Stalker Who Inspired 'The Natural' Dies; Lived Real Life In Obscurity

Mar 18, 2013
Originally published on March 18, 2013 4:54 pm

Though we've seen The Natural many times, we have to confess we didn't know that a real woman shot a real baseball player in 1949 and that their story inspired Bernard Malamud's 1952 book and Robert Redford's 1984 movie.

But over the weekend, obituaries appeared about Ruth Ann Steinhagen, 83, who "disappeared into near obscurity" as the Chicago Tribune says and died last Dec. 29 with little notice.

It wasn't until the Tribune was searching records for another story that it discovered the one-time "femme fatale" had died.

The Associated Press recaps Steinhagen's real-life crime, which happend when she was 19, this way:

"The story began with what appeared to be just another young woman's crush on Eddie Waitkus, the Chicago Cubs' handsome first baseman. So complete was this crush that the teenager set a place for Waitkus, whom she'd never met, at the family dinner table. She turned her bedroom into a shrine to him, and put his photo under her pillow.

"After the 1948 season, Waitkus was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies — a fateful turn. "When he went to the Phillies, that's when she decided to kill him," [author John] Theodore said in an interview.

"Steinhagen had her chance the next season, when the Phillies came to Chicago to play the Cubs at Wrigley Field. She checked into a room at the Edgewater Beach Hotel where he was staying and invited him to her room.

" 'We're not acquainted, but I have something of importance to speak to you about,' she wrote in a note to him after a game at Wrigley on June 14, 1949.

"It worked. Waitkus arrived at her room. After he sat down, Steinhagen walked to a closet, said, 'I have a surprise for you,' then turned with the rifle she had hidden there and shot him in the chest."

Waitkus — like Redford's character — survived. He would go on to play again the next season and and all or part of five more seasons after that. He died in 1972.

Steinhagen was judged to be insane and spent nearly three years in a state hospital where she "underwent electroconvulsive therapy to alter the chemical balance in her brain, as well as hydrotherapy and occupational therapy," the Tribune writes. Eventually considered to be cured, she was released and never tried for the shooting. Steinhagen settled in with her parents and a sister on Chicago's Northwest side. Over the years, the parents and sister died. It isn't known for sure if Steinhagen held any type of job. She never spoke publicly about the shooting, according to the Tribune.

According to the newspaper, "she died Dec. 29 at Swedish Covenant Hospital of a subdural hematoma caused by an accidental fall in her longtime home, a Cook County medical examiner spokeswoman said."

In the movie, the femme fatale was played by actress Barbara Hershey and her character commits suicide after shooting Redford's character, Roy Hobbs. The year isn't 1949 in the reel version of the story — it's the 1930s. And Hobbs isn't an established major leaguer like Waitkus when he's shot. He's a young phenom — "the natural" — who has his best years robbed from him, but returns 15 years later to lead the "New York Knights" to the top of the standings. There's much more to the plot, of course: A bat with a lightning bolt; and old love who comes back into Hobbs' life; a son he never knew about; an evil team owner.

The climax comes when Hobbs hits a long home run into the stadium lights (supposedly in New York City but actually filmed at Buffalo's since-demolished War Memorial Stadium). With lights exploding, he rounds the bases.

Update at 2:40 p.m. ET. Waitkus Didn't Want To See Her Tried:

Bob Goldsborough, the Tribune obituaries writer who discovered that Steinhagen had died and then filed the story that has spread to other news outlets, told All Things Considered host Robert Siegel this afternoon that it was largely because of Waitkus that she was never put on trial.

After Steinhagen's release from the state hospital, Goldsborough said, Waitkus had "no interest ... in seeing her tried or seeing her prosecuted." So, "prosecutors dropped the case and made her a free woman."

Once she was back in Chicago, Steinhagen lived a quiet life. "She was scarcely seen in her neighborhood" for 60 years, Goldsborough said. "She kept as low a profile as she could."

We'll add the as-broadcast version of Robert's conversation with Goldsborough to the top of this post later today. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show.

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Finally this hour, if you've read or seen "The Natural," Bernard Malamud's baseball novel that was made into Robert Redford movie, then you're familiar with the story that was inspired by Ruth Ann Steinhagen. Roy Hobbs, a young, brash baseball player, is poised for stardom right until he's lured into a hotel room by a mentally-ill female fan.


SIEGEL: Suddenly, she shoots him. That was Redford and Barbara Hershey in the movie. The player survives but his career is never the same. Well, that story was based on the real-life shooting of Eddie Waitkus, the star first baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies. The fan who shot him in a Chicago hotel room in 1949 was Ruth Ann Steinhagen.

And recently, Bob Goldsborough of the Chicago Tribune discovered that she had died in December. Bob Goldsborough, welcome to the program.


SIEGEL: First, what happened to Ruth Steinhagen after she shot Eddie Waitkus?

GOLDSBOROUGH: After she shot Eddie Waitkus, she was taken into police custody immediately and then she ultimately was found by a judge to be mentally ill. She was committed to a state mental hospital where she remained for three years.

SIEGEL: For three years. It seems a short time. She wasn't retried for the offense after that?

GOLDSBOROUGH: She wasn't. What happened was while she was in the hospital, she underwent a variety of different treatments, including some shock treatments and ultimately at the end of those three years she was deemed to be sane. So at that point, it was up to prosecutors to decide whether to try her again.

In those days, a lot of prosecutors' decision depended on the testimony of the victim. In this case, Eddie Waitkus had no interest, he said, in seeing her tried or seeing her prosecuted and so, with that, prosecutors dropped the case and made her a free woman.

SIEGEL: This was a big story when it happened. I assume Bernard Malamud could hardly have avoided hearing about it at that time.

GOLDSBOROUGH: It sure was, yeah. It was a national story and it was certainly, I think, baseball was in its heyday in those years, but fans weren't aware of the kinds of women who would follow around baseball players. And then, on top of that, it was, you know, in a hotel room, in a player's bedroom and she was 19. It had a lot of elements that were certainly both sordid and interesting to the American public.

SIEGEL: So what you're saying is that for 60 years, this woman, at least for the latter decades of that period, lived a quiet life, unobserved and hardly a notorious character in her neighborhood.

GOLDSBOROUGH: That's correct. In fact, she was scarcely seen in her neighborhood. Her neighbors would - she would enter or leave her home through the back, through the alley. Her parents died in the early 1990s. They were very outgoing and talked to the neighbors, but once they died, the neighbors saw far less of Ruth. And yes, she kept as low of a profile as she could.

SIEGEL: How did you find out that she had died? How did this come about, this story?

GOLDSBOROUGH: I'm one of the Chicago Tribune's obituary writers and so I routinely go through public records looking for people who've passed away and I go through death notices, but I go through other sources, too. And in the case of Ruth Steinhagen, she was a person I'd always known had been in Chicago. I'd always known she was living in obscurity and mystery up on the north side.

I was a huge fan of "The Natural," so I'd had her on my list every so often just to check in and see, looking at public records, is she still around or not. So on a lark, I looked her name up a few weeks back and was stunned to see that she had very quietly passed away with no survivors at the end of December. I did some digging, talked to the medical examiners offices and went from there.

SIEGEL: Well, Bob Goldsborough of the Chicago Tribune, thanks for talking with us.

GOLDSBOROUGH: Thank you so much.

SIEGEL: Bob Goldsborough of the Chicago Tribune talking with us about the death of Ruth Ann Steinhagen, the woman who shot Eddie Waitkus and gave rise to the novel and later the movie, "The Natural." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.