Just about every baseball fan over a certain age has seen The Natural, the 1984 movie about the incredibly talented (and incredibly jinxed) Roy Hobbs, played by Robert Redford. It’s one of the best baseball movies ever.
However, very few baseball (or movie) fans of any age know that the movie is based—admittedly somewhat loosely—on an actual baseball player who played in the Major Leagues in the 1940s and 50s.
Yes—there truly was a Major League player referred to as The Natural who was shot by a strange woman in a Chicago hotel room…and almost died. The movie isn’t really the life story of that player’s life. In fact, it was the shooting of that player that was a jumping-off point for writer Bernard Malumud, who wrote a novel called The Natural in 1952. The movie was an adaptation of that novel (another fact few people know about).
Here are the similarities and differences between the heroic Hollywood story of The Natural—the movie player we know—and the actual, forgotten player on whose life it was somewhat based.
The movie Natural was named Roy Hobbs. Hobbs was from Nebraska, a young phenom pitcher who had a gift for baseball at an early age. His dad tells him, “you got a gift, Roy, but it’s not enough…you rely too much on your gift, and you’ll fail.” Roy was going to have a tryout with the Cubs in 1923 at age 19. He boarded a train to Chicago with his scout, Sam Simpson. On a train stop, he faced a Babe Ruth-type character (“The Whammer”) and struck him out on three straight pitches, winning a bet for his scout.
The real Natural was named Eddie Waitkus. Eddie Waitkus was born in Massachusetts and got into the big leagues in 1941. He was a very athletic and fit ballplayer, a good hitter and fielder. Some reporters referred to him as “The Natural” and “the Fred Astaire of first basemen.” Other reports said that Waitkus’s teammates called him “Nature Boy” and “Vitamins,” because he focused on staying fit and in top shape. But that was just a nickname for a pretty-good young player. He wasn’t anything like a young Lou Gehrig or Babe Ruth. In other words, he wasn’t like the movie’s Roy Hobbs, who could fire a fastball past the Whammer and hit anything.
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Roy Hobbs was a rookie in the Majors when he was 35. On his way to Chicago for his tryout, Roy was shot in a hotel room. The next time you see him, Hobbs is walking into the dugout of the (fictional) New York Knights. He was 35 years old and a right fielder. He had just finished a semi-pro stint with the Heeber Oilers and had a contract in hand to play for the Knights. When he got his uniform with the number 9, the team doctor said, “Welcome to the Majors.” In his first at bat, pinch-hitting in a game against the Phillies, he knocked the cover off the ball.
Waitkus’s rookie season was in 1941 for the Chicago Cubs at age 22. In his rookie MLB season, Waitkus was a first baseman for the Cubs, hitting .175. He made the April 15, 1941 opening day lineup, wearing number 27. He went 1-4 in a 7-4 Cubs win over the Pirates. He played in only 54 games that season before being sent to the minors. He also played the ’42 season in the minor leagues and then missed the next three full seasons, 1943-45, when he served in WWII. He came back from the war unharmed.
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Hobbs was shot by a mysterious woman dressed in black he met on the train to Chicago. In the movie, Harriet Bird had evidently been stalking and shooting athletic heroes and she was on the train to shoot The Whammer, a baseball legend. But when Roy struck out The Whammer during the train stop, she turned her attention to Roy. She talked to him on the train and got him interested in her…enough to lure him to her room later. When she shot him when they arrived in Chicago, it interrupted Roy’s dream to play in the Majors.
Waitkus was shot by a girl he’d never met, but who was obsessed with him. After Eddie Waitkus returned from the war, he returned to the Cubs for the 1946 season. He’s now wearing number 36, and even though he’s not in the opening day lineup, he plays 113 games and hits .304. He does well the next two seasons too, which gets the attention of a 19-year-old Chicago fan named Ruth Catherine Steinhagen. She becomes romantically obsessed with Waitkus from a distance. Her mother later admitted that Ruth would set a place for Waitkus at the family dinner table. When Waitkus is traded to the Phillies for the 1949 season, she falls apart emotionally and feels abandoned. When the Phillies come to play the Cubs at Wrigley field in June of 1949, she had a plan to kill him.
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Harriet Bird shot Hobbs and then committed suicide. In the movie, Harriet Bird evidently committed suicide by jumping out the hotel window. It’s never mentioned, but you see the open window in the room and Harriet is gone after shooting Roy. Years later, sports reporter Max Mercy showed pictures of a dead woman, Harriet Bird, to Iris, Roy’s high school sweetheart, who’s back in his life. The shooting is a scandalous story they were hoping to use to blackmail Roy into throwing a playoff game for the pennant.
Ruth Steinhagen shot Waitkus and was sent to a state psychiatric hospital. According to interviews, articles, Ruth had actually intended to kill Waitkus by stabbing him with a knife. She was then going to commit suicide by shooting herself with the rifle. But the rifle shot didn’t kill Eddie Waitkus as she envisioned—the bullet went through his lung and lodged in his back muscles. Instead of shooting herself, Ruth went to Eddie and asked him where he’d been shot, as if she weren’t sure she’d hit him. She then dialed the hotel operator and said that she’d just shot a man. She never did jail time. After a court hearing and grand jury investigation, a judge decided she was insane at the time of the shooting and sent her to a state hospital for a term of three years.
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The movie Roy Hobbs played part of one season only, hit a heroic homer, then settled down. During his only season with the Knights, Hobbs is the hottest player in baseball but he got involved with a woman (with links to gamblers) who poisoned him. Hobbs wound in the hospital, where doctors extracted the silver bullet that had been lodged in him all these years. He missed three games at the end of the season, but he left the hospital (against his doctor’s advice) to play in a one-game playoff against the Pittsburgh Pirates for the NL Pennant. He belted a walk-off homer to win the game. As the movie ends, you see him playing catch on Iris’s family farm, with a son he never knew. It’s a happy Hollywood ending.
Eddie Waitkus missed one season after being shot and had an 11-year career. In 1949,Eddie Waitkus was in his fourth season after returning from the war and his first season with the Phillies. Ruth Steinhagen shot him on June 14th of that year. But whereas Roy Hobbs was set back for 16 years, Eddie Waitkus was able to return to the game the next season. In fact, the 1950 Phillies, known as the Whiz Kids, won the NL Pennant and Eddie Waitkus was named Comeback Player of the Year by the Associated Press. He would play through the 1955 season, winding up a career in which he averaged .285 and was a two-time All-Star.
However, you can’t say that Waitkus’s story had a happy—or Hollywood—ending. According to one of his sons, Waitkus suffered what we now call PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. After retirement, he went from being an outgoing, happy-go-lucky guy, to a man who was paranoid about meeting new people. He died at age 53 of cancer in 1972.
Resources: nytimes.com/2013/03/24/sports/baseball/ruth-ann-steinhagen; sabr.org/bioproj/person/7dc27d9a/ eddiewaitkus; thestacks.deadspin.com/the-unnatural-shooting-of-a-baseball-player; sabr.org/research/eddie-waitkus -and-natural;script-o-rama.com/movie_scripts/n/natural; baseball-reference.com/players/w/waitked01.shtml; en.wikipedia.org/wiki/eddiewaitkus