Eddie Waitkus

Marion is as attractive as any woman in her mid-70s can be, slim, snow-white hair pulled back with a black ribbon, and always with the pleasant smile and dignified manner of the Wellesley girl she once was.  She swims at the community center almost every day, so I have seen her for years, but I had never spoken to her at any length.  She tells me in the 1950s she and her new husband lived at the Drexelbrook Apartments in Drexel Hill.  Right above them was the apartment of the Phillies first baseman, Eddie Waitkus, and his wife Carol.  The Phillies players, the Whiz Kids then—she remembers Robin Roberts, Granny Hamner, Richie Ashburn, Curt Simmons—would often come to the Waitkus’s apartment where they would all hang out together.

So, which Philly Whiz Kid did she like the best?  No hesitation.  “Eddie Waitkus,” she replies.

That surprised me because in pictures he has an angular face, not handsome, but, as Marion puts it, he was the “most interesting.”  About all I remembered of him was that he played first base and was once shot by a woman fan.

So, I did a little Google research to fill out my memory.  Turns out, Eddie Waitkus was quite a man with quite a story.

He began his major league career in 1941 with the Chicago Cubs and unknowingly caught the attention of an impressionable young fan, Ruth Ann Steinhagen, then eleven years old.  But there was a war going on, and in two years Waitkus was drafted and sent to the Philippines as a combat machine gunner where he earned four bronze stars.  At the end of the war, he returned to the Cubs—and Ruth Ann Steinhagen’s attention—where he stayed until the end of the 1948 season when he was traded to the Phillies.  Ruth Ann was heartbroken and cried for several days and nights, her mother would later testify.  On June 14, 1949, Waitkus and the Phillies were in Chicago to play the Cubs in an early season series.

Ruth Ann, now 19, had been waiting.  She was under the care of a psychiatrist from an earlier mental breakdown, but no one was alarmed about her obsession with Waitkus.  “You should just forget about him,” was the advice of her psychiatrist.  She had built a shrine to him in her bedroom and would spend hours with scrapbooks of his clippings spread out on the floor.  She even tried to learn Lithuanian when she heard it was the native language of Waitkus’s parents.  She knew she was obsessed, and it bothered her, but she couldn’t shake it.   Now, she knew how to end it for good.

From the newspaper photos of her at the time, she was very attractive, tall and slim, a dark-haired Lauren Bacall.  She registered in the same hotel as the Phillies under the name of one of Waitkus’s high school classmates, and, that night, sent him a note saying she urgently needed to see him.  When he showed up at her door, she said she was a friend of the note-sender who had briefly stepped out.  She invited him in to wait.  While he sat in a chair, she got a .22 rifle from a closet, turned, and shot him in the chest.  “She had the coldest looking face I’ve ever seen,” Waitkus later said.  “No expression at all.  She wasn’t happy—she wasn’t anything.”  She then called the front desk and calmly told them she had just shot a man.

She was a good shot, and a larger caliber gun would have certainly killed him.  In the first few hours, it was questionable if he would live.  Although he physically recovered and returned to the Phillies for the 1950 pennant-winning season, friends said he was never the same.  Clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, he became despondent.  He began drinking and let his athletic talents deteriorate.  His marriage collapsed.  After a brief stint with the Baltimore Orioles, he was back with the Phillies who released him in October, 1955.  He died in 1972 at the early age of 53 from esophageal cancer.

The well-known 1984 baseball fantasy movie The Natural, starring Robert Redford, was inspired by the Waitkus shooting.  Waitkus was called “The Natural” early in his career.

“Eddie wasn’t the regular, normal baseball player,” noted former Phillies teammate Richie Ashburn.  “He wasn’t a rough guy.  He wasn’t a nasty guy.  He didn’t go in with his spike 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.  Sometimes, looking back on his other talents and interests, I used to think it was a shame he had to play baseball.”

After his death, his daughter, Ronni, said about him, “He once told me he didn’t get out of life what he wanted.  But what was it?”

Ruth Ann Steinhagen never stood trial.  She was found to be insane and was committed to a mental hospital where she received electroshock treatments and was released after only three years.  She could have been prosecuted then, but Waitkus wanted it dropped.  She never shot anyone else and is reportedly still living.

RWalck@Verizon.net

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About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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