Dreams Turned Nightmares
In 1949, a 29-year-old Phillies first baseman was surging. Standing more than 6-feet tall, 175 lbs. and equipped with a pleasant disposition, he had the total package. Whether at the plate or in the field, he exuded cool. Former teammate Lennie Merullo said of Eddie Waitkus, “It was like his head actually rested on top of the bat. His head never moved.” (33, Baseball’s)
1. Waitkus compared favorably to Johnny Mize and other stars of his era almost as soon as he reached the big leagues.
As a 19-year old minor leaguer, Waitkus roomed with the wily Dizzy Dean while Dean rehabbed. Dean was a shrewd evaluator of talent even if he sometimes seemed glib. “There ain’t going to be anybody in the National League outfield him.” (26) Rogers Hornsby knew something about manning the infield, and he called Waitkus the “best first baseman in the business.” (38)
2. Before TV, let alone TMZ and Twitter, there were still rabid fans.
So what happened? Young women, who looked like they belonged in the best of settings, had long dressed to the hilt to steal a glance from their baseball dreamboats. Don’t exclude older women from this group, either. Gold diggers we might call them nowadays. In 1932, a crazed Cubs fan shot her idol, Billy Jurges. His assailant decided if she could not have him for herself, no one else could either. She scrawled a suicide note, but the incident did not play out fully and Jurges recovered to join his teammates.
3. Theodore presents the details of Waitkus’ life so vividly that you wish it were only a work of fiction.
Waitkus served as the inspiration for “The Natural.” Spring turned to summer in 1949 and Waitkus turned up the heat. He led National League first baseman in all-star voting and also captured the attention of plenty of admirers off the ballfield. Ruth Ann Steinhagen’s bedroom was a shrine to the former Cub turned Philly. Steinhagen lived and breathed for Waitkus. She had to have him one way or another. On June 14, 1949, she had a note delivered to the ballplayer. Intrigued, he followed it to his downfall. Steinhagen was all business upon his arrival. She shot her deranged love interest within moments. Waitkus recovered, but what he suffered physically and psychologically cast a shadow far greater than his wartime service in Japan.
“Baseball’s Natural: The Story of Eddie Waitkus“ is the story of a man who was always dreaming. Unfortunately far too many dreams became nightmares.
Sam Miller is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he worked with various teams in sports information and received the Freedom Forum – NCAA Sports Journalism Scholarship for his achievements. During the 2009 season, Miller served as communications intern for the Angels’ Triple-A affiliate. Prior to that, he worked as a communications intern for USA Basketball and as an associate reporter for MLB.com.