The Stalker and the Slugger: The Bizarre Story Behind a Legendary Baseball Movie

Eddie “The Natural” Waitkus survived certain death to live in legend.


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One night in 1949, one particular stalking case came to a head as an obsessed fan shot war hero and Major League Baseball star Eddie Waitkus. Waitkus’s story would inspire a novel that in turn would become one of the greatest films ever made about the sport of baseball. This is the story of The Natural.

Eddie Waitkus was born in 1919 and was playing semipro baseball by 1938. His already advanced skillset as a rookie earned him the nickname “The Natural.” The leftie first baseman’s Major League debut came in April 1941 as a member of the Chicago Cubs. Unfortunately, nearly all professional sports would soon be disrupted following the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II. Like many of his fellow athletes, Waitkus served; as a soldier in the U.S. Army, he saw intense action in the Philippines.

Los Angeles Angels team president Pants Rowland (left) shaking hands with first baseman Eddie Waitkus (right) in 1942. (Los Angeles Daily News via Wikimedia Commons; Public domain)

Waitkus was a talented baseball player, but during the war, he was a genuine hero. During his service, he earned four Bronze Stars. At one point during the Allies’ massive push known as Operation Cartwheel, Waitkus was commended for saving the life of a wounded fellow soldier when he left a foxhole, braving enemy fire, in order to find anything to stop the man’s bleeding. After obtaining safety pins, Waitkus waded through the firefight again to help pin the man’s wounds closed.

Once the war was over, Waitkus returned to baseball and the Cubs. He was popular not just for his on-the-field play, which was stellar, but for his assured media personality. Aside from being a smart interview, he could speak four languages in addition to English (those being French, German, Polish, and Lithuanian, the language of his parents). Despite his success in Chicago, the team ended up swapping him to the Philadelphia Phillies in a four-player deal after the close of the 1948 season.

In June of 1949, Waitkus and the Phillies were in Chicago to play his former team, staying at the Edgewater Beach Hotel on Lake Michigan. At that point in the 1949 season, he had played 54 games for the Phillies; he was having a great season, posting a .306 batting average with 41 runs scored and 27 RBI. Whether it was his baseball prowess, his general attractiveness, his history as a war hero, or a combination of factors, he had over the past few years become the object of obsession of Ruth Ann Steinhagen, a 19-year-old typist from the Lincoln Park area.

According to later police records and family interviews, Steinhagen became a fan of Waitkus while he was with the Cubs. Though stalking cases were still fairly rare, or at least not as widely reported at the time, elements of Steinhagen’s obsession would echo later cases. She kept dozens, if not hundreds, of press clippings and pictures of Waitkus, reportedly covering the ceiling of her room. She also had a suitcase full of material; her mother said that she’d look at her articles for hours at a time. Steinhagen’s parents understood that something was wrong and even sent their daughter to get psychiatric help. Investigators later theorized that Waitkus’s trade to the Phillies might have made things worse, as Steinhagen went from regularly seeing him at the ballpark or in local news to rare occasions.

The Natural trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Film Chan)

On June 14, 1949, the Phillies played the Cubs. After the game, Waitkus had dinner with Phillies pitcher Russ Meyer, Meyer’s fiancée, and other members of Meyer’s family. Meyer himself was a former Cub who had been traded to Philadelphia, and Meyer and Waitkus were road-trip roommates. When they returned to the Edgewater Beach Hotel, they found a note waiting for Waitkus from a “Ruth Ann Burns” who wanted to meet with Waitkus at another room on a matter of some urgency. Reporting later revealed that Waitkus had been dating a woman with relatives named Burns, and he tried calling the room number first to see what was wrong. He spoke to Steinhagen, who insisted they speak in person. Waitkus went to see what the situation was.

Though accounts vary, almost as soon as Waitkus entered the room, Steinhagen shot him with a .22 caliber rifle. He was struck in the chest. Steinhagen called the front desk and told them what she’d done. Emergency services arrived quickly, and Waitkus was soon in surgery at Illinois Masonic Hospital. Doctors reported that they nearly lost Waitkus on more than one occasion during the operation, but they managed to remove the bullet, and Waitkus survived. Steinhagen would never actually go to trial for the shooting, but instead be institutionalized for years.

Amazingly, Waitkus recovered and returned to baseball the next year. The Phillies made a run for the National League pennant that seasons, and Waitkus was a major contributor with a team-leading 102 runs scored. The team won the pennant, but lost in the World Series to an insanely loaded New York Yankees team that included future Hall of Famers Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, and Phil Rizzuto. Waitkus would play for the Phillies until 1953, spend one season with the Baltimore Orioles, and then retire with the Phillies in 1955.

Before Waitkus retired, his story had attracted the attention of teacher and writer Bernard Malamud, who based his first novel on Waitkus’s story. 1952’s The Natural tells the story of Roy Hobbs, a promising baseball player whose career is derailed after an obsessed woman shoots him. Sixteen years later, Hobbs returns to the game, trying to keep his past secret as he lifts the fortunes of the New York Knights team. Mythological and religious images abound, and the novel moves to an ambiguous, down ending. The novel set Malamud on a path to success, and in 1967 he won both the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Award for fiction for his novel The Fixer.

A scene from The Natural (Uploaded to YouTube by Movieclips)

Just over 30 years after The Natural was published, the rights to the film adaptation landed at Tri-Star Pictures. The movie had been in development since the mid-’70s, bouncing around various producers and possible writers. Phil Dusenberry wrote a first draft, and Roger Towne wrote the next; both would be credited on the final film. Barry Levinson came aboard to direct, and Robert Redford took the role of Roy Hobbs.

Though the film retained the mythic implications of the novel, Levinson made the story into a more uplifting and inspirational kind of picture. The Natural came loaded with a stacked cast; in addition to Redford, it starred Glenn Close, Robert Duvall, Darren McGavin, Kim Basinger, Wilford Brimley, Richard Farnsworth, Robert Prosky, Michael Madsen, and Barbara Hershey. It was a box office success, but a mild one when held up against the absolutely insane results brought in by the films of the summer of 1984. It was, however, a critical favorite and nominated for four Academy Awards: Actress in a Supporting Role (Close); Cinematography (Caleb Deschanel); Art Direction (Mel Bourne, Angelo P. Graham, Bruce Weintraub); and Music (Randy Newman). Since its release, The Natural regularly appears near the top of lists of the best sports films, and Randy Newman’s score has been highly praised for its soaring tone.

It’s strange to think that a shocking crime from 75 years ago would lead to an inspirational film 35 years later, but such is the stuff of Hollywood. In the 40 years since The Natural hit the screen, only a few films (Field of Dreams or Hoosiers, perhaps) have managed to imbue sports with a type of mythic romance. Ironic, of course, given the source material. But if the true story of Eddie Waitkus offers any kind of lesson, it’s that heroism, whether on the sports field or the battlefield, often comes from unlikely places.

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  1. ‘The Natural’ was one of THE best films about baseball ever made, along with ‘Field of Dreams’ 5 years later. ‘Hoosiers’ also. Can’t imagine any of them being made today, which considering the state of films, is a good thing. I learned a lot here, and appreciate the links.


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