John Theodore was working as a news and sports producer at WGN when news of the death of former Cubs first baseman Eddie Waitkus came over the wire in the fall of 1972. As a student at the University of Illinois, Theodore had read Bernard Malamud's 1952 novel The Natural, whose hero, Roy Hobbs, is based on Waitkus. "I always knew that as a Philly in 1949 he was shot by a deranged girl," says Theodore, a South Shore native and Cubs fan who saw his first game at Wrigley in 1955. "I thought, 'I wonder what happened to this guy's life after that?' I knew he went on to the World Series, but the whole story intrigued me." Theodore held onto the obituary for decades before deciding as a freelance writer in the late 90s "to look into his life and see if there was a story there."
After talking to Waitkus's family, friends, fellow ballplayers, and army buddies, Theodore had enough material to fill a book. Baseball's Natural: The Story of Eddie Waitkus (Southern Illinois University Press) details Waitkus's life from his childhood in east Cambridge, Massachusetts, through his years with the Cubs and Phillies, when he was a handsome, witty, and well-dressed first baseman who spoke four languages and enjoyed the opera. Though he made two extraordinary career comebacks--from a 17-month stint in the Pacific during World War II, where he earned four Bronze Stars, and from the shooting, which nearly killed him--Waitkus couldn't shake the pain from his injuries and started drinking heavily. He retired from baseball in 1955, only to work a string of dead-end jobs, suffer a nervous breakdown, and get a divorce. He was living in a Cambridge boardinghouse when he died of esophageal cancer at 53.
"He was a brilliant guy," says Theodore. "You'd think he'd be able to fight off all these problems, but he was unable to." Waitkus suffered from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder--intense anxiety, severe depression, insomnia--and treated them with alcohol. "He became disconnected from all of the people who meant a great deal to him. He was without a center and really became a victim of himself."
On June 14, 1949, six months after the Cubs traded him to the Phillies, Waitkus returned to Chicago to play at Wrigley. That night, at the Edgewater Beach Hotel, he was shot in the chest by 19-year-old Ruth Ann Steinhagen, who had been obsessed with him for years and was apparently distraught that he now wore a Philadelphia uniform. She turned herself in the next day and was subsequently declared insane; she spent three years in treatment for schizophrenia at Kankakee State Hospital. Since then she's lived in seclusion. "We had a couple of brief phone conversations," says Theodore. "But she declined to give an interview and asked me to leave her alone--and I did."
He's struck by the parallels between Waitkus and Steinhagen. "Two people...from completely different backgrounds ended up suffering from demons they fought all their lives. It's kind of a sad story." He thinks it's a shame that people remember Waitkus for the shooting incident rather than for his record, which includes a 1947 inside-the-park grand slam for the Cubs, being voted to two All-Star teams, and a National League pennant in 1950 with the Phillies, when he also was named baseball's Comeback Player of the Year. If he hadn't been shot, Theodore says, "he surely would have played more than 11 years."
Unlike the fictional Hobbs, who sought fame and wound up bitter, Waitkus was by all accounts a gentleman, and spent his final summers coaching kids at the Ted Williams Baseball Camp outside Boston. "Of all the people I talked to--from baseball players to family members to sportswriters--everybody had remarkably good things to say about him," says Theodore. "Most wouldn't mention his drinking problem until I had spoken to them a few times. After 30 years they still had respect for this guy. It's a shame I didn't get the idea for the book when he was still alive. I would love to have known him."
Theodore will read from and discuss Baseball's Natural on Tuesday, November 26, at 7 at 57th Street Books, 1301 E. 57th (773-684-1300).
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.