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The Tragic And True Story Of The Shooting That Inspired 'The Natural'

By Linze Rice | June 14, 2016 5:29am | Updated on June 14, 2016 10:27am
 The front page of the Toledo Blade, June 15, 1949, shows how quickly word on the shooting spread. In the background, a postcard showing the Edgewater Beach Apartments, where the shooting occurred.
The front page of the Toledo Blade, June 15, 1949, shows how quickly word on the shooting spread. In the background, a postcard showing the Edgewater Beach Apartments, where the shooting occurred.
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DNAinfo/Linze Rice; Screenshot Toledo Blade, 1949

EDGEWATER — Sixty-seven years ago, Philadelphia Phillies star first baseman Eddie Waitkus was shot in the chest by a 19-year-old fan while staying at the Edgewater Beach Hotel.

It was one of the country's first major stalking crimes, and a scene that would later become immortalized in the book and film, "The Natural."

In the 1940s, National League baseball teams coming through Chicago used to stay at the swanky hotel because of its closeness to Wrigley Field.

Linze Rice shares details of the shooting.

A 19-year-old Ruth Ann Steinhagen knew this — and she checked herself in there the day before she shot Waitkus, 29, with a .22-caliber rifle on June 14, 1949.

The incident became cemented in baseball and film history with the 1984 movie starring Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs, a fictionalized version of Waitkus.

'Baby, why did you do that?'

On June 14, Waitkus was in town with his new team, the Phillies, to play his former team, the Cubs.

A day earlier, Steinhagen, a typist living in Lincoln Park, had checked herself in to the same hotel and told a friend she had planned to finally "get Eddie," according to accounts from a 1989 piece on the hotel's history by Adam Langer of the Reader.

Her friend didn't believe her; she was always talking about Waitkus.

But Steinhagen was serious. 

She had made the reservation a month earlier, and watched Waitkus play ball just hours before the shooting — taking a cab from Wrigley to Edgewater in the sixth inning and rehashing her plan one more time, according to "Baseball's Natural: The Story of Eddie Waitkus," by John Theodore.

When Waitkus returned to the hotel after the game, a handwritten note (later analyzed by Tribune analysts in an attempt to decipher Steinhagen's mindset before the shooting) awaited him at his door.

Scribbled on stationery emblazoned with the hotel's name, the message read:

"Mr. Waitkus,

It's important that I see you as soon as possible. We're not acquainted, but I have something important to speak to you about. I think it would be to your advantage to let me explain it to you. As I'm leaving the hotel the day after tomorrow, I'd appreciate if you could see me as soon as possible. My name is Ruth Ann Burns, and I'm in room 1297A. I realize this is a little bit 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"

He telephoned her and arranged to meet at her room around 11:30 p.m.

She invited him in and he sat down, before she told him she "had a surprise" for him, Langer wrote.

She turned to the closet where she'd set her rifle, turned, and shot him once in the chest, just below his heart.

"For a minute, I didn't think I shot him, because he just stood there, and then he crashed against a wall," Steinhagen told doctors, according to Theodore. "I just looked at him. He kept saying, 'Baby, why did you do that?'

"And then I said, 'I don't believe I shot you.' He was still smiling," Steinhagen allegedly said.

Soon after, Steinhagen became frantic. Within minutes, she called the front desk, and soon after a doctor and police arrived to take Waitkus to Illinois Masonic Hospital in critical condition — and arrest his shooter.

A page in the Tribune four days after the shooting shows Ruth Ann Steinhagen in the Cook County jail, as well as a portion of her handwritten note to Eddie Waitkus. [Screenshot, Tribune, June 18, 1949]

"I can't have him, but I can have the thought of him"

At the time he was shot, Waitkus had recently been traded from the Cubs to the Phillies and was at the height of his career, batting nearly .300.

To Steinhagen, however, he'd always been a star.

She'd watched him at Cubs games since she was a girl, and to mourn his trade to the Phillies, she created a shrine to him in her Lincoln Avenue apartment.

While in Cook County Jail, Steinhagen's obsession continued, and her trial over assault with intent to kill would largely center on attempting to examine her mental health.

In a letter she wrote to Dr. William Haines, director of the Cook County Behavior Clinic tasked with testifying on behalf of her sanity, Steinhagen alluded to a difficult and lonely childhood plagued with psychological issues, the Tribune reported.

"I don't think there has ever been one thing that turned out the way I wanted it to," she wrote to Haines.

"Everything bothered me. There was nothing or no one I could turn to. And then one day I saw Waitkus. I think that for the first time in my life I felt happy, really happy. Not just for a moment did I have that feeling, but it kept getting stronger and stronger with that I saw him.

I guess if I forgot about Waitkus I would go crazy ... I can't have him, but I can have the thought of him."

Leaving multiple legacies

Though the shooting cost Waitkus the remainder of the 1949 season, he would be back on the field by the 1950 season, ready to play out four more years before retiring.

The book and film versions of "The Natural" have been said to greatly exaggerate Waitkus' talent and life for dramatic effect, but perhaps the case's biggest legacy has been as one of the first high-profile cases of stalking.

Stalking became included in the Violence Against Women Act, making it a crime at state and federal levels, though each state has its own definition of what constitutes stalking.

According to a 2011 report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a one-year period of study roughly 7.5 million Americans were the victims of stalking.

In Steinhagen's case, she was found to be legally "insane" at the time of the shooting and was committed to Kankakee State Hospital, where for 33 months she would undergo electroconvulsive therapy.

In 1952, she was found to be mentally fit and was returned to Cook County Jail, where prosecutors considered retrying her for attempted murder.

Waitkus refused to press charges against her, and she was ultimately released to live out a quiet and private life in Chicago with her sister and parents until she died at 83 in December 2012.

Though he continued to play for several years before retiring and kept a positive demeanor, Waitkus was affected by the shooting in his personal life, his son said.

In a 2013 New York Times article, Eddie Waitkus Jr. said his father only resented that Steinhagen had cut his 1949 season short at a time when he was thriving, especially having survived fighting in World War II.

His son also said Waitkus experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, some of which could be contributed to the war — but certainly amplified after the shooting.

He died of cancer in 1972.

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