Many of us have seen the baseball flick, The Natural. But if you haven’t, you should catch it, whether a sports fan or not because it has a great storyline. Based on Bernard Malamud’s novel of the same name, this outstanding baseball-drama-mystery came to the silver screen in 1984 with a star-studded cast featuring Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Barbara Hershey, Darren McGavin, Joe Don Baker and Kim Basinger. It has to be one of my favorite sports movies. By the way, Redford looks exceptional with a bat in his hands--a real pro. He revealed later that for the movie he modelled his swing after that of Boston Red Sox slugging great Ted Williams.
For those of you who haven’t seen the TriStar Pictures film, here’s a rundown in a nutshell: The hero is Roy Hobbs--played by Redford--a young man of considerable baseball talent. As a kid, he carves his own bat--which he calls “Wonderboy”--from a tree that had been struck by lightning on his farm. As a 19-year-old, in 1923, Hobbs is a promising left-handed pitcher who had been asked to tryout with the major league Chicago Cubs.
On way to Chicago by train, he meets a confidant, chubby bore of major league ball player named “The Whammer” (Joe Don Baker) and a sensual woman named Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey). Incidentally, the Whammer and his physique bears an uncanny resemblance to Babe Ruth. At a stop along the way, after a dare, Hobbs strikes out the bragging hitter on three pitches. Ms Bird then becomes obsessed with Hobbs. After the train reaches Chicago, Bird entices Hobbs to her hotel room where she shoots him in the chest. Then she jumps out the window. Hobbs’ career appears over…
The screen jumps ahead 16 years to where the 35-year-old Hobbs is signed by the fictional major league New York Knights. As a mysterious unknown rookie, he quickly makes his presence felt in a positive way as a middle-aged slugger with a bad ball team. In short, Hobbs’ hitting leads the Knights to the National League pennant on the last day of the season. Of course, there’s highs and lows along the way and a love interest with beautiful Kim Basinger--influenced by his gambling uncle--who tries to lead him astray.
Most of the field scenes were filmed at the old War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo, New York, and one distinct scene at Buffalo’s All-High Stadium to depict Chicago’s Wrigley Field. There, Hobbs smashes the right-field clock with one of his home run blasts. Both venues have since been torn down. The Natural took four Academy Awards and one Golden Globe.
So, where did author Bernard Malamud--who was not a baseball fan--get the inspiration for his 1952 novel? Actually, from stories surrounding two major leaguers who had been stalked by women about as looney as the fictitious Harriet Bird. The first player was fiery shortstop Billy Jurges, a defensive specialist who played for the Chicago Cubs and New York Giants from 1931-1947. The second was quality first baseman Eddie Waitkus, a Cub, Philadelphia Phillie, and Baltimore Oriole from 1941-1955.
In his rookie season, twenty-three-year-old Jurges fell madly in love with the stunning Violet Valli, a baseball groupie and sometimes-showgirl. When Jurges broke off the relationship a year later, Valli confronted the player on the morning of July 6, 1932 at Hotel Carlos in Chicago, a few blocks north of Wrigley Field. They argued, then she pulled out a loaded .25-caliber gun. During the struggle, Jurges was shot twice: one bullet went off a right rib, coming out his right shoulder, while the other ripped flesh clean off his left-hand little finger. A third bullet struck Valli in her left hand, lodging six inches up her arm and breaking her wrist. Jurges decided against pressing charges against her, and a year later married another woman, a good move on his part. The Cubs won the pennant in 1932 with former-Yankee Mark Koenig replacing Jurges at shortstop for a few weeks and jolting the Cubs’ pennant surge during the Jurges recovery period. The Cubs won two more pennants in 1935 and 1938, with Jurges and second base partner Billy Herman playing significant roles in a top-notch infield, while Valli went on dabbling in show business here and there across the country, along with enticing young men with her charms.
Going back to his minor league career, Eddie Waitkus made everything look easy and was known as “a natural.” Hey, just like the movie! How about that! And he threw and batted left, the same as Robert Redford. A decorated World War II hero--four Bronze Stars--who saw heavy fighting with the US Army in the Pacific, Waitkus returned to America to play exceptional ball, at the plate and at first base for the Chicago Cubs. One of his biggest fans was 19-year-old, six-foot brunette Ruth Ann Steinhagen, who enjoyed seeing him live at Wrigley Field, without getting to know him or even so much as meeting him on the fly by asking for an autograph. All was fine and dandy until Waitkus was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies following the 1948 season. Then Steinhagen snapped.
Unable to see her obsession--Waitkus--as much as she had done previously, Steinhagen booked into the Edgewater Beach Hotel on June 13, 1949, during a Philadelphia Phillies road trip to Chicago. By then, Waitkus was having the time of his life, enjoying a .306 season with his new club. Using the alias of a former high school classmate whom Waitkus had known, she left a note at the front desk for the player to meet her at her hotel room. When Waitkus arrived and walked into the room, Steinhagen removed a .22-caliber rifle from the nearby closet and shot him in the chest, very close to his heart.
Coming to her senses as Waitkus lay bleeding on the floor, Steinhagen called the front desk on the room telephone. When a member of the hotel staff approached, she was found cradling the player’s head in her lap. Nearly dying on the operation table more than once, Waitkus returned to the playing field for the first time since the shooting on August 19 for “Eddie Waitkus Night” at Shibe Park, Philadelphia where he was smothered in gifts by adoring fans and associates. Although in uniform that one occasion, he didn’t suit up again until the following spring, ready to resume his baseball career. In 1950, he played the full 154-game schedule, hit .284 and was named the Associated Press Comeback Player of the Year. He experienced a few more major league seasons until the mid-1950s, although he wasn’t quite the same again after the shooting.
Never charged with attempted murder, Steinhagen did, however, end up in a mental hospital for three years before considered sane enough to leave in 1952--ironically, the same year that Bernard Malamud’s publisher released The Natural.