The Eddie Waitkus story: A Chicago baseball tragedy

April 3, 2012

Listen to John Schmidt discuss his piece on Eight Forty-Eight

 

 

The baseball season opens this week. Before we become too involved in the annual tragedies of the Sox and Cubs, let's pause to consider an actual Chicago baseball tragedy: the story of Eddie Waitkus.

Unlike some other baseball players, Eddie did not have a reputation as a horndog. That made the event doubly tragic.

After returning from World War II in 1946, Waitkus became the Cubs’ regular first baseman. He was a fine defensive player and a solid line-drive hitter. In 1948 he played in the All-Star game.

Waitkus was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies after the 1948 season. In June 1949 he returned to Chicago with his new team. While in town, the Phillies stayed at the Edgewater Beach Hotel on Sheridan Road.

About 11 p.m. on June 14, a hotel bellboy gave Waitkus a note from a Ruth Anne Burns, asking to see him about something “extremely important.” Waitkus phoned her room. After talking briefly with the woman on the phone, he went up to meet her.

At Room 1227A, a tall young woman invited him in. With little preliminary, she produced a rifle and pointed it at Waitkus. “For two years you’ve bothered me,” she said. “Now you’re going to die.”

The woman shot Waitkus in the chest. He collapsed in a pool of blood, muttering over and over, “Baby, why did you do that?”

A doctor and a house detective came rushing down the hall. The woman told them, “I’ve shot Eddie Waitkus.” An ambulance was called, and Waitkus was taken to the hospital. The woman was placed under arrest.

Her real name was Ruth Anne Steinhagen. She was 19 years old and worked as a typist. She had become obsessed with Waitkus when he’d played for the Cubs, though she had never met him.

“I had to kill him,” she told the police. “I thought it would get rid of the tension.”

Waitkus nearly died on the operating table. The bullet was finally removed. By August he was back in uniform and finished the season.

Ruth Anne Steinhagen was found to be legally insane. She was committed to a mental institution. After receiving shock treatments, she was declared sane and released in 1952.

The shooting changed Waitkus. He became moody and suspicious, and was treated for alcoholism. Today we’d say he suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Eddie Waitkus died in 1972, at the age of 53.

In 1952, Bernard Malamud wrote a novel called The Natural, based on the Waitkus shooting. The book was made into a highly-acclaimed Robert Redford film in 1984. Unlike the novel--and unlike the life of the real Eddie Waitkus--the movie has a happy ending.