Representations: Story of Ballplayer Shooter Is Striking for What It Leaves Out
By: Michael Davidow
Ruth Ann Steinhagen died several months ago. She was not a member of our bar.
She was known principally for shooting a ballplayer named Eddie Waitkus, first baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies, in the summer of 1949. He survived (though he missed the rest of that season). So did she. Within weeks of her action, a state judge in Illinois declared her insane and sent her to live at a psychiatric hospital. They let her go after three years.
News reports say that Waitkus "declined to press charges." Iím not sure what that means. Perhaps victims of violent crimes had that authority, in Chicago, in 1952 (after having survived three years of combat in Korea, he apparently had some sympathy for the young woman he always called "that crazy honey with a gun"); perhaps the stateís attorney agreed to let things slide; perhaps everyone believed she had been punished enough. Whatever the explanation, Ms. Steinhagen went on to live in relative obscurity, leaving no survivors and raising no fuss. Her death did not even make the papers when it occurred, last December. The Chicago Tribune only picked it up by chance in March, with other news outlets following suit.
Around the same time she was released from her mental ward, anyway, a writer named Bernard Malamud took this incident and used it as the springboard for his novel, The Natural. Some years later, a director named Barry Levinson made a movie from that book, with the same title. It starred Robert Redford as the ballplayer, now called Roy Hobbs. And starring as "Harriet Bird" (the Steinhagen role) came Barbara Hershey, looking quite stylish in a jazz-age way.
Both book and movie moved on pretty quickly from Hobbsís being shot, too. They did away with Harriet Bird by having her commit suicide directly after her attack on Hobbs. In real life, Steinhagen told the cops that she had intended to kill herself, but then she had lost her nerve; instead, she had notified her hotel desk about this incident, and then she had knelt beside her victim to hold his hand until an ambulance could arrive. She was 19 years old, and she was a typist for an insurance company.
The drama in each version of Hobbsís fictional story comes mainly from Hobbsís own internal strife; his inability to reconcile his personal and emotional needs with the requirements of maturity and profession. Malamud and Levinson also focus on some fairly exacting business arrangements involving Hobbs, his teamís manager, and his teamís owner (giving that latter character the honorific of "judge").
As such, even though they leave the field of criminal law behind, the novelist and the filmmaker both still weave lawyering and the legal system into their respective plotlines; not front and center, but rather where it settles in the lives of most people: the background. The law, as an embodiment of societyís power structure, is made part of the web that eventually ensnares their hero, as seamlessly and quietly as a fly ball settles into a fielderís glove.
Neither fictional version of this story pretends to be realistic, though; both book and movie proceed through allegory, illustrating a theme of grace and redemption with Hobbsís rise and fall. So you canít complain that they "didnít get it right." Not by their wholesale neglect of the state of contract law in the era of Hobbsís playing career, and not by their failing to do justice to the real lives of Steinhagen and Waitkus, either.
I find it striking, though, that those real lives can still resonate with us; both as attorneys and (I hope) as members of the human species. Waitkusís unforced graciousness toward his assailant; that courtís quick and apparently correct attribution of this act to mental unhealth; that prosecutorís seeming willingness to accept contrition, treatment, and apology in lieu of further punishment: these moments in time are worthy of a story themselves.
I should also add that as a criminal defense attorney, I often find myself asking prosecutors and judges to not allow any one single act of any client to serve as the measure of that personís entire worth; to accept that my clientsí lives are as complicated as any other lives are, and just as filled with pleasures, disappointments, successes, failures, and subtleties. Some of these people accept this truth, and join me in looking for the person behind the act; some, quite frankly, seem incapable of doing so.
But this habit of mine leaves me dissatisfied upon hearing of nothing more than Ms. Steinhagenís moment of infamy. I also want to know more about the 50 years of quiet that succeeded it. In particular, I wonder how she felt each spring, when baseball season came around.
Michael Davidow is a staff attorney at the NH Public Defender in Nashua. He is the author of Split Thirty (learn more), a novel about politics and advertising and the writer of this new Bar News column on pop culture and the law.