The Chicago woman whose near-fatal 1949 shooting of former Cubs first baseman Eddie Waitkus inspired the book and movie "The Natural" died with the same anonymity with which she lived for more than half a century.
The 19-year-old's crime, which put a spotlight on stalking crimes, nearly killed Waitkus, 29, and temporarily sidetracked his career. The incident also helped to draw attention to "baseball Annies" — young, hero-worshipping groupies who would pursue major league ballplayers, often relentlessly.
However, from the time that Ruth Ann Steinhagen left Kankakee State Hospital in 1952 after undergoing nearly three years of psychiatric treatment, she disappeared into near obscurity — so much so that one of her final next-door neighbors said he lived there for more than 15 years before learning her history.
Steinhagen, who never spoke publicly about the Waitkus incident after her release from the hospital, spent much of her final 42 years living in a modest house on the Northwest Side with her parents and sister.
She died Dec. 29 at Swedish Covenant Hospital of a subdural hematoma caused by an accidental fall in her longtime home, a Cook County medical examiner spokeswoman said. She was 83.
Her death had gone unreported and was only discovered when the Tribune was searching death records for another story.
"She was never social," next-door neighbor Chris Gentner said. "I talked to her and we knew each other, but she really wasn't the type of person who would sit down and talk to you."
Gentner said it was only recently that he learned of Steinhagen's notorious past.
"I was amazed. I then looked her up and saw all that stuff. Interestingly, where I grew up in New York was real close to where they made parts of 'The Natural.'"
Born Ruth Catherine Steinhagen in Cicero on Dec. 23, 1929, Steinhagen was the daughter of die-setter Walter Steinhagen and his homemaker wife, Edith, both of whom had emigrated from Berlin in their early 20s, according to Chicago author John Theodore's 2002 Waitkus biography, "Baseball's Natural: The Story of Eddie Waitkus." She spent two years at Waller High School before earning a diploma from Jones Commercial High School, now Jones College Prep.
At some point in her teens, Steinhagen, who had begun using the middle name Ann, became obsessed with Waitkus, who then was a first baseman for the Cubs. After the Cubs traded Waitkus to the Phillies before the 1949 season, Steinhagen's obsession with him intensified.
"Ruth has a place in Chicago crime history because of the good old-fashioned moxie she used to carry out her plan — to kill Eddie Waitkus," Theodore said via email Thursday. "Here's a 19-year-old girl, living by herself in a tiny apartment on Lincoln Avenue, in 1949. She builds an Eddie Waitkus shrine in her apartment: photos, newspaper clippings, 50 ticket stubs, scorecards. She knows he's from Boston so she develops a craving for baked beans. ... He's Lithuanian, so she teaches herself the language and listens to Lithuanian radio programs."
It all came to a head June 14, 1949, when the Phillies were in town to play the Cubs. Steinhagen, then a typist for the Continental Casualty insurance company in the Loop, attended the game that day. After the game, she sent Waitkus an unsigned note summoning him to a 12th-floor room in the now-demolished Edgewater Beach Hotel, where the Phillies were staying. When Waitkus arrived at 11:30 p.m., Steinhagen told Waitkus from behind the door, "I have a surprise for you," and then used a .22-caliber rifle that she had purchased at a pawnshop to shoot him just below the heart.
After shooting Waitkus, Steinhagen called the hotel operator and soon was taken into custody as he was rushed to Illinois Masonic Hospital. The bullet had torn through his right lung and lodged in back muscles near his spine, and he underwent two blood transfusions while in critical condition.
After about two weeks, Waitkus was transferred to Billings Memorial Hospital at the University of Chicago. He had six operations before doctors finally removed the bullet.
Waitkus made an impressive recovery and helped the Whiz Kid Phillies to the National League pennant in 1950. He was a regular for two more seasons and played through 1955, though he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and retired from baseball at 35. He died in 1972.
After the shooting, Steinhagen told authorities that she wasn't sorry and that she "just had to shoot somebody."
"Only in that way could I relieve the nervous tension I've been under the last two years," she was reported to have told the Cook County state's attorney. "The shooting has relieved that tension."
Police initially booked Steinhagen on a charge of assault with intent to murder. The extent of her fixation on Waitkus soon became known. Steinhagen's mother told the Tribune several days after the shooting that her daughter had become obsessed with Waitkus when he was on the Cubs.
"She seemed to become infatuated with him and couldn't talk about anything else," her mother said.
She also had filled her bedroom with Waitkus memorabilia, including photos and news clippings about him.
Just 17 days after the shooting, a criminal court judge ruled Steinhagen to be insane and ordered her committed to Kankakee State Hospital. While there, Steinhagen underwent electroconvulsive therapy to alter the chemical balance in her brain, as well as hydrotherapy and occupational therapy, according to Theodore's book. After 33 months, doctors in March 1952 concluded that Steinhagen was sane and she was returned to Cook County Jail as prosecutors weighed reinstating attempted murder charges against her
Waitkus told reporters at spring training in Florida that he did not intend to press charges against Steinhagen.
After a court hearing, Steinhagen told reporters: "I'm sorry it happened (and) I'm glad Eddie isn't going to prosecute me."
In April 1952, a jury concurred with doctors' diagnosis of Steinhagen's sanity and prosecutors dropped all charges, leaving her a free woman. Outside court, Steinhagen told reporters that she planned to go back to Kankakee State Hospital to work as an occupational therapist, although it's not known if she ever did.
Novelist Bernard Malamud fictionalized the story of Waitkus and Steinhagen in his 1952 book "The Natural," having young baseball phenom Roy Hobbs called to a hotel room by a mysterious woman named Harriet Bird who then shoots him in the stomach. The 1984 movie based on the book starred Robert Redford as Hobbs and Barbara Hershey as Bird. However, most other aspects of the Waitkus-Steinhagen incident differed from the book and the movie. In the film, Bird also had shot star athletes in other sports.
It's not known what Steinhagen did in her later years, although a neighbor told Theodore that Steinhagen once claimed to have held an office job for 35 years. Court records and other background checks uncovered nothing that sheds any light on her career.
In 1970, Steinhagen, her sister and her parents bought a house on the Northwest Side. Her father died in 1990 and her mother died in 1992, and Theodore's 2002 book reported that Steinhagen and her sister seldom communicated with neighbors or answered the door, largely keeping to themselves.
Gentner, who has lived next door to Steinhagen's house since 1994, said he and his family communicated more with Steinhagen's sister, Rita Pendl, whom he called "quite nice." Pendl died at 76 in 2007.
Gentner said he and his family would see Steinhagen occasionally but mostly heard from her when she was dissatisfied with something neighbors were doing, such as making noise or using an outdoor barbecue. In her final years, Steinhagen employed full-time caregivers, and at times would dispatch them to deliver messages to neighbors to ask them to curtail one activity or another.
"The barbecue was always a big thing. For as long as I've lived here, if we had the barbecue (going), she would always get upset. She would call and leave a message," Gentner said. "Ruth was not a big talker. Her sister Rita was always like, 'Don't get Ruth upset,' and, 'That's gonna upset Ruth.'
"I would help them do wiring or shovel snow or mow the lawn, that sort of stuff. And then, once Rita died, that kind of tapered off."
Steinhagen is not believed to have ever been married and did not leave any immediate survivors.