We Need to Outgrow Our Sports Legends

On June 14, 1949, a 19-year-old woman lured the handsome Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Eddie Waitkus, whom she'd never before met, to her room in Chicago's Edgewater Beach Hotel with an urgent note. "We're not acquainted," it read, "but I have something of importance to speak with you about." When he arrived, she offered him a seat, retrieved a rifle she's hidden in the closet, and shot him in the chest. The press went crazy for the story, and, just a few years later, Bernard Malamud used it as the inspiration for The Natural. That novel went on to inspire a more optimistic movie starring Robert Strike-a-Pose Redford as Hobbs in 1984, by which time the real woman who shot the real Roy Hobbs has become about as real as an urban legend.

In fact, Ruth Ann Steinhagen managed to recede into near-anonymity largely because Waitkus, who played the season after he was shot and even helped the Phillies win the National League pennant, decided not to press charges when Steinhagen was released from psychiatric care in 1952, the year of the The Natural's release. Her subsequent life is a muddle, so much so that when the AP reported her passing on Sunday, the news was about three months old. Even John Theodore, author of a 2002 nonfiction book about Eddie Waitkus, had trouble putting together anything more than a hazy picture of Steinhagen's life after the shooting.

The account of Steinhagen's crime that does, unfortunately, endure, is buried in The Natural, which turns her into a Delilah-like character whose only narrative purpose is to sap the prodigious baseball potential bottled up in Roy Hobbs. Hobbs' skill is such that he achieves something very close to divinity — he hits the covers off of baseballs, he wields a magical lightning bat. Fans adore him. Women (specifically a woman named Memo Paris) want to leech off of his mystical baseball energy.

The Natural, as Malamud styles it, is a retelling of (one version of) the Fisher King story. Hobbs is the knight Perceval who comes to help owner Pop Fisher's shitty baseball team the Knights (allegories!) win a Holy Grail. Or a pennant — this is America, after all. Pop Fisher and his woeful Knights will be virile and strong again and their drought of success will end if they can get their grubby hands on a pennant. In the novel (spoiler alert), Hobbs fails to help the Knights win because he's way too hubristic. (In the movie, Robert Redford hits a dramatic, game-winning home run.)

Hobbs is a hero from the old world, a legend reborn in the landscape of American sports. This, after all, is how Americans have come to think of sports icons — as larger than life, heroic in the way that Achilles and Hector are heroic. When future people unearth our cities, they're going to find huge sports arenas with life-sized statues of men waving baseball bats or giving an invisible linebacker a stiff arm, and they're going to think, "Huh, these people must have really like sports. Like, whoa."

That's fine — every era needs a hero, but he problem, though the sort of hero worship in a story like The Natural is that it turns everyone who opposes the hero into at best an obstacle, and at worst an adversary.

Steinhagen had been obsessed with Waitkus long before the night she shot him. Waitkus had initially played for the Chicago Cubs, and Steinhagen made a him a permanent — if entirely imaginary — fixture in her life: she turned her bedroom into a Waitkus shrine, she set a place for him at the family dinner table, and she kept his picture under her pillow. When he was traded to the Phillies in 1948, Steinhagen, according to Theodore's account, decided to kill him. This is clearly the logic of a psychologically disturbed person, which is why a judge determined her to be insane.

There were lots of ways to write a novel about Steinhagen and Waitkus, but the novel Malamud chose to write reduces Steinhagen (a woman with a tenuous grip on her own agency), to something very much like a femme fatale, a woman who plots, connives, and, most notably, seduces (something Steinhagen didn't do — she simply wrote Waitkus a cryptic note). Hobbs is a baseball-card-thin hero, but fans don't just worship him for hitting home runs. His comeback, his revival as a baseball legend, means something to people — he's a swaggering symbol of athletic skill, a symbol that overshadows a pernicious representation of women as impediments or adversaries to male triumph, as if that were the only thing that ever mattered in Western storytelling.

It isn't, but as long as the hero worship of athletes revolves around what men can and can't overcome, our heroes will always be little more than caricatures, adhering to outdated gender roles and playing out plots that seem tawdry on baseball diamonds. Maybe Steinhagen's death should remind us that we've outgrown heroes like Roy Hobbs, a relic from a far more patriarchal past.

Obsessed fan who shot player, inspired movie, dies [AP]