ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Finally this hour, if you've read or seen "The Natural," Bernard Malamud's baseball novel that was made into Robert Redford movie, then you're familiar with the story that was inspired by Ruth Ann Steinhagen. Roy Hobbs, a young, brash baseball player, is poised for stardom right until he's lured into a hotel room by a mentally-ill female fan.
(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "THE NATURAL")
SIEGEL: Suddenly, she shoots him. That was Redford and Barbara Hershey in the movie. The player survives but his career is never the same. Well, that story was based on the real-life shooting of Eddie Waitkus, the star first baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies. The fan who shot him in a Chicago hotel room in 1949 was Ruth Ann Steinhagen.
And recently, Bob Goldsborough of the Chicago Tribune discovered that she had died in December. Bob Goldsborough, welcome to the program.
BOB GOLDSBOROUGH: Thank you.
SIEGEL: First, what happened to Ruth Steinhagen after she shot Eddie Waitkus?
GOLDSBOROUGH: After she shot Eddie Waitkus, she was taken into police custody immediately and then she ultimately was found by a judge to be mentally ill. She was committed to a state mental hospital where she remained for three years.
SIEGEL: For three years. It seems a short time. She wasn't retried for the offense after that?
GOLDSBOROUGH: She wasn't. What happened was while she was in the hospital, she underwent a variety of different treatments, including some shock treatments and ultimately at the end of those three years she was deemed to be sane. So at that point, it was up to prosecutors to decide whether to try her again.
In those days, a lot of prosecutors' decision depended on the testimony of the victim. In this case, Eddie Waitkus had no interest, he said, in seeing her tried or seeing her prosecuted and so, with that, prosecutors dropped the case and made her a free woman.
SIEGEL: This was a big story when it happened. I assume Bernard Malamud could hardly have avoided hearing about it at that time.
GOLDSBOROUGH: It sure was, yeah. It was a national story and it was certainly, I think, baseball was in its heyday in those years, but fans weren't aware of the kinds of women who would follow around baseball players. And then, on top of that, it was, you know, in a hotel room, in a player's bedroom and she was 19. It had a lot of elements that were certainly both sordid and interesting to the American public.
SIEGEL: So what you're saying is that for 60 years, this woman, at least for the latter decades of that period, lived a quiet life, unobserved and hardly a notorious character in her neighborhood.
GOLDSBOROUGH: That's correct. In fact, she was scarcely seen in her neighborhood. Her neighbors would - she would enter or leave her home through the back, through the alley. Her parents died in the early 1990s. They were very outgoing and talked to the neighbors, but once they died, the neighbors saw far less of Ruth. And yes, she kept as low of a profile as she could.
SIEGEL: How did you find out that she had died? How did this come about, this story?
GOLDSBOROUGH: I'm one of the Chicago Tribune's obituary writers and so I routinely go through public records looking for people who've passed away and I go through death notices, but I go through other sources, too. And in the case of Ruth Steinhagen, she was a person I'd always known had been in Chicago. I'd always known she was living in obscurity and mystery up on the north side.
I was a huge fan of "The Natural," so I'd had her on my list every so often just to check in and see, looking at public records, is she still around or not. So on a lark, I looked her name up a few weeks back and was stunned to see that she had very quietly passed away with no survivors at the end of December. I did some digging, talked to the medical examiners offices and went from there.
SIEGEL: Well, Bob Goldsborough of the Chicago Tribune, thanks for talking with us.
GOLDSBOROUGH: Thank you so much.
SIEGEL: Bob Goldsborough of the Chicago Tribune talking with us about the death of Ruth Ann Steinhagen, the woman who shot Eddie Waitkus and gave rise to the novel and later the movie, "The Natural."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.