Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Knights

It all started with a Twitter feed early this week from @obitsman, linking an Associated Press obituary appearing in the San Fransisco Cronicle regarding the death of Ruth Ann Steinhagen, 83, the woman who shot the major-league ballplayer Eddie Waitkus in a Chicago motel in 1949. Big news indeed, that even formed the basis for the opening scenes in Bernard Malamud's novel, 'The Natural.' 

The NYT today caught up to their obituary backlog and added its rendition of the Ruth Ann Steinhagen/Eddie Waitkus story. Both obituaries add distinct background nuggets to the tale.

In 1949 I was only a few years or so away from my first year in kindergarten. Because I was somewhat young and not quite housebroken, I had to repeat PS 32's stint closer to home at
PS 22 because of my poor attendance. I skipped 5th grade, however, so I regained the points in the standings.

Thus, poor Eddie's plight did not register with me, and was not ever mentioned by my father. It did register with my friend's father, who was born in 1902 and was a lifelong baseball fan who often talked of Eddie Waitkus and how he was considered to be on his way to being the next Lou Gehrig before the shooting.  Eddie did survive the shooting, missed the rest of the season, but did have several productive years after, playing for a pennant-winning Philadelphia team that lost to the Yankees in 1952.

As I grew older I may have heard about the Waitkus story, but by the time the movie 'The Natural' rolled around in 1984, I was making no connection. And neither did my friend, another lifelong baseball fan, complete in his father's image.

I never realized until reading the obituaries on Ms. Steinhagen that the Malamud novel was written as long ago as 1952, the year she was declared sane and released from a mental institution. Because Mr. Waitkus didn't press charges at that point, Ms. Steinhagen disappeared into anonymous everyday life, with no trial ever being convened.

And that would be that. You would think. But several years ago, the prolific sportswriter Dick Schaap wrote what turned out to be his last book, 'Flashing Before My Eyes,' a sort of highlight film of Dick's life. Anyone who ever read or saw Dick Schaap on TV knew he could drop more names than a room full of faulty hard drives at the Social Security Administration. But that was part of his charm.

I remember Dick proudly bragging that he purposely let his book be published without an index, to basically thwart those who just wanted to look up their names to see what Dick said about them. He had sales in mind. Buy the book. It worked. The book sold.

But at some point in Dick's book be recounts the story of meeting Bernard Malamud at a gathering and telling him how much he liked 'The Natural' and how it portrayed the Eddie Waitkus story. Dick goes on to tell us that Bernard gave him a rather frosty glare and told him that he was retelling the story of Sir Percival, one of the Holy Grail Knights and member of King Arthur's Round Table.

Well, we do remember that Roy Hobbs does come back from being shot in the stomach by a deranged female fan to play heroically for the New York Knights, so we have to believe Mr. Malamud's literary intentions. He did write he book.

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