Ruth Ann Steinhagen Passes
It was reported today that the woman who famously shot Phillies’ 1Bman Eddie Waitkus on June 14, 1949, inspiring Bernard Malamud’s 1952 novel The Natural, which was later turned into the even more well known 1984 movie starring Robert Redford, has died. Her name was Ruth Ann Steinhagen.
Waitkus had had an eventful life before he met Steinhagen. His professional baseball career started in 1938 at age 19, when he was nicknamed “the natural” because of his abilities. He reached the major leagues in 1941 but then lost four years of this career to the Second World, where he saw heavy fighting in the Philippines and was awarded with four Bronze Stars.
Waitkus returned to baseball in 1946 at age 26 and quickly became a star for the Chicago Cubs, being named to the NL All Star team in 1948. Waitkus was bright, fluent in four languages in addition to English (Lithuanian, German, Polish and French), and outgoing, and he quickly became a media darling in Chicago.
As a result, Waitkus had many female fans, including Steinhagen, who was still a teenager. She turned her bedroom in her parents’ house into a shrine for Waitkus, sleeping with a photo of Waitkus under her pillow and even setting an empty place at the family dinner table for him.
Obsessive compulsive disorder and stalking were unknown in 1948, and Steinhagen’s family apparently didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, or at least did not seek treatment for Ruth Ann.
What apparently set her over the edge was Waitkus’ trade (along with Hank Borowy, the pitcher whose acquisition from the Yankees in mid-1945 brought the Cubs their last pennant, for pitchers Monk Dubiel and Dutch Leonard) after the 1948 season. The trade was almost certainly unpopular with Cubs fans, not least of whom was Steinhagen. Apparently, she somehow blamed Waitkus for deserting her.
When Waitkus returned to Chicago to play for the Phillies against the Cubs in June of 1949, Steinhagen, who was now 19, rented a room in the same hotel and sent a cryptic note to Waitkus inviting him to her room to discuss something important. He went to her room, possibly expecting a little action from a young Baseball Annie. Instead, when he came into the room and sat down, she pulled a rifle out of the closet and shot him in the chest.
As he lay bleeding on the floor, she knelt down beside him and held his hand on her lap until someone roused by the gunshot came to her room. Steinhagen was deemed insane by a court and spent three years in a mental institution.
The bullet just missed Waitkus’ heart, and he nearly died on the operating table before it was successfully removed. He missed the rest of the 1949 season, but he was nevertheless again selected to the National League All-Star team that year. By 1950, he had recovered fully physically, and in one of the best seasons of his major league career, he helped lead the Whiz Kids to their famous 1950 pennant.
The shooting was a huge and lurid media sensation of its day, and Waitkus did not contest Steinhagen’s release from the nut house in 1952, perhaps to avoid the media circus another court case would have created.
Waitkus played in the majors until 1955. However, he suffered post-traumatic stress from the shooting (and quite possibly his long WWII service) which affected his later career and his marriage. He ultimately died in 1972 at the relatively young age of 53 due to esophageal cancer.
Meanwhile, after release Steinhagen was successfully able to fade into obscurity. She apparently spent much of later life living with her sister in Chicago only a few miles from where she shot Waitkus and spent as much as 35 years performing office work. In fact, her decent into obscurity was so complete that she actually died in late December of last year, and her death is only now being reported.