The Natural’s Natural

By Larry Teren

The obituary section of the newspaper caught my attention the other day with the news wires mentioning the death of Ruth Ann Steinhagen at age 83 eight weeks earlier. Ruth who, you say? It’s ironic that most people were not aware that almost thirty years earlier Hollywood made a movie of something horrific she did. Maybe it’s because the movie was adapted from a book of fiction. But we all know that out of truth comes even better fiction.

Ruth Ann Steinhagen was the insane lady who shot Eddie Waitkus, the first baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies at point blank range in June, 1949. Eddie played first base for the Chicago Cubs From 1946 through 1948. Upset that he left town in a trade over the winter, Ruth Ann pined over him like a lunatic even though they never had met. During a Phillies road trip to play at Wrigley Field, she lured Eddie to a room temporarily rented at the Edgewater Beach Hotel, a fancy semi-resort, hotel and nightclub facility. Many visiting ball players stayed there when playing the Cubs due to its proximity to Wrigley Field. Despite having his gut shot up, Eddie was out of the hospital and in uniform, albeit on the disabled list, later that August and able to attend a special day honoring him at the Philadelphia home park.

Ruth Ann got her day in court and ended up being sent to an insane asylum. She played by the rules, took the shock treatment therapy and within three years was declared legally normal again. If Eddie would have agreed to press charges, she’d have stayed locked up in jail but he didn’t. She moved in with her parents and lived with them until they no longer were in a position to care for her.

I’m sure by now you realize that this scenario was reminiscent of the 1984 movie “The Natural” based on Bernard Malamud’s early 1950’s novel. Barbara Hershey portrayed the character based on Ruth. Kim Bassinger played another femme fatale who tried to lure Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) robert_redford
into a drunken stupor so that he would miss important pennant-chasing games. Glenn Close was the one woman from the fictional Roy’s past whose love he hoped to rekindle.

Malamud fashioned Hobbs with greater talent than the real ballplayer victim. Even if Waitkus had not been shot, statistics would have proved Eddie to be an above average talent but not a great home run hitter and run producer. He did, though, get chosen twice to the NL All-Star team before the shooting. His career total was for less than 400 runs batted in over a decade.

Waitkus had the smarts to be offered a scholarship to go to the school in his hometown backyard, Harvard. He turned it down to play professional baseball. The shooting took away a half year of his athletic career. Add this to the three years he spent in the US Army between 1942-45 and you wonder how much better his stats would have been given the at bats. Still, not enough to immortalize him as a natural home run wonder like Roy Hobbs.

By 1950, Eddie was sufficiently recovered enough to be the Philadelphia Phillies first baseman again and helped the Whiz Kids take the NL Pennant that year. He met the love of his life during Spring Training. They married in 1951. The union produced a boy and a girl. However, depression set in when Eddie’s career came to a close. Now that he was no longer shielded from the public asking him a lot of curious questions, he began to mistrust people and suffered from heavy doses of stress, insomnia and bouts of alcohol abuse. This led to the demise of his marriage. Where the Hobbs character seemed to end up a hero as well as reunite with his dream woman and a son he never knew he fathered, Waitkus died much too young at 53, a broken man.

A different dose of homicidal irony to playing baseball in Chicago occurred seventeen years earlier when Cubs shortstop Billy Jurges was shot by a jilted ex-girlfriend in July, 1932. Incredibly, he was able to return to the playing field not long after and helped spearhead the Cubbies to an NL Pennant as well again in 1935 and 1938. Billy also refused to press charges against his former lover.

A year ago Starlin Castro, the then and current Cubs shortstop, was accused by a girl of assault after partying together late into the earlier hours of the morning. Police investigators did not find that it warranted an indictment. If Starlin had taken a non-threatening wound for the team- would history have repeated itself and he be heralded the Jurges of today leading the men in blue to three World Series trips over the next eight years?

Of course, the Cubs are cursed. Starlin had Providence shining Its good grace upon him and the Cubbies continue to rebuild.

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