the Lunatics.
Much to the dismay of Waitkus, Ruth Ann was pronounced cured and released on April 17, 1952, even though she was on record as saying she would kill him if he ever got married (he had tied the knot with a girl he met while doing rehab in Florida). But the doctors said Ruth Ann was no longer a danger to society. As it turned out, the doctors were right. Their prescribed regimen, of electric shock therapy, hydrotherapy, medication, and occupational therapy had worked wonders!
By all appearances, Ruth Ann had enjoyed her fifteen minutes of fame. She posed for numerous pictures in the courtroom, in jail, and in the asylum. Once out of the limelight, she lived out the rest of her days quietly in a modest home on the northwest side of Chicago. When she died of a fall in 2012 at age 83, her profile was so low her death went unnoticed by the news media for months. Apparently, she never married and how she supported herself remained a mystery. The headline of her Chicago Tribune obit declared her a Femme Fatale. Had her aim been just a little bit better, that would have been literally true.
So whatever happened to Eddie Waitkus? Well, you can take your pick from a short-term happy ending or a long-term unhappy ending.
Waitkus spent a month in the hospital and missed the rest of the 1949 season (though he did suit up for Eddie Waitkus Night on August 19 at Shibe Park in Philadelphia). In the off-season, he underwent a grueling rehab under the tutelage of the Phillies’ trainer at the team’s spring training facility in Clearwater, Florida. As a result, Waitkus played in all 154 games in 1950 (true to his reputation as a contact hitter, he led the National League in singles), His stats were pretty much a continuation of what they were before the shooting. To no one’s surprise, he was voted the Comeback Player of the Year award. As a bonus, he got to play in the World Series as one of the elder statesmen of the famed Whiz Kids, as the 1950 Phillies were known.
The succeeding seasons showed a slow decline, which was the case for almost all ballplayers on the far side of 30. He retired after the 1955 season with 1,214 hits and a .285 lifetime batting average. He was 36 years old and few ballplayers lasted beyond that in those days. So one could argue that he had successfully overcome his encounter with Ruth Ann. Or had he? According to a Phillies teammate with the outré name of Putsy Caballero:
He wasn’t the same after. You could put your fist in his back where they had operated to take the bullet out. When the weather changed he had trouble bending over to tie his shoes.
Many years after the incident, Waitkus’ son observed:
He became almost paranoid about meeting new people, and pretty much even stopped going out drinking with his teammates.
Before the shooting, Eddie Waitkus was something of a man about town. And why not? After all, he was a major league All-Star, a snappy dresser, and a bachelor. He was in a superb position to take advantage of his – dare I say it? – male privilege. Today a man perceived as openly doing that is enough to trigger a response somewhere between snarky to vicious to violent in feminist circles.
In female parlance, he was certainly a good catch…perhaps too good for the likes of Ruth Ann Steinhagen. Hence her love/hate flip-flopping.
We might characterize her behavior as an example of the honeymoon being over. At the beginning of their “relationship,” Waitkus was a paragon, a fine physical specimen, a highly skilled professional, a high-status man in a high-profile profession. But, as in a real relationship, she soured on him. Had they been a married couple, she would simply file for divorce. In her schizophrenic situation, the only way out was to kill him. Curiously, a hit song from 1949 was “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” from the musical South Pacific.
Eventually, Waitkus got married and credited his wife (whom he met while undergoing his off-season rehab) for his recovery. When he retired from baseball after the 1955 season, he was a family man and had a good job in marketing and sales with a freight company, yet his life started to come apart. His drinking increased apace. In 1961 divorce and a nervous breakdown ensued. Other jobs in other places followed, but he ended up in his hometown of Cambridge where he lived alone the rest of his life. A summer job as a teacher at the Ted Williams Baseball Camp in the late 1960s provided him some solace, but he was diagnosed with pneumonia and then esophageal cancer. A heavy smoker, he died in 1972 at a V.A. Hospital in Boston. He was only 53, 30 years less than his would-be assassin when she died.
One cannot state with finality that Waitkus’ encounter with Ruth Ann Steinhagen shortened his life, but the physical wound and the PTSD certainly didn’t help. One suspects that it was particularly irksome that he never really came to grips with the fact that even though he had done nothing wrong he had paid a terrible price. Self-pity is not a productive emotion, but in his case it is perfectly understandable.
Oh, baby, why did you do that?
The eternal question.