Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Hit by Pitch the Least of Their Worries

Billy Jurges was a good fielding, weak hitting, ill-tempered shortstop for the Cubs from 1931 to 1938 (back when the Cubs were actually a good team - three World Series appearances). He fought with umpires, opponents, and even teammates. First baseman Eddie Waitkus was  so promising a rookie he was called "a natural". He was a Cub from 1946 to '48. But they had something far more unique in common than being talented Cub infielders. They were both shot by obsessed females. 

Second year infielder Jurges was off to a good start in 1932. He was "playing like a house afire" according to The Milwaukee Sentinel. During his rookie season he had started seeing Violet Valli, a chestnut haired divorcee and "caberet girl". She said, "Billy's one in a hundred thousand. I met him at a party and I fell hard. In July, Jurges stopped seeing Violet. She did not take it well. On July 6 she went to the Hotel Carlos (now called the Sheffield House) a couple of blocks from Wrigley Field. Billy and several other Cubs lived there. 

Valli made a final plea for Billy's love and then pulled a .25-caliber pistol from her purse. Jurges lunged at the gun and it went off. One bullet hit him in the right side, ricocheted off a rib and came out through his right shoulder. A second bullet tore the skin on a finger of his left hand. The third hit Violet in the arm. 

Billy staggered out into the hallway. Luckily the Cubs' doctor was in the lobby and treated both Jurges and Valli. Though they were taken to hospital, neither was seriously hurt. In Valli's room a suicide note was found, addressed to her brother, in which she stated, "to me life is not worth living without Billy, but why should I leave this Earth alone?"

Jurges refused to press charges or testify but Violet was booked on a charge of assault to kill. Jurges was subpoenaed to appear at the trial, which received national coverage. After a curious crowd filled the courtroom Valli made her appearance in a white dress with red trimmings. (In the photo at left Jurges is shown with a handkerchief to his face.) When called to testify, Jurges said he did not want to press charges and expected no further trouble from Valli. The charges were dropped from want of prosecution and Violet went on to sing in nightclubs booked as Violet "What I Did for Love" Valli. 

Jurges returned to the Cubs' lineup before the end of the season and hit .364 in the World Series. Interestingly, after refusing to press charges at the trial, he added, I hope that no other Cubs get shot."  That  turned out to be wishful thinking.

Seventeen years later Eddie Waitkus, a decorated hero of World War II, was in his first season with the Phillies after having been traded by the Cubs without explanation. He'd hit around .300, made very few errors in his three years in Chicago, and had been an All-Star in 1948. In June of '49 he was hitting .306 and was again leading the league in All-Star votes. The Phillies were in Chicago to play his old team. 

A 19-year old girl named Ruth Ann Steinhagen (she said her name was Burns to make Eddie think she was related to friends of his) lured Waitkus into her hotel room. Supposedly he had not wanted to go in but she told him she had an important note for him. Ruth Ann had been infatuated with Eddie for a long time, attending every Cubs game and constantly poring over hundreds of newspaper clippings that she had collected. Her mother said she "cried night and day" when he left Chicago.

Once inside Eddie's hotel room the girl took out a .22-caliber handgun and shot Waitkus in the chest. She then went to the front desk and said she had shot Eddie and he needed help. The bullet had gone through two ribs and pierced a lung before lodging in muscle in his back. Eddie was in the hospital for a month, near death for a time, and needed two surgeries. The doctor said if it had been a more powerful gun Waitkus would not have survived. Steinhagen never stood trial but was committed to a mental institution. 

John Theodore wrote a book about him called Baseball's Natural: the Eddie Waitkus Story. In 1952 Bernard Malamud wrote a book called The Natural loosely based on the Waitkus shooting. In it, a crazed fan (played by Glenn Close) shoots Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) who is so badly hurt that he can never pitch again. Obviously Malamud and Hollywood took some liberties. Hobbs comes back as a hitting sensation. Eddie Waitkus returned to the Phillies and played well for the 1950 "Whiz Kids", who would lose to the Yankees in the World Series. But he started smoking and drinking and he weakened as the season went on. He may have suffered post-traumatic stress after the shooting. He was often depressed and wasn't quite the same player in his last few years. 

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