Bernard’s Malamud masterpiece The Natural which was written more than a half-century ago and made into a very successful movie starring Robert Redford and Glenn Close was actually based on the experience of a real major leaguer. Eddie Waitkus was shot and almost killed by a young lady and when he recovered from the near-fatal shooting, was a regular for the 1950 Philadelphia Phillies Whiz Kids .
Almost every starter on the 1950 Phillies had interesting baseball careers. Mike Goliat the second baseman barely played another major league game after 1950 while Granny Hamner returned to the majors as a pitcher in 1962 several years after his position change from shortstop. I always thought a 1963 Hamner card would have been real cool to own. Third baseman Willie Jones had the great nickname “Puddin’ Head” and Richie Ashburn became a legend in Philadelphia as both a player and an announcer.
In the pitching realm Jim Konstanty became the first reliever to win the MVP award and then started game 1 of the 1950 World Series.
Waitkus’ story was bizarre at the time and even in today’s celebrity culture, it seems incredulous. He also served as an inspiration for many people who tried to overcome unexpected life setbacks.
The young lady who shot him, Ruth Steinhagen, lived for more than 60 years afterward and kept a very low profile after her release. We have documented that Steve Gold, a former card shop owner, attempted to have her at a signing but the push back was so great he did not pursue it.
However, in baseball card terms, this was quite a story and several (but not all) of the baseball cards issued during his career mentioned the shooting. However, the most detailed version of the shooting and the aftermath was on the 1955 Bowman card which back is titled “My Biggest Thrill in Baseball.”
While, obviously getting shot is not a thrill, to Waitkus the real thrill was returning to the majors as well as receiving emotional help from a young lady who later became his wife. It’s considered little more than a common and numerous examples of the ’55 Bowman can be found on eBay for under $10. Bear in mind the set is very condition sensitive and often, cards are found off-center, so high grade examples will be much higher.
Waitkus appeared in virtually every set issued between 1949 and ’55 including the iconic 1952 Topps issue and has several other cards as well.
Even without the shooting incident, Waitkus is an interesting story. He served with distinction in World War II, earning several medals before resuming his professional baseball career. He even passed on at a very young age in 1972, making his autograph reasonably difficult (you can see a few up for sale here).
We’d like to thank John Otto of Marysville, WA for his suggestion that we highlight one of Waitkus’ cards. If you have a card you would like featured please drop me a note at Sabrgeek@aol.com and we’ll consider it. Be sure to provide your name and home town for proper crediting.