This story is the latest installment in the Sports Illustrated True Crime series, which explores the intersection of sports and crime through in-depth storytelling, enhanced photos, video and interactive elements. For more features in this series, visit the SI True Crime homepage.
The following is excerpted from THE CHICAGO CUBS: Story of a Curse by Rich Cohen, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2017 by Rich Cohen. All rights reserved.
Eddie Waitkus, a tall, slender 29-year-old first baseman, had played well that afternoon—June 14, 1949—reaching base twice in his second trip back to Wrigley Field since the Cubs traded him to the Phillies. He’d finished a couple postgame cocktails in the lobby of Chicago’s Edgewater Beach Hotel when a bellboy told him a message was waiting at the desk. It was written on hotel stationery:
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.
Burns. The name sounded familiar. He asked the receptionist to check the register. Where is she from? Portland Street, East Cambridge, Massachusetts. Eddie’s street, Eddie’s town.
He called from a house phone.
The woman who answered sounded sleepy.
“This is Eddie Waitkus,” he said.
“Come up to my room right away,” she told him. “I have a surprise for you.”
He looked at his watch. Midnight.
Eddie Waitkus was a standout in the National League. He’d broken in as a rookie with the Cubs in 1941 and—after missing three years while serving as an Army corporal in the Pacific and earning four Bronze Stars in World War II—had developed into a dangerous hitter and a fan favorite with the postwar Cubbies. He batted over .300 in 1946 and was an All-Star in ’48. Along the way he took on the trappings of a celebrity. He wore finely tailored suits and beautiful shoes. He was well-read, sophisticated. He was probably happy with his afternoon performance—he’d scored twice, and his team won 9–2; no matter the uniform, he always got a warm reception at Wrigley Field.
He knocked on the door. The woman was wearing a silky robe.
Waitkus walked past her into the room.
“What’s it all about?” he asked.
“I have a surprise for you,” she said, then went to the closet.
Ruth Ann Steinhagen was a 19-year-old Baseball Annie. She’d grown up in Cicero, Ill., where she fixated on one celebrity after another. First the actor Alan Ladd, then the Our Gang actor and Cubs outfielder Peanuts Lowrey, finally Waitkus. She would stand outside the Cubs clubhouse, hoping to see him, get his autograph. He’d talked to her a few times. She read up on him in the sports pages. She lived with her parents then, and her sister. The walls of her room were covered with pictures of Eddie. She’d found a copy of his high school yearbook—that’s where she got the name “Burns.” She studied Lithuanian so she’d understand the language of his grandparents. She told her mother about Waitkus—she referred to him as “Eddie”—speaking as if he were a boyfriend. Me and Eddie this. Me and Eddie that. At some point she began talking about the wedding. “Me and Eddie are gonna get married.”
It wasn’t Waitkus’s fault that he’d been traded to Philadelphia—he was part of a multiplayer deal meant to rebuild the Cubs, who’d finished 271⁄2 games out of first place in 1948—but Steinhagen blamed him anyway. He was not leaving the Cubs. He was leaving her: the marriage, the life they would live together. She cried for days. She told her parents she was moving to an apartment in the city to be closer to Eddie. (This was nonsensical, of course, and probably a symptom of her mania.) She worked as a secretary downtown, but her real life was all about Eddie. She built a shrine to him in her apartment, pictures lit by candles, headlines and scorecards, pennants, stubs from the more than 50 games she’d attended for Eddie. The way she spoke of him was chilling, considering she didn’t know him at all. Love at its purest is insanity. “I used to go to all the ball games to watch him,” Steinhagen would say later. “We used to wait for them to get out of the clubhouse after the game, and all the time I was watching I was building in my mind the idea of killing him.”
She purchased a used rifle and bullets, found out when the Phillies were coming to town and where they’d be staying, and got a room in the same hotel. She ordered drinks from room service—two whiskey sours and a daiquiri—then downed them to quiet her mind. “As time went on, I just became nuttier and nuttier about the guy,” she admitted later. “I knew I would never get to know him in a normal way, so I kept thinking I will never get him, and if I can’t have him, nobody else can. Then I decided I would kill him.”
She came out of the closet with the gun. Waitkus held up his hands with a half smile, saying, “What goes on here? Is this some kind of joke? What have I done?”
“When I turned around, there she was with this rifle,” Waitkus would tell investigators. “She had the coldest looking face I ever saw. No expression at all. She wasn’t happy; she wasn’t anything. She said, ‘You’re not going to bother me anymore.’ Before I could say anything, whammy!”
“For a minute I didn’t think I shot him, because he just stood there,” she said later, “and then he crashed against the wall. I just looked at him. He kept saying, ‘Baby, why did you do that?’ And then I said, ‘I don’t believe I shot you.’ . . . I asked him where he’d been shot—I couldn’t see a bullet hole or blood or anything. He said I shot him in the guts, and I was convinced he was shot. I don’t know why. I thought, Well now it’s time to shoot myself; and I told him. Then I tried to find the bullets, but I couldn’t find them, and I lost my nerve.”
Waitkus had been shot in the chest. A .22-caliber bullet pierced his lung and lodged near his spine. Steinhagen stood there, looking at him. Then she got down and hugged him, staring into his eyes. “I’ve dreamt and dreamt about killing him,” she said later, “and there I was holding him in my arms. Don’t you see all my dreams had come true?”
Waitkus said, “Please, baby, I need help.”
She ran into the hall and screamed, “Eddie Waitkus, the ballplayer, has been shot!”
She shouted again, “I shot Eddie Waitkus!”
“I was burning because nobody was coming out,” she told investigators. “Nobody seemed to want me much. I could have walked right out of the place, and nobody would have come after me.”
Waitkus was rushed to the hospital, operated on and operated on again. He recovered and was back on the field in 1950. He’d play six major league seasons after the shooting, some of them golden, but the trajectory of his life had been altered. He turned sickly, scared. Nothing was the same. He was haunted by the shooting. “The loneliness was part of it,” he told Sport Life magazine in 1950. “The pain was part of it, but it went deeper than that. There was an awful doubt in my mind. And no matter how I tried to ignore it—always knew it was there.” He had trouble keeping weight on. By 1955 he was out of the game. He died of esophageal cancer in 1972. He was 53.
Steinhagen was declared insane by a judge and committed to Kankakee State Hospital, where she would spend three years. In a hearing, asked what she’d do if she got out, she said she’d finish what she started. “Eddie is the only one worth killing,” she explained. She left the hospital in 1952, eventually moving into a house on the North Side, where she lived quietly the rest of her life. When she died in 2012, it took the newspapers months to notice.
The shooting resonated. It generated hundreds of newspaper headlines, sober accounts and garishly sensational stories. It touched on the strangeness of celebrity and the fear every player has of fans. More than a cautionary tale, it was a parable. It said something fundamental about the game: the road trips and hotels, the strange women in the lobby bars, the music and booze and temptations and fear. It was a Chicago story, a blood-soaked chapter in the book of Cubs fandom.
It was reworked and woven into American lore, most famously by Bernard Malamud, who, in The Natural, turned it into a kind of myth: There’s a ballplayer, Roy Hobbs, from beyond the farthest city light, who, at 15, can already do everything. All the clichés apply: runs like the wind, hits like a hammer, throws like a cannon. Before he even gets started, though, he’s summoned to a strange room in a strange Chicago hotel:
Through the white-curtained window the sight of the endless dark lake sent a shiver down his spine. Then he saw her standing shyly in the far corner of the room, naked under the gossamer thing she wore. . . .
As he shut the door she reached into the hat box which lay open next to a vase of white roses on the table and fitted the black feathered hat on her head. A thick veil fell to her breasts. In her hand she held a squat, shining pistol.
He was greatly confused and thought she was kidding but a grating lump formed in his throat and his blood shed ice. He cried out in a gruff voice, “What’s wrong here?” . . .
The bullet cut a silver line across the water. He sought with his bare hands to catch it, but it eluded him and, to his horror, bounced into his gut.
In class, they tell you that this disaster, which befalls the hero right at the start, stands for the end of innocence. To me, it’s about the loss of potential. For the rest of his life, the kid would focus not on how good he became but on how good he might have been had he not been unlucky.
Roy Hobbs was shot because he failed the test of purity—he was not yet good enough to break all those records. Eddie Waitkus was shot for no reason at all. Its meaning was in having no meaning. It was chaos, insanity, how fame can drive the people in the seats mad. Of course, it was not entirely meaningless for Cubs fans. To them, it suggested a deep truth: It had become weird and terrible to love this team.