Baseball’s Natural: The Story of Eddie Waitkus is John Theodore’s true account of the slick-fielding first baseman who played for the Cubs and Phillies in the 1940s and became an immortalized figure in baseball lore as the inspiration for Roy Hobbs in Bernard Malamud’s The Natural.
The son of Lithuanian immigrants, Edward Stephen Waitkus (1919–1972) grew up in Boston and served in the Pacific during World War II. His army service in some of the war’s bloodiest combat earned him four Bronze Stars. Following the war, Waitkus became one of the most popular players of his era. As a rookie he led the Cubs in hitting in 1946 and quickly established himself as one of the best first basemen in the National League. To the disappointment of fans, the Cubs traded Waitkus to the Phillies in December of 1948. When he returned to Chicago in a Philadelphia uniform in June of the following year, he was hitting .306 and seemed destined for the All Star team.
On the night of June 14 at the Edgewater Beach Hotel, Waitkus’s bright career took an infamously tragic turn. He received a cryptic note summoning him to meet a young fan, Ruth Steinhagen. When Waitkus entered her hotel room, she proclaimed, “I have a surprise for you,” and then she just as quickly shot him in the chest. Steinhagen, then only nineteen, was one of the many young women—called “Baseball Annies”–who were fanatic about the game and its players, though her obsession proved more dangerous than most. A criminal court indicted Steinhagen and confined her to a state mental hospital for nearly three years.
Waitkus survived the shooting, made an inspirational return to baseball in 1950, and led the Phillies to the World Series. While Waitkus triumphed over his assault, he could not conquer his private demons. Depression stemming from the attack led to a severe problem with alcohol, a failed marriage, and a nervous breakdown. Waitkus found some happiness in his final summers working with youngsters at the Ted Williams baseball camp. Cancer claimed him in 1972, just days after his fifty-third birthday.
Through interviews with Waitkus’s family, fellow servicemen, former ballplayers, and childhood friends, and aided by fifteen photographs, Theodore chronicles Waitkus’s remarkable comeback as well as the difficult years following his eleven-year major league career.