Ruth Ann Steinhagen, 83, dies; shot ballplayer who inspired ‘The Natural’

ASSOCIATED PRESS - Ruth Steinhagen, right, plays ball in 1949 with inmates of the Cook County Jail in Chicago, where she was held after shooting Eddie Waitkus. Matron Ann Markov plays umpire.

Ruth Ann Steinhagen, the Chicago woman whose near-fatal 1949 shooting of former Chicago Cubs first baseman Eddie Waitkus inspired the book and the movie “The Natural,” died with the same anonymity with which she lived for more than half a century.

The shooting, thought to be one of the first-ever stalker crimes, nearly killed Waitkus and temporarily sidetracked his career. The incident also helped draw attention to “baseball Annies” — young, hero-worshiping female groupies who would pursue major league ballplayers, often relentlessly.

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Miss Steinhagen underwent nearly three years of psychiatric treatment, then disappeared into near obscurity and never spoke publicly about the Waitkus incident again. She spent much of her final 42 years living in a modest house on Chicago’s Northwest Side with her parents and sister.

She died Dec. 29 at a Chicago hospital of a subdural hematoma caused by an accidental fall in her home, a Cook County Medical Examiner spokeswoman said. She was 83.

Her death had gone unreported and was only discovered when the Chicago Tribune was searching death records for another story.

Born Ruth Catherine Steinhagen in Cicero, Ill., on Dec. 23, 1929, Miss Steinhagen was the daughter of German immigrants, according to Chicago author John Theodore’s 2002 Waitkus biography, “Baseball’s Natural: The Story of Eddie Waitkus.”

At some point in her teens, Miss Steinhagen, who had begun using the middle name Ann, became obsessed with Waitkus, who then was a first baseman for the Cubs. After the Cubs traded Waitkus to the Phillies before the 1949 season, her obsession with him intensified.

“Here’s a 19-year-old girl, living by herself in a tiny apartment on Lincoln Avenue, in 1949,” Theodore said via e-mail. “She builds an Eddie Waitkus shrine in her apartment: photos, newspaper clippings, 50 ticket stubs, scorecards. She knows he’s from Boston so she develops a craving for baked beans. . . . He’s Lithuanian, so she teaches herself the language and listens to Lithuanian radio programs.”

It all came to a head June 14, 1949, when the Phillies were in town to play the Cubs. Miss Steinhagen, then a typist for the Continental Casualty insurance company in Chicago, attended the game that day. After the game, she sent Waitkus an unsigned note summoning him to a 12th-floor room in the now-demolished Edgewater Beach Hotel, where the Phillies were staying. When Waitkus arrived at 11:30 p.m., Miss Steinhagen told Waitkus from behind the door, “I have a surprise for you,” and then used a .22 caliber rifle that she had bought at a pawn shop to shoot him just below the heart.

After shooting Waitkus, then 29, Miss Steinhagen called the hotel operator and soon was taken into custody as the baseball player was rushed to a hospital. The bullet had torn through his right lung and lodged in back muscles near his spine, and he underwent two blood transfusions while in critical condition.

Waitkus had six operations before doctors finally removed the bullet.

He made an impressive recovery and helped the “Whiz Kid” Phillies to the National League pennant in 1950. He was a regular for two more seasons and played through 1955. He died in 1972.

After the shooting, Miss Steinhagen had told authorities that she wasn’t sorry and that she “just had to shoot somebody.”

Police initially booked her on a charge of assault with intent to murder. The extent of her fixation on Waitkus soon became known. Miss Steinhagen’s mother told the Tribune several days after the shooting that her daughter had become obsessed with Waitkus when he was on the Cubs.

“She seemed to become infatuated with him and couldn’t talk about anything else,” her mother said.

She also had filled her bedroom with Waitkus memorabilia, including photos and news clippings about him.

Just 17 days after the shooting, a criminal court judge ruled Miss Steinhagen to be insane and ordered her committed to the Kankakee State Hospital. While there, she underwent electroconvulsive therapy, as well as hydrotherapy and occupational therapy, according to Theodore’s book. After 33 months, she was returned to the Cook County Jail as prosecutors weighed reinstating attempted murder charges against her.

Waitkus told reporters at spring training in Florida that he did not intend to press charges against Miss Steinhagen.

In April 1952, a jury concurred with doctors’ diagnosis of Steinhagen’s sanity and prosecutors dropped all charges, leaving her a free woman. Outside court, Miss Steinhagen told reporters that she planned to go back to Kankakee State Hospital to work as an occupational therapist, although it’s not known if she ever did.

Novelist Bernard Malamud fictionalized the story in his 1952 book “The Natural,” having young baseball phenom Roy Hobbs called to a hotel room by a mysterious woman named Harriet Bird who then shoots him in the stomach. The 1984 movie based on the book starred Robert Redford as Hobbs and Barbara Hershey as Bird. Most other aspects of the Waitkus-Steinhagen incident differed from the book and the movie.

It’s not known what Miss Steinhagen did in her later years, although a neighbor told Theodore that Miss Steinhagen once claimed to have held an office job for 35 years. Court records and other background checks uncovered nothing that sheds any light on her career.

In 1970, Miss Steinhagen, her sister and her parents bought a house on Chicago’s Northwest Side, where Miss Steinhagen lived a reclusive life. Her father died in 1990 and her mother died in 1992. Theodore’s 2002 book reported that Miss Steinhagen and her sister seldom communicated with neighbors or answered the door, largely keeping to themselves.

Miss Steinhagen’s sister, Rita Pendl, died at age 76 in 2007. She had no immediate survivors.

— Chicago Tribune