July 27, 2013

Eddie Waitkus...The Natural

Bill Matteson
Uptown Chicago History Correspondent

Eddie Waitkus was a born baseball player. He was so good that when he played minor league with a small town in Maine, they called him a Natural. He was born of immigrant Lithuanian parents on Sept. 4th 1919.

He  signed with the Chicago Cubs in about the1939/1940 time bracket, playing full time in 1941. Then the war broke out and most able-bodied ball players signed on to serve their country.

Eddie went with the Army and fought many a bloody battle in the Philippines, winning 4 bronze stars.
He returned to the Cubs in 1946 playing 1st base, replacing  Phil Caveretta, who moved to left field.

Eddie was a highly educated sportsman and everyone liked him. He could speak five languages and was the poster boy of sportsmanship for the media. Yes, everyone loved him; maybe a little too much.

In 1948 he was traded to the Philles for three players, including Dutch Leonard, a great knuckleballer.
Now the Phillies had been scheduled to play 11 games over the 1949 season.

Arriving in Chicago June 14th, 1949, he registered at one of Uptown's finest hotels, the Edgewater Beach. A lot of out of town sports figures stayed there, while most of Chicago's players stayed at the Sheridan Plaza.

Unbeknownst to Eddie, he was being stalked. He had an admirer.

Ruth Ann Steinhagen was uncontrollably infatuated with Eddie. She registered at the hotel under the name of an old classmate of Eddie's and sent him an urgent message to meet her in her room.

When he walked in, she shot him in the chest with a 22 cal. rifle; she then called the desk and explained what happened. When help arrived, she was cradling  Eddie's head in her lap. Eddie almost died several times, but they were successful in removing the bullet, which narrowly missed his heart.

On Aug.19., 1949, just 2 months after being shot, Eddie suited up and played at Shibes Park for Eddie Waitkus Night.

Today, our highly paid athletes get a hang nail or a sprained finger, they sit out the season.

Ruth Ann Steinhagen never went to trial. She spent a long time in a mental institution and died of natural causes last December 2012.

Sometime in 1952, a book was published, written by Bernard Malamud, inspired by these events. Malamud took parts of the Eddie Waitkus story and then borrowed from the life of Shoeless Joe Jackson, a few more baseball role models, including Christy Mathewson, the greatest pitcher of his day and the inventor of the fade-a-away, the present day screwball, a reverse curve, so to speak.

Christy was a role model for all young boys, not ever drinking or smoking and going to church. Christy even became the role model for the Frank Merriwell adventure series with over 800 books, movies, and radio programs

(I like to mention this part about Christy because his family changed their name from Matteson to Mathewson while living in Pennsylvania.)

Bernard Malamud wrote The Natural. Roy Hobbs was molded after all players mentioned.

A lot of good things come out of Uptown, or at least Uptown played a major part in them.

Editor's note: Bill Matteson grew up in Uptown in the forties and fifties. You can read more of his recollections by clicking the link "Bill Matteson" below.

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