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The woman who shot Eddie Waitkus — and inspired “The Natural” — dies at 83

Mar 18, 2013, 6:35 AM EDT

Harriet Bird

I imagine few people who watch “The Natural” realize that it was based on a 1952 novel of the same name (and that the novel is way better). And I bet even fewer people realize that the part of the story which kicks off Roy Hobbs’ disappearance into obscurity for so many years — the part in which the woman in black invites Hobbs to her hotel room and shoots him — is based on a true story.

That true story involves the 1949 shooting of Phillies’ first baseman Eddie Waitkus by an obsessed fan. A 19 year-old woman who idolized Waitkus when he played for the Cubs prior to his trade to Philly and decided, when the Phillies came back to Chicago, to kill Waitkus after luring him to her hotel room. ¬†She did shoot him, but he thankfully survived and played six more seasons in the bigs. The woman — Ruth Ann Steinhagen — was committed to a mental institution for three years, was released and then faded into obscurity.

It’s now being reported that she died in late December, at the age of 83:

The Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed Friday that Steinhagen passed away of natural causes on Dec. 29, at the age of 83. First reported by the Chicago Tribune last week, her identity was a surprise even to the morgue employees who knew about the 1984 movie “The Natural,” in which she was portrayed by actress Barbara Hershey.

“She chose to live in the shadows and she did a good job of it,” John Theodore, an author who wrote a 2002 nonfiction book about the crime, wrote in an email Sunday.

Fascinating story. Stranger than fiction.

  1. Gardenhire's Cat - Mar 18, 2013 at 6:39 AM

    Interesting spelling of The Natural in the heading Craig

  2. illcomm - Mar 18, 2013 at 6:47 AM

    this story was interesting to hear about…..back in December she. I first read about it. couple months late to the story.

    • Craig Calcaterra - Mar 18, 2013 at 8:08 AM

      How you first read about it in December when it was first reported by the Chicago Tribune last week is probably a pretty cool story, bro.

      • phillyphannn83 - Mar 18, 2013 at 12:51 PM

        Just playing devil’s advocate here and making assumptions but I’m pretty sure the Chicago Tribune is not the only publication in a big city like Chicago. Indeed, there is the Chicago Sun Times and I’m sure more. Maybe one of them reported it? Maybe it was on the local news?

      • blacksables - Mar 18, 2013 at 3:14 PM

        I saw the same thing reported. That she died in December and no one made the connection until just a short time ago.

    • mrfloydpink - Mar 18, 2013 at 8:09 AM

      What is this, a postmodern response to the post?

      I don’t know…when the roses are…what will…coffee?

      • Old Gator - Mar 18, 2013 at 8:14 AM

        You can never have too much postmodernism.

  3. bluesoxbaseball - Mar 18, 2013 at 7:34 AM

    The novel was not only better, Malamud’s story was actually good. The movie? Not so much.

    • bigleagues - Mar 18, 2013 at 8:41 AM

      Books are wonderful and all, but I’ve long been tired of the novelgeeks pomposity as it pertains to the superiority of books to film. They are two VERY distinct mediums employing vastly different dynamics to tell a story.

      Look no further than Peter Jackson to understand the delicate balance between staying true to the book and making movies that are too full of detail to tell the story effectively visually.

      Most people don’t understand the subtleties of film making.

      Having said that the relative goodness of any piece of art is subjective. And in my eyes The Natural is a very good movie and one of the more excellent entries into the baseball movie cannon.

      • georgewashingtonsghost - Mar 18, 2013 at 8:46 AM

        I agree with bigleagues. I like the movie quite a bit, whereas I did not enjoy the book. The on-screen Roy Hobbs was someone I could root for. I prefer my heroes to be, well, heroic. In the book, Hobbs is just a self-centered jerk.

      • pmcenroe - Mar 18, 2013 at 9:14 AM

        I’m with georgewashingtonsghost on this one. It may be the only case where I enjoy a movie more than the book it’s based on.

      • Craig Calcaterra - Mar 18, 2013 at 9:23 AM

        I don’t reflexively say “the book was better” because oftentimes it isn’t. In the case of The Natural, however, the story, main character and overall point were fundamentally changed, to the point where it’s difficult for anyone who read the book to get past the differences.

        Which is fine. It’s a different thing altogether. And it’s a beautifully shot movie with a lot of good performances. I just wish that they had changed more stuff to separate it more.

      • 1historian - Mar 18, 2013 at 9:45 AM

        there’s only one n in the word ‘canon’ as you use it.

      • geoknows - Mar 18, 2013 at 10:36 AM

        The problem with the movie, bigleagues, is not novelgeeks pomposity about books being inherently better than movies. The problem with the movie is that it rewrote the book to give it a sickly sweet happy ending that did not exist in the book. A movie based on a book should stay reasonably true to the original.

      • spudchukar - Mar 18, 2013 at 12:32 PM

        As, 1historian, indicated, unless you are planning on blowing up all baseball movies with severe armament, then I suggest you use only one “n”. Perhaps you should have hung around grammar class a little longer, before sneaking off to the movies, pompously speaking.

      • phillyphannn83 - Mar 18, 2013 at 12:57 PM

        spudchukar, perhaps YOU should heed your own advice and learn the proper use of the comma.

      • umrguy42 - Mar 18, 2013 at 1:32 PM

        We read the book and watched the movie for HS english. I don’t remember all the differences in the two, but I preferred the movie’s happy ending, to be honest. The book’s was just too depressing, like depressing for depressing’s sake.

        Also, I’ve been known to be an occasional sucker for happy endings.

    • cur68 - Mar 18, 2013 at 11:13 AM

      I read more than anyone I know. Often the book IS better than the movie. This movie, however, was VERY good. One of my favourites. In fact, my second favourite baseball movie, ever.

      • APBA Guy - Mar 18, 2013 at 12:17 PM

        Ok, I’ll bite. What is your favorite baseball movie?

      • cur68 - Mar 18, 2013 at 12:19 PM

        Major League, of course. I think that’s probably pretty much everyone’s fave.

        Your’s MUST be Moneyball right? How could it not be. Its a tribute to your #1Guy: The GPB.

      • APBA Guy - Mar 18, 2013 at 1:17 PM

        No actually, my fave is also Major League. Moneyball is pretty far down the list. I much preferred the Moneyball book to the movie. Maybe if they had dressed Brad Pitt in a wizard’s outfit, like Ian McKellan in Lord of the Rings…

      • indaburg - Mar 18, 2013 at 2:12 PM

        But is Major League the movie better than Major League the book (foreword by Charlie Sheen)?

      • cur68 - Mar 18, 2013 at 2:15 PM

        There’s a Major League book? And Charlie Sheen can write?

        Wow. Didn’t know either of those things.

      • indaburg - Mar 18, 2013 at 2:49 PM

        Well, I didn’t know beavers were so well read–don’t books make good dam material?–so we’re both learning new things.

    • lostsok - Mar 18, 2013 at 6:58 PM

      Never a fan of the novel. Like Peter Griffin said about The Godfather: It insists upon itself.

      The movie was amazing on first viewing, still kinda good on 2nd, but with each repeated viewing…it just gets slower and more ponderous.

      Give me Field of Dreams and Bull Durham. Or Rhubarb, the one about the cat that owns the Cubs.

  4. spudchukar - Mar 18, 2013 at 7:44 AM

    “The Fixer” is even better.

    • Old Gator - Mar 18, 2013 at 8:16 AM

      And The Assistant is damned near perfect.

    • spudchukar - Mar 18, 2013 at 12:01 PM

      I was fortunate enough to have a college English professor back in the late ’60s, who insisted I read all of Malamud (not too difficult, most of his works are very short), and yes “The Assistant” may be his best.

      • Old Gator - Mar 18, 2013 at 12:13 PM

        Yeah, I do love that novel. Unfortunately little corner grocery stores like that one are pretty much gone the way of Stellar’s sea cow, Yiddish newspapers and the Tasmanian tiger. The father/proprietor of the store reminded me so much of the owner of the grocery downstairs from my grandparents’ apartment in Alphabet City on the Lower East Side of Manhattan when I was a kid. I still remember using the change I was given to run downstairs and buy a jar of pickled beets (or whatever) for Ring Dings, Joyvah jellyroll bars or Devil Dogs.

        So it goes.

      • spudchukar - Mar 18, 2013 at 12:35 PM

        So it goes. Reminds me how much I miss that man from Indianapolis. What a saint.

  5. mrfloydpink - Mar 18, 2013 at 7:58 AM

    This is why the gift baskets are an ESSENTIAL part of a ballplayer’s toolkit. So that the crazies don’t feel jilted and shoot you.

    • Old Gator - Mar 18, 2013 at 12:14 PM

      I always hid a mousetrap in my gift baskets. No one can shoot you if three of their fingers are broken.

      • phillyphannn83 - Mar 18, 2013 at 4:45 PM

        I’m ambidextrous ;)

  6. aceshigh11 - Mar 18, 2013 at 8:38 AM

    Blinding.

  7. DelawarePhilliesFan - Mar 18, 2013 at 9:00 AM

    “but he thankfully survived and played six more seasons in the bigs.”

    Waitkus did survive, but he fell into depression and alcohol abuse – which in turn hurt his career, led to a failed marriage, a nervous breakdown and death from esophageal cancer at 53. Very sad that people in those days did not recogonize that he needed more than surgery after the shooting

    • turdfurgerson68 - Mar 18, 2013 at 10:07 AM

      She caused his esophageal cancer too???

      That hussy strumpet trollop!

      • aceshigh11 - Mar 18, 2013 at 10:09 AM

        Way to miss his point…gotta love willful ignorance.

      • turdfurgerson68 - Mar 18, 2013 at 10:13 AM

        Just quoting what it says Chief…direct your hate elsewhere. Thanks.

      • DelawarePhilliesFan - Mar 18, 2013 at 10:38 AM

        No, what I said was that the alcohol abuse caused the cancer.

        Feel free to quote what I say – but I can’t be accountable for what I did not say

      • phillyphannn83 - Mar 18, 2013 at 4:35 PM

        I’m pretty sure is was alluding to the fact that drinking and smoking go hand-in-hand, especially back then. So it is more than plausible to link his drinking with the esophageal cancer, which no doubt came from smoking. The only way to prove that would be to find some evidence to his smoking use before and after the shooting. I’m not doing that research, as I’m a 3rd party to this nit-picking arguement, but if either of you would like to PROPERLY prove your argument, there’s your ticket.

        And turdferguson, you sound like a big tobacco company trying to make us believe the sky isn’t blue, water isn’t wet, and cigarettes don’t cause cancer; because, ya know, tar and arsenic are a-ok to inhale.

      • turdfurgerson68 - Mar 18, 2013 at 5:53 PM

        So sorry if you, or anyone else, fell that I’m a shill for the ‘agents of death’, i.e., the alcohol and tobacco industries. It’s probably the result of a hang-up somewhere in your life…please to lay that down on me.

        And there were plenty of tobacco addicts who were complete teetotalers back in the day.

        Regardless of what that brazen, loathsome, wench did to him, he was doomed to die in an awful way.

        Tar and arsenic are a-ok to inhale? Complete rubbish! The only substances a-ok to inhale are now legal in Colorado and Washington State :)

    • turdfurgerson68 - Mar 18, 2013 at 2:41 PM

      “Feel free to quote what I say..”

      Ok, I will: “no scientific evidence has been found between alcohol and esophageal adenocarcinoma”.

      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22504051?dopt=Abstract

      Maybe she sis give him the cancer after all….that strumpet!

      • DelawarePhilliesFan - Mar 18, 2013 at 2:49 PM

        First off, that is so lame to thumbs up your own quote immediately after putting it up – yes, we know you like it, or you would not have posted it.

        Second, I am sure the alcoholic beverage manufacturers appreciate your input.

        I standy by statment that it is sad that Eddie Waitkus did not get help dealign with the issues he had after being shot

      • turdfurgerson68 - Mar 18, 2013 at 3:22 PM

        Ha ha, I’m no self-promoter chief. Are you saying no one else can enjoy what I’m saying? Seems a tad OCD; you’re constantly checking comments.

        I stand by my statement…

      • DelawarePhilliesFan - Mar 18, 2013 at 4:11 PM

        If I am on here, and the little organe thing pops up, I check, yes. Not OCD – I think you just didn’t like getting called out for thumbs uppping yourself

  8. seattlenative57 - Mar 18, 2013 at 10:56 AM

    Before the recent reports of the witches death, I had not a clue The Natural was even remotely related to a true event.

  9. roycethebaseballhack - Mar 18, 2013 at 1:48 PM

    Did not know this either, Seattle. Great movie. It inspired me to want a guitar built from a tree that’d been hit by lightning. Hit by lightning on Elvis’s birthday would be even better.

  10. schmedley69 - Mar 18, 2013 at 8:37 PM

    Of course this story has been swept under the rug over the years. If the roles were reversed and it was a Phillies fan who shot a Cubs player, I’m sure that we would be reminded of it at least once a week on SportsCenter, like the booing Santa Clause thing.

  11. pinion8ted - Mar 18, 2013 at 9:44 PM

    Here’s a very weird personal connection to this story, take a moment please.

    Until I read the news story yesterday, I had no idea that “The Natural” was based on a real-life story, let alone how close to home it hit.

    I’m 57 now, but in the early 60s my family moved from just outside of Boston, to a suburb called Franklin. We lived in a neighborhood that had a home-made ball field that all the neighbor Dads and kids helped build. The field was across the street from my house, and directly behind the house of a guy my dad said played “a little ball” in his younger day, which is why he was always happy to see us kids using that field. He’d come over every spring when we cleaned up the field for the season, and stop by now and then to give us some pointers. Unlike the neighbor next store (the typical “keep your ball out of my yard!” guy), this man was very nice to us kids.

    That neighbor’s name?

    Eddie Waitkus.

    A little research shows that Eddie Waitkus grew up outside of Boston, and retired back to Massachusetts when his career was over. I just made the connection yesterday that I actually lived across the street from the REAL Roy Hobbs…… true story!

    Wow!

  12. pinion8ted - Mar 18, 2013 at 9:54 PM

    By the way, Mr. Waitkus was a great neighbor and a stand-up guy, all the men in the neighborhood liked him. He never bragged about being a pro ball player – which in those days was like being an NFL star today – and to my knowledge he never mentioned the shooting to anyone. The other men seemed to respect his privacy. There was no sign, or even talk of, alcoholism …. not one.

    Hate to see false stories about any guy.

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