Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
Phillies first baseman Eddie Waitkus' shooting by a fan became part of the novel The Natural.
Edward Waitkus was born on September 14, 1919. He best known as a great baseball player and an even greater first baseman. Waitkus was a World War II veteran, and he came back after the war to continue his baseball career. He was shot by a crazed woman in 1949, and he recovered shortly after and returned to baseball. He married Carol Webel and had two children, Veronica and Edward Waitkus Jr. In 1972, he passed away from esophageal cancer at the age of 53.
Born on September 14, 1919, Edward Waitkus was the son of Veronica and Stephen Waitkus. His parents had emigrated from Lithuania and met while they were on the ship heading to America. Stephen Waitkus was a butcher and worked at Faneuil Hall in Boston. Waitkus had a younger sister, Stella (Kasperwicz). He was raised in East Cambridge, Massachusetts. He attended Kelley Grammar School as a young child and was also an altar boy at the St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church where his family was very involved. A few blocks away from his home was Cambridge Field, where Waitkus first began playing baseball. He was originally a right-handed pitcher. However, when he was eight years old, his father bought him his first glove, which was a first baseman's glove; his father did not know here was a difference. The young Waitkus did not want to disappoint his father by telling him that he gave him the wrong type of glove, so he taught himself how to throw left-handed. At the age of 14, his mother passed away due to pneumonia.
Waitkus attended Cambridge High and Latin School where he was an honor student and a star debater. He began playing baseball for the school during his sophomore year. If his mother had not passed away, he would have gone on to college, since it was important to her. In his senior year of high school his batting average was .600, and he had hit a home run. Furthermore, he was named to every All Scholastic Team in the greater Boston area. In 1937, he graduated sixth out of a class of 600, and he was offered a chance to play ball at Holy Cross. He really had a passion for baseball, so he turned down Holy Cross to play in the Suburban Twilight League of Boston. He played for the Frisoli team.
After his start with the Suburban Twilight League, his career as a baseball player kicked off. He then moved on to the Maine League and played for the Worumbo Indians of Lisbon Falls, Maine. While playing in the Maine League, he was named to an all-America semipro team after the semipro tournament that first year. Because of his outstanding performance in 1938, the Yankees wanted him. However, the Chicago Cubs beat out the Yankees. The Cubs gave him a $2,500 bonus and signed him to play for the Moline Plow Boys of the Three-I League, where he received a stipend of $300 a month. In 1939, Waitkus was named to the Three-I League All Star Team. The Cubs moved him up to the Texas League in 1940.
The Cubs then decided the next year to invite him to spring training on Catalina Island. After the training ended, he became a member of the Cubs. He made his major league debut on April 15, 1941, playing at Wrigley Field. The Cubs were not doing well as a team that year, and Waitkus's batting statistics were not a high as before, so they decided to send Waitkus back to the Texas League to finish out the season. The following year they sent him to play in the Pacific Coast League for the Los Angeles Angels. In 1943, the Cubs wanted Waitkus to come back and play with them again, but he was drafted into the army during World War II.
In the spring of 1943, he was sent to basic training at Fort Devins in Massachusetts, where he was prepped for an overseas assignment in order to become a member of the 544th Engineer and Boat and Shore Regiment. He was sent to San Francisco where he was then sent off to New Guinea. After spending over a year participating in assault missions as a machine gunner, he was then moved to the Island of Morotai where Japan was trying to take hold of the Netherlands Island.
Waitkus received many awards for his service during the war. He earned four Bronze Stars and also four overseas bars. The ribbons that he received were the American Theatre Ribbon and the Philippine Liberation Ribbon. He received the Luzon Campaign Bronze Star, the New Guinea campaign Bronze Star, and the Northern Solomons Campaign Bronze Star. Other medals included the World War II Victory Medal, the Bronze Arrowhead, and also the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal. After returning from the war he joined the East Cambridge V.F.W. Ferricane Post 3275.
In March 1946, Waitkus was invited to join the Cubs again for spring training in Catalina Island. During the 1946 season Marv Rickert hit an inside-the-park home run, and Waitkus followed him by batting another in-the-park home run. They were the first major leaguers to ever have back-to-back inside-the-park home runs. The same year the Chicago Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America voted Edward Waitkus the Rookie of the Year. 1948 was the last year that Waitkus spent with the Cubs, and during the later part of the season he was even sent to play outfield without any explanation from the coaches. He also played in the All Star game that season. In December 1948, he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies without an explanation as to why he was being traded.
In 1949, Waitkus started his first season as a Phillie. By the beginning of June his batting average was a .306, and he was in the lead with votes for the National League first baseman for the All Star game. On June 14, 1949, Waitkus was shot in the chest by a 19 year old girl who had been infatuated with him for many years prior to the shooting. She lured Waitkus into a hotel room saying in a note that she had something important to tell him and that her name was Ruth Ann Burns. He had known people with the last name Burns while growing up and assumed it was a long lost friend. Ruth Ann Steinhagen was her real name, and she had no intention of talking to him. She had planned exactly how she would kill him. After she shot him, she called the front desk of the hotel to inform them she had shot Eddie Waitkus and to send help.
Waitkus was taken to Illinois Masonic Hospital, which where he stayed for a month after the shooting, due to the numerous surgeries that were required because of complications with the bullet. The .22 caliber bullet traveled cleanly through two ribs, pierced his right lung, collapsing it, and then traveled cleanly through two back ribs where it finally became lodged in thick muscle tissue near his spine. Doctors said that any other caliber bullet would have most likely killed Waitkus on the spot. In July he had to have another surgery before he was released because the bullet was causing an infection and needed to be removed. After being released from the hospital, he continued his baseball career.
At her trial, Steinhagen was found suffer from insanity, so she was sent to a mental institution. In his book, Baseball's Natural: the Story of Eddie Waitkus, John Theodore writes: "Two years later, she would tell Dr. Haines: 'I had my first good look at him on April 27, 1947. I used to go to all the ball games to watch him. We used to wait for them to come out of the clubhouse after the fame, and all the time I was watching I was building in my mind that idea of killing him.'" When she was released from the institution in 1942, Waitkus decided not to press charges against her because he just wanted to forget about the whole incident.
In November 1949, Waitkus returned to baseball. He was sent to Clearwater Beach in Florida to start training for the 1950 season. Because spring training did not start until March he was given special permission to start training with the Phillies's trainer, Frank Wiechec so he could be ready for the 1950 season after his shooting. While Waitkus was in Florida for spring training, he met Carol Webel who vacationed in Clearwater Beach with her family every summer. She was a laboratory technician and a college graduate. Waitkus enjoyed spending time with her, and she helped him keep his spirit up when he was down. They decided to continue their relationship even after training was over.
The 1950 season started out as a great season for Waitkus. The team was named the "Whiz Kids" because they were young ball players. His teammates loved him as a person and as a first baseman. John Theodore included a quote from a fellow teammate in his book: "With Waitkus on first," said Philadelphia shortstop Granny Hammer, "you don't have to waste any time aiming the ball before you throw, you just let it fly. You know that if it's in the right general direction, Eddie will come up with it." (21).
Waitkus started out strong that season, but he grew weaker and weaker as the season went on. He began smoking again, which he had stopped after the shooting. He also began to drink heavily to deal with his depression and his weakening body. The 1950 season ended for the Phillies when they lost the World Series to the Yankees. Waitkus felt so weak and sick by the end of the season that he went to Boston's Leahy Clinic to have some medical tests run, which showed that he was anemic. He was having trouble sleeping, and he was always on edge. Even though the season did not end so well, the Associated Press voted Waitkus as Comeback Player of the year. In September 1951, Waitkus and Webel formally announced their engagement and were married a few months later. On November 17, they wed at Albany's St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church. On February 19, 1953, their first child was born, a daughter named Veronica after Waitkus' mother. Waitkus was in a slump after the 1950 season. During the 1953 season he did not play very much. Because he was so depressed be began drinking more and more. Because of his actions, the Phillies sold him to the Baltimore Orioles for the 1954 season. His playing time did not increase, and in July 1955, the Orioles unconditionally released him. Waitkus then went back and signed with the Phillies again. In September 1955, Waitkus played in his last Major League baseball game. He went out hitting a home run. On October 6, the Phillies gave Waitkus an unconditional release from the team. After 1,140 major league games, his career as a professional baseball player ended. He was 36 years old.
In 1952, Bernard Malamud published a novel called, The Natural. It was a fictionalized story about a young baseball hero named Roy Hobbs. Hobbs pursued the American baseball dream and was also shot by a crazed woman who had lured him into her hotel room one night. Malamud had based his story on Waitkus's life.
In January 1956, Waitkus started working for Eastern Freightways, a trucking company. He thought he would like the job because it allowed him to be social, but he ended up hating his position, becoming even more depressed. On September 9, his son, Edward Waitkus, Jr. was born. In the middle of 1957 Eastern Freightways transferred Waitkus to Buffalo, New York. When Waitkus's baseball career had ended, he began to slip emotionally. His doctors said he had post-traumatic stress disorder from being in the war. He also had major depression, anxiety, insomnia, avoidance, and detachment from loved ones. He self-medicated by abusing alcohol. His marriage began falling apart due to his depression and obsessive drinking. In 1960, he and his wife separated. He moved to Camden, New Jersey because of his job. The move away from his family hurt Waitkus even more, and he continued to drink even more. He and his wife got a divorce.
In 1961, Waitkus was admitted to the Veterans Administration Hospital in Philadelphia after he suffered a "mild nervous disorder." After he was released from the hospital, he found an apartment in Philadelphia and got a job working a Wanamaker's department store. He did not stay long, and in 1963, he moved back to Cambridge where he rented a room in Belle Power's home. He was a very quiet tenant; he didn't speak much to others and didn't leave his room often. In 1967, he was offered a job as a coach and counselor at the Ted Williams Camp for baseball. He loved coaching the young kids and even quit drinking while he was coaching. Even though he was unemployed during the rest of the year, he loved going back every summer to coach. In 1969, Waitkus was given his last professional baseball award; fans had voted him to be the greatest first baseman in Phillies history.
In 1971, he fell and broke his hip while installing windows at Power's home. The next year he began feeling worse. He always felt ill; he had a persistent cough, was weary, had little energy, and his eyes were sunken. Even though he had given up drinking, he still smoked. According to John Theodore, he had told his son, "I'm a sad clown, happy on the outside, making people laugh, but on the inside I'm crying." In 1972, he left the baseball camp early to go see a doctor in August. After he was admitted to the Veterans Administration Hospital in Jamaica Plain, he never left. He was diagnosed with pneumonia, but his doctors also advised him to undergo a few biopsies. When the biopsies came back, Waitkus was told he had esophageal cancer. On September 16, 1972, shortly after finding out he had cancer, the beloved baseball player passed away at the age of 53. After his death, an autopsy was performed where doctors also found that he had lung cancer in addition to the esophageal cancer. The wake was held at Waitkus Funeral Home, which was unconnected to his family, and he was laid to rest at the Cambridge Cemetery.
Each year since 1995, Steve Buckley, a sports columnist for the Boston Herald, runs the Oldtime Baseball Game, which is a charity event held at St. Peter's Field in Cambridge. Buckley was inspired by Waitkus as a child when Waitkus gave him batting tips one day when he was playing ball in the park. The official logo of the event is a picture of a young Waitkus playing first base.