All baseball teams have their misfortunes, but probably no team except the Chicago Cubs has had two players shot by obsessed fans. Although the two men were not with the North Siders at the same time when they were attacked, their careers did overlap a bit. Shortstop Billy Jurges played for the Cubs from 1931-1938 and 1946-1947, while first baseman Eddie Waitkus’s tenure was 1941 and 1946-1948.
According to the Chicago Daily Tribune, Billy Jurges had been “playing brilliantly” for the Cubs prior to July 6, 1932, the day that 21-year-old Violet Popovich Valli, a “cabaret girl,” put his career on hold for a while. They had been seeing each other for about a year, and Valli said that Jurges was “one in a hundred thousand. I met him at a party, and I fell hard.”
Apparently Jurges (age 24) did not share the same feelings. After he broke off the relationship, she confronted him at his room in Chicago’s Hotel Carlos, where several other Cubs players lived. (The hotel, just a couple of blocks from Wrigley Field, is now called the Sheffield House, though the old name can still be seen above the door.) The New York Times related that Valli “made one final plea for his love” and pulled a .25 caliber pistol from her purse. As Jurges made “a wild lunge” for it, the gun went off. One bullet “struck him in the right side, ricocheted off a rib and came out the right shoulder. The second ripped the flesh about the little finger of his left hand.” The third bullet hit Valli, striking her in the left hand and traveling “up the arm six inches.”
As she fled to her room, Jurges stumbled into the hall, calling for help. The Cubs physician, Dr. John C. Davis, happened to be in the hotel lobby, and after he treated both Jurges and Valli the two were taken to the Illinois Masonic Hospital. Neither was seriously injured.
That night a suicide note, addressed to Valli’s brother, was discovered in her room at the Hotel Carlos. It said in part: “To me life without Billy isn’t worth living, but why should I leave this earth alone? I’m going to take Billy with me.” (Later she backpedaled a bit, stating that “I had been drinking before I wrote that note, and when I went to Billy’s room I only meant to kill myself. He knows that.”)
Perhaps that is why Jurges, as the Chicago Daily Tribune reported, refused to sign a complaint against the “chestnut haired divorcee” and said he would not appear as a witness. She was still arrested and booked on a charge of assault to kill, however, and on July 15 she appeared in the court of Judge John A. Sbarbaro.
Not surprisingly, newspapers from all over the country covered the hearing. The Tribune wrote that “after a curious crowd had filled the courtroom, Miss Valli, a former chorus girl, made her entrance, wearing a white crêpe dress, trimmed in red, white hat and purse, and red shoes.” A subpoenaed Jurges “stepped to the bar” and told Judge Sbarbaro that he did not want to press charges and that he expected no more trouble from Valli.
“Then the case is dismissed for want of prosecution,” ruled the judge. After the hearing, Valli said that she would remain at home for a while. “I owe it to my self-respect to consider the entire matter a thing of the past,” she said. “If I happen to see Bill again, it will be just impersonal.” By all accounts, Jurges stayed clear of her, too, and while he recuperated he missed only a few weeks of the baseball season.
This photo appeared in newspapers on July 16, 1932 (click on image to enlarge). From left to right: Herbert G. Immenhausen, defense attorney; Violet Valli; James M. Burke, another of Valli’s attorneys; and Billy Jurges (with handkerchief to his face). Although Jurges refused to sign a complaint, Valli signed a contract to sing in local nightclubs, billing herself as “Violet ‘What I Did for Love’ Valli.”
Interestingly enough, when Judge Sbarbaro dismissed all charges against Violet Valli, he added “. . . and I hope no more Cubs get shot.” Unfortunately, this was mere wishful thinking on his part, for seventeen years later another Cub (albeit a former one) made newspaper headlines after a deranged young woman nearly killed him.
The New York Times wrote that 19-year-old Ruth Ann Steinhagen, a 6-foot dark-haired typist, had a “twisted fascination” for Philadelphia Phillies player Eddie Waitkus that began in 1947 when he played for the Cubs. The “bobby sox baseball fan” had collected hundreds of clippings about him and had built a shrine to him in her room. When he was traded to the Phillies in December 1948, she wanted to move to Philadelphia to be near him. Her mother said that Ruth was “so crazy” about Waitkus that she tried to learn to speak Lithuanian when she found out that he was of Lithuanian ancestry.
In mid-June 1949, Waitkus was in Chicago with the Phillies to play a series against his old team. The Phillies stayed at the Edgewater Beach Hotel, and on June 13 Steinhagen checked into the same hotel with a suitcase, a .22 caliber rifle, and a paring knife. On June 14, she sent Waitkus a note asking him to come to her room as she had “something of importance” to tell him. When he knocked on her door, she put the paring knife in her skirt pocket, intending to stab him as soon as he came in. But he quickly walked past her, sat in a chair, and asked her what she wanted.
She said, “I have a surprise for you” and reached into the closet and pulled out the rifle. “For two years you’ve bothered me,” she told him. “Now you’re going to die.” After shooting him in the right breast, she told the police that she started to reload the gun to shoot herself, but “blacked out” for a bit. She then phoned hotel authorities, telling them that “I just shot a man.”
Waitkus was taken to Illinois Masonic Hospital in critical condition with a collapsed right lung. Police booked Steinhagen on a charge of assault with intent to murder. When interviewed by State’s Attorney John S. Boyle she said: “I’m not really sorry. I’m sorry Eddie has to suffer so. I’m sorry it had to be him. But I had to shoot somebody. Only in that way could I relieve the nervous tension I’ve been under the last two years. The shooting has relieved that tension.”
Police learned that Steinhagen’s mother, Edith, had urged her daughter to get psychiatric help. Ruth did meet with two psychiatrists, but they could not help her with her obsession with Waitkus, a 29-year-old man she had never even met. Her father, Walter, and sister, Rita, had tried reasoning with her, but they, too, got nowhere.
Ruth Steinhagen had begun making plans to shoot the ballplayer in early May, buying the rifle in a Chicago pawn shop. Rita told police that she had heard her sister threaten to “get Eddie,” but she never took Ruth seriously. “We thought she was just talking,” Rita said.
This photograph appeared in newspapers on June 21, 1949 (click on image to enlarge). The caption in one paper reads: “Ruth Steinhagen (right) tries her hand at first base, Eddie Waitkus’ position, in practice baseball session among inmates at the jail. Mrs. Ann Markov, chief matron, takes the ump’s role.” Other obviously posed photographs show Steinhagen in jail admiring photos of Waitkus.
By June 16, Waitkus’s condition was upgraded from “critical” to “good.” The hospital report added that he had “taken a turn for the better, but was not quite out of danger.” A few days later, however, after Waitkus underwent a minor operation to draw blood from his punctured lung, the hospital said that he was “breathing easier” and showed “marked improvement.”
On June 30, both Eddie Waitkus and Ruth Steinhagen appeared in the Felony Courtroom of Judge Matthew D. Hartigan of Chicago. From the Chicago Daily Tribune: “Dr. Willam H. Haines, head of the Criminal court behavior clinic, was the only witness at the sanity hearing. He testified Miss Sgteinhagen is a victim of schizophrenia (split personality) and that in his opinion she would be unable to co-operate with counsel, altho[ugh] he believed she understood the nature of the charge against her.” (A year later, Haines published a “Case History of Ruth Steinhagen” in the American Journal of Psychiatry.)
Waitkus, in a wheelchair, testified that Steinhagen shot him after he entered her hotel room. A jury of six men and six women found her insane, and Chief Justice James J. McDermott of the Criminal Court ordered her committed to the Kankakee State Hospital for treatment (located some fifty miles south of Chicago).
With a nurse behind him, Eddie Waitkus sits in his wheelchair in a crowded Chicago courtroom as State’s Attorney John S. Boyle (far right) gestures to Ruth Steinhagen (far left). Standing next to Steinhagen is police matron Mary Henneberry. Behind Henneberry is Steinhagen’s attorney, George Bieber (wearing bow tie).
Eddie Waitkus, like Billy Jurges, recovered from his wounds and resumed his baseball career, winning the “Comeback of the Year” award in 1950. Steinhagen spent several years at the Kankakee State Hospital, undergoing therapy for her mental illnesses. She was released from the hospital on April 17, 1952, having been certified sane by hospital officials. That same year, author Bernard Malamud incorporated the shooting into his first novel, The Natural, which was made into a movie starring Robert Redford.
In a 1988 New York Times interview with Edward Waitkus, Jr., he observed that “the shooting changed my father a great deal, as you might imagine. Before, he was a very outgoing person. Then he became almost paranoid about meeting new people. . . .”
Eddie Waitkus died of cancer on September 16, 1972, at age 53. As of 2012, Ruth Steinhagen was alive and well, living in seclusion with her sister on Chicago’s Northwest Side. “Ruth keeps to herself, but she is always very pleasant,” her next-door neighbor told John Theodore, author of Baseball’s Natural: The Story of Eddie Waitkus (2002). “We really don’t see them much or know anything about them,” said a man who lives across the street.
I tried contacting Ruth Steinhagen several times to interview her for this web page. Not surprisingly, she never answered my letters.