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baseball's natural

23 January 2006

Biographies of early-to-mid-20th-century baseball players have abounded in recent years, but are often unsatisfying; they can read like lightly elaborated versions of the statistical profiles at Baseball-Reference. Fortunately for John Theodore, the subject of his book Baseball's Natural offers much interest beyond a .285 lifetime average. Eddie Waitkus, through no effort of his own, won an indelible place in the cultural history of sport.

On the night of 14 June 1949, Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Waitkus went to room 1297-A of the Edgewater Beach hotel in Chicago in response to a note from a young woman fan. That fan, Ruth Ann Steinhagen, without much preamble, shot Waitkus in the chest with a .22 rifle. The bullet punctured Waitkus's lung and lodged in his back muscles. Steinhagen had stalked Waitkus for years, starting when he played for the Cubs after distinguished combat service in World War II. She showed her low opinion of the rest of the National League by saying "He's the only one worth shooting. I wouldn't shoot anybody else."

Waitkus was rushed to the hospital and Steinhagen was rushed to jail. Though seriously wounded, Waitkus was in grave danger only once, later that night, when police got the bright idea of bringing Steinhagen to his bedside so that the ballplayer could identify her. Waitkus went into shock at the sight of his assailant, and was barely stabilized.

Indeed, as Theodore tells the story of Waitkus's life, the psychological after-effects of the attack were greater than the physical ones. Waitkus recovered to play a full season in 1950, helping the Phillies to the National League pennant. But the trauma of the shooting led him into alcoholism, and his baseball career ended a few years later.

Waitkus, though a two-time All-Star, was not a great player. A can't-miss prospect (and outstanding student) out of Cambridge, Massachusetts, he won a Pacific Coast League batting title in 1942 for the Los Angeles Angels. But in the majors, Waitkus was a light-hitting glove man at first, comparable to recent Angels like Scott Spiezio or Darin Erstad. He was the eldest regular in the 1950 Whiz Kids lineup, and led the club in runs scored.

He would be forever haunted, though, by the random workings of celebrity obsession that led Steinhagen to attempt his murder. The last years of Waitkus's life (he died in 1972) make for sad reading, as the former Whiz Kid battled alcoholism and depression (which Theodore traces not only to the 1949 shooting but to post-traumatic stress from Waitkus's war experiences).

Theodore's deft telling of his life generates a lot of sympathy for Waitkus, however. And Steinhagen, in this non-fiction treatment, is more interesting than fictional character Harriet Bird, the Annie-with-a-gun that Bernard Malamud loosely based on her in The Natural. Steinhagen was alive, a recluse on the West Side of Chicago, when Theodore published this biography in 2002 (and is by all accounts alive there today). She remains a mystery that both attracts and appalls.

Theodore, John. Baseball's Natural: The story of Eddie Waitkus. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002.