Excerpted from Eddie and the Gun Girl, a Kindle Single about the shooting of Eddie Waitkus, the real-life event that's best known as the fictional pivot of Bernard Malamud's The Natural. Annotations by the author appear throughout.
The Edgewater Beach Hotel was a city unto itself. At the edge of Lake Michigan, its deluxe accommodations included a heliport, a chocolate factory, and a veranda that opened up into a dance floor, where in the evening the big bands of the era played for elegantly dressed couples under the stars. The Phillies always looked forward to their visits to Chicago. Their evenings were free, and they were always cordially welcomed by the Fischetti brothers—Rocco, Charles, and Joseph, cousins of the late Al Capone and overlords of the Chicago mafia. The way that coach Maje McDonnell remembered the story, a Philadelphia player had once helped out the Fischettis' elderly mother, who had been living at the Edgewater and had somehow injured herself. The Fischettis had a hand in the infamous Chez Paree nightclub and, as a gesture of gratitude, made sure to always reserve private tables for the players. Appearing at the Chez Paree the week of June 13 were "The Gorgeous" Gertrude Niesen, comedian Henny Youngman, tap artists Tommy and Jeanne Mahoney, juggler Rudy Cardenas, Cee Davidson and His Orchestra, and the Chez Paree Rumba Band.
Ruth Steinhagen checked into the Edgewater on Monday, June 13, with the alias Ruth Anne Burns. The alias belonged to a young woman with whom Eddie Waitkus had attended high school; Ruth had found her name and photograph in an old yearbook. At Wrigley Field the following day, Ruth sat amid a sparse crowd of 7,815 as the Phillies whipped the Cubs 9–2. Eddie contributed a single in four at-bats and scored two runs.
At the hotel that evening, Ruth ate dinner and ordered a daiquiri and two whiskey sours. She then found some stationery, sat down at a table, and wrote two notes. The first was for her parents. In it, she said: "I hope you understand things.… I love you." The second was for Eddie. She sealed it in an envelope. When the bellman showed up with her cocktails, she handed it to him, asked that he deliver to it "Mr. Waitkus," and pressed a five-dollar tip into his hand. She then stretched out on her bed, drowsy from the alcohol and unsure if she would go through with her plan. At one point she told herself she would let Eddie in on her crazy scheme and the two of them would just have a laugh over it.
Sharply dressed and smelling of cologne, the Philadelphia players headed out for the evening in fine spirits. The win that day over the Cubs had closed the Phillies within three games of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Eddie had dinner that evening with Russ Meyer, his girl, Mary, and his parents, who had driven up from central Illinois. On their way back to the hotel, an eruption of violent thunderstorms swept through Chicago: Hundreds of cars were stranded along North Lake Shore Drive; a thousand calls came in to the fire department with reports of flooded basements; electrical shorts caused the horns on parked automobiles across the city to blare. Lightning shot across the sky as Eddie hurried into the lobby of the Edgewater, where he picked up his key and headed to his room. There, sitting on his dresser, he found the note Ruth had written him. He opened it and began reading:
JUNE 14, 1949
Mr. Waitkus —
It's extremely important that I see you as soon as possible.
We're not acquainted, but I have something of importance to speak to you about. I think it would be to your advantage to let me explain it to you.
As I'm leaving the hotel the day after tomorrow, I'd appreciate it greatly if you could see me as soon as possible.
My name is Ruth Anne Burns, and I'm in room 1297a.
I realize that this is a little out of the ordinary, but as I said, it's rather important.
Please, come soon. I won't take up much of your time, I promise.
It was getting late, and Ruth had all but given up hope that she would hear from Eddie, when the telephone rang. The abruptness of it startled her. Even more, she was surprised to hear his voice—friendly yet prodding, in a hurry to get to the bottom of why she had contacted him. Ruth composed herself, reiterated the urgency of the matter, and invited him up. As soon as they hung up, Ruth began preparations for his arrival. From her suitcase in the closet, she removed a package wrapped in old newspapers, which concealed the rifle she had purchased weeks before and had hidden away in her bedroom. She assembled it and placed it behind the closet door. A martini glass and some mixers sat on her dresser. She sat in a chair by the window and reviewed her plan. She would stab Eddie with the paring knife she had in her purse, and use the gun on herself. Suddenly, there was a tap at the door.
Ruth opened it, and there he stood: Eddie Waitkus, closer than he had ever been to her. He looked her in the eye. She unsnapped her purse, but he walked by her into the room. He sat down in the chair by the window and said, "What do you want to see me about?"
"I have a surprise for you," Ruth said. She reached behind the closet door and retrieved the rifle, which she then raised and aimed at Eddie. "Get up and move by the window."
Eddie stood and stammered. "What is this all about? What have I done?"
Eddie wondered if it was gag. He expected his roommate "Swish" Nicholson to pop out from behind the bathroom door and declare the scene a big joke. Players were incurable pranksters, and many of them would go to extravagant lengths to get one over on a teammate. Once, in Utica, New York, a trainer arranged for new players to go out on double dates with a veteran teammate. They would go to a farmhouse, and the new player would be sitting on the sofa with his date when her angry, shotgun-wielding "husband" would come cursing through the door. "So this is the guy you've been running around with?" the "husband" would shout. He would pull out a gun, point it at the woman, and fire. (Unbeknownst to the player, the gun was full of blanks.) The woman would fall to the floor. Once, or so the story goes, a player was so scared that he crashed through a big glass window and began running. When he returned to the hotel, the police were there to ask him some questions (they were in on the joke). The poor fellow was so beside himself that the pranksters had to call it off for fear that he would have a heart attack.
Eddie moved toward the window.
"For two years you've been bothering me," Ruth said, following him with the barrel of her gun. "And now you are going to die."
Eddie flashed a worried smile. "What in the world goes on here?"
Ruth squeezed the trigger.
Eddie staggered back on his heels. He slid to the floor and turned over on his back. "Baby, what did you do that for?" he wailed. Ruth lowered herself to the floor and searched his body for blood. Not immediately seeing any, she wondered if the bullet had actually struck him. She placed her hand over his and asked him where he had been shot. "In the guts," he said. At that moment, their eyes met. A look of horror crossed his face. "You like this," he said. Although her plan had been to then commit suicide, Ruth now had cold feet.
She dialed the hotel operator and announced: "I just shot a man." She stepped out in the hallway to get away from Eddie, who was moaning on the floor by the window. House detective Edward Purdy and a doctor appeared in the long hallway, but otherwise it remained empty, which perplexed and even irked Ruth. "Nobody came out of their rooms," she said later. "You would think they would all come rushing out. I got mad." When she told the people who did show up, "I shot Eddie Waitkus," none of them appeared to know who Eddie Waitkus was. Again, she looked down the hall, only to find it deserted, the doors closed. "I was burning because nobody was coming out of those rooms," she said. "Nobody seemed to want me much. I could have walked right out of the place and nobody would have come after me."
Nineteen-year-old Ruth Steinhagen, right, plays ball with the inmates of the Cook County Jail in Chicago while awaiting trial. Photo via AP.
Covered to his chin with a blanket, Eddie was carried on a stretcher and placed in an ambulance. As word of what happened spread among his stunned teammates, who had convened in the hotel lobby for updates on his condition, Eddie was sped to Illinois Masonic Hospital, where his condition was termed "critical." Unable to immediately remove the bullet—which had caused his right lung to collapse and lodged near his spine—a team of four doctors worked on him, giving him oxygen and two blood transfusions. Dr. L.L. Braun said it was "touch and go" whether he would live, that it would be 48 to 72 hours before he would stabilize. But he was alert enough for the police to bring Ruth to his hospital room for him to identify. Pale and groggy, Eddie nodded and said, "She did it."
"Why did you shoot me?" he asked her again.
Ruth hesitated. "I'm not sure," she said, and turned away as police led her to the door. Reverend Robert Duffy bestowed on Eddie the Sacrament of Confession.
The Tribune carried a Page One headline on June 15 that read ED WAITKUS SHOT; QUIZ GIRL. Under that was the subhead "Ball Player Wounded in Hotel Room." A four-paragraph bulletin followed. Few details were known at that point, only that Eddie had been at the Edgewater Beach Hotel and that he had been shot by a woman in her room. While the assumption was that a liaison between the two had gone awry, it was still unclear what he was doing in that hotel room—although one nun in a Philadelphia grammar school explained it innocently enough. She told her seventh-grade class that Eddie had joined Ruth to say a rosary, and asked the children to include the player in their prayers. When young Jerry Stahlecker sat down to dinner that evening, he told his parents what the nun had said.
"He was up there to say the rosary," said Jerry, 12 years old.
"Yeah," chimed in his father, Gerald, a Philadelphia cop. "They were doing the Glorious Mysteries."
Attendants wheeled Eddie through a crowd of 50 or 60 onlookers and into the Cook County felony court building. With him that June 30 were W.H. Tenney, the hospital superintendent; Dr. Andrew Dick; James Gallagher, the Cubs general manager; a nurse; and a detective sergeant. Exhausted but dressed in a proper blue suit and striped tie, Eddie rode a reserved elevator to the fourth floor and entered the jammed courtroom, where spectators pressed up noisily behind the counsel table for a closer look at the proceedings. Sharply, Judge Matthew D. Hartigan ordered, "Everyone be seated, or else be quiet!"
Hawking papers came with ease for newsboys across America that June. In the two weeks that had passed since the shooting, the headlines had been bold, speculative, and lurid. One heralded an exclusive jailhouse interview with Ruth in red ink: WHY I SHOT ED WAITKUS. Others boomed: IS CRUSH FAN RUTH REALLY A PSYCHO?; 'I WILL DIE IF HE DIES,' SHE WEEPS; RUTH STEINHAGEN 'HAPPY IN JAIL; WAITKUS TO FACE GUN GIRL IN COURT. With TV still in its embryonic age, a story like this could carry street sales for days, if only because of the universal appeal of a sex scandal. All of Chicago was drawn in, and it became the sole topic of conversation in shops and bars throughout the city. Get-well cards addressed to Eddie poured into the hospital by the hundreds, including one that ventured, "You probably knew this Ruth in a previous existence." Salutations also came from Billy Jurges, the former Cubs shortstop who had been shot by a jealous lover in a Chicago hotel room in 1932. "Tough break," the card from "Bulletproof Billy" said. Surrounded in his hospital room by enough flowers for a gangland send-off, Eddie was descended upon by waves of visitors: his father and brother-in-law, his teammates, and even a contingent of Lithuanian women adorned in Old World headpieces. Eddie joked that there should be a sign on his door proclaiming: "It moves. It breathes. It walks just like a human being. Come one, come all to The Greatest Show on Earth." One day an elderly stranger stopped in and began criticizing the Cubs for trading him.
Eddie Waitkus smiles from his hospital bed. That's his father, Stephen, holding up his arm. Photo via AP.
"I used to see you with the Cubs," the visitor said. "Knew you'd be a pretty good player some day. I hear you made it."
"Yeah, I made it," Eddie said. "Made it into a hospital bed."
"Worse places than that," the visitor said. "They tell me you had a close call. Sorry to hear it."
"Who are you, a disappointed coffin salesman?" Eddie said, adding that he had gotten a card from a fellow trying to sell him a tombstone.
"Nope," the visitor said. "Just stopped in to see what you look like and say you ought to be with the Cubs."
"That would be ducky," Eddie told him. "Then Ruthie could take a shot at me every day."
The bullet Ruth had planted in Eddie had come within a quarter-inch of severing his pulmonary artery. "What do you think of that?" he joked with newsmen from his hospital bed. "Four island invasions in the Pacific and not even a headache."
Doctors said he survived only because he had been in such strong physical condition, and possessed a sturdy vitality that prompted his teammates to call him Nature Boy and Vitamins. In early interviews with reporters, Eddie had shrugged off Ruth as "a silly honey," but that could have been just the drugs talking, steeping him in a haze that held back his authentic feelings. Just days later he was saying of Ruth: They should "lock her up and throw away the key." He was unmoved by a letter of apology he received from the Steinhagens that began, "Here are a few lines to let you know how sorry we are about the terrible thing our daughter has done to you." Eddie tossed it onto the table by his bed.
Whatever attention she had been in search of came to Ruth at the Cook County Jail. Sergeant Nick Reidy characterized her as a "thrill killer" and said that under questioning, she changed her story "every time she rolled her eyes." Paper and pencils were sent into the cell for her to set down her history for Dr. Haines, which she did at some length in the erratic hand of a schoolgirl. While she said she was happy behind bars, she found the jailhouse apparel lacking in style and hoped that her parents would bring her bobby pins and lipstick when they came to see her. Nor did she like it that she was given only newspapers to read, with references to her crime clipped out. But she got along well in jail: She ate and slept well, played softball in the prison yard with other inmates, and received spiritual counseling from her former pastor, Reverend George J. Ossentjuk. When a Philadelphia reporter asked if she ever wanted to settle down "when this is over with," she looked blankly him and replied, "That would be impossible now. I have a past that cannot be forgotten."
Guided into the sweltering courtroom by a bailiff, Ruth appeared comely in a chartreuse blouse with a big black bow, a black skirt with large pockets, and green high heels. In the anteroom prior to the proceedings, she became atwitter when she caught a glimpse of Eddie rolling by the door in his wheelchair. She told reporters there that she was "scared," but she was "excited" too, as deeply in love with Eddie as she had always been. "I will always love him," said Ruth, who added that she was sorry for the suffering she had caused him. "I feel the same as ever [toward Eddie], even more so." The only feeling Eddie had was anger; he told reporters he would kick her if he could. "I have no compassion for her," he said. "Furthermore, she ruined a sixty-dollar suit by shooting me through the coat." When the two were in place at the counsel table, separated by no more than five feet, Ruth gave him a sidelong look, and then averted her eyes. A photographer called to him, "Point your finger at her, Eddie!" But Eddie replied sharply, "No!" Ruth chewed vigorously on a piece of gum.
Eddie Waitkus sits in a wheelchair during a hearing for Ruth Steinhagen, left.
Legally, the case was wrapped up with what the papers called a "judicial triple play." Eddie was sworn in and asked to identify the woman who shot him; only then did he look at Ruth. When defense attorney Michael Brodkin waived cross-examination, asking only that the psychiatric report on Ruth be included in the court record, Judge Hartigan held Ruth on $50,000 bail for grand jury action. When the hearing ended at 10:10 a.m., Eddie was wheeled into the grand jury room, where he once again told his story. Less than an hour later, at 11:05, the grand jury of 12 men and 11 women indicted Ruth for assault with intent to commit murder. A criminal court jury then found her insane in a judgment directed by Chief Justice James J. McDermott, who ordered her committed to Kankakee State Hospital. Ruth bowed her head as the verdict was delivered.
A car drove Eddie back the hospital as soon as the proceedings had ended. His legs were rubbery as a doctor and his nurse helped him out of his suit and into his bedclothes. "Gee, that was terrible," he told them. "Worse than a doubleheader in August." Over at the Cook County Jail, Ruth crammed her belongings into a paper bag and waved good-bye to the crowd that had formed as she stepped into the car that would spirit her away to Kankakee, where she would lie on her bed as "Eddie" once again came upon her. She asked him, "What are you going to do about me now?"
Mark Kram Jr. is the author of Like Any Normal Day: A Story of Devotion, the winner of the 2013 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing. See more at www.markkramjr.com. His last appearance on The Stacks was a postscript to his father's great profile of Muhammad Ali in decline. You can buy Eddie and the Gun Girl on Amazon.