CHICAGO — She inspired a novel and a movie starring Robert Redford when in 1949 she lured a major league ballplayer she’d never met into a hotel room with a cryptic note and shot him, nearly killing him.
After the headlines faded, Ruth Ann Steinhagen did something else just as surprising: She disappeared into obscurity, living a quiet life unnoticed in Chicago until now, more than a half century later, when news broke that she had died three months earlier.
The Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed Friday that Steinhagen passed away of natural causes on Dec. 29, at the age of 83. First reported by the Chicago Tribune last week, her identity was a surprise even to the morgue employees who knew about the 1984 movie “The Natural,” in which she was portrayed by actress Barbara Hershey.
“She chose to live in the shadows and she did a good job of it,” John Theodore, an author who wrote a 2002 nonfiction book about the crime, wrote in an email Sunday.
The story, with its elements of obsession, mystery, insanity and a baseball star, made it part of both Chicago’s colorful crime history and rich baseball lore.
The story began with what appeared to be just another young woman’s crush on Eddie Waitkus, the Chicago Cubs’ handsome first baseman. So complete was this crush that the teenager set a place for Waitkus, whom she’d never met, at the family dinner table. She turned her bedroom into a shrine to him, and put his photo under her pillow.
After the 1948 season, Waitkus was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies — a fateful turn. “When he went to the Phillies, that’s when she decided to kill him,” Theodore said in an interview.
Steinhagen had her chance the next season, when the Phillies came to Chicago to play the Cubs at Wrigley Field. She checked into a room at the Edgewater Beach Hotel where he was staying and invited him to her room.