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.
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.