Major League Murder: The Gruesome True Story That Inspired “The Natural”

Some people like to think that Robert Redford’s character, Roy Hobbs, in the movie, The Natural, was supposed to be inspired by Boston Red Sox outfielder Ted Williams. Hobbs donned the No. 9 in the film and batted left-handed with a short swing, keeping his hands close to his body – all details you may take in when observing Williams at the plate. (Redford did say later that he was a fan of Williams and that he based his stance and uniform number off of Williams)

However, the plot of The Natural does not fit Williams’ life events. Hobbs was a baseball prodigy as a pitcher, who threw eight no-hitters as a high schooler growing up outside of Chicago. On his way to try out for the Chicago Cubs, Hobbs would be brutally shot and forced to hang up the cleats.

Fifteen years passed by before Hobbs received another shot to revive his career as an outfielder with the New York Knights. The rookie, well into his 30s, shocked the baseball world with his thunderous power and ability to hit everything thrown in his direction.

Originally, The Natural was a book written by Bernard Malamud in 1952 which later was adapted into a film directed by Barry Levinson. Malamud didn’t get the idea for this story from watching Teddy Ballgame wield a bat. It was actually the 1949 shooting of Phillies outfielder Eddie Watikus which inspired the tragedy and triumph of Roy Hobbs.

On his train ride to Chicago, Hobbs meets Harriet Bird, the woman who was behind the mysterious killings of prominent athletes in their respective sports. Bird was originally targeting The Whammer (a fictional player in the movie based off of Babe Ruth). But her attention shifted to Hobbs after he struck out the Whammer at a stop on the way to Chicago…proving that he would become the best to ever play the game.

Bird stayed in the same hotel as Hobbs and phoned him down to her room where she would shoot him and commit suicide immediately after.

Watikus had a similar problem, but he would be shot by a woman who was in the process of stalking him for three years instead of a serial killer looking to murder famous athletes.

Ruth Ann Steinhagen was only 19 when she plotted to kill the man she loved so much from a distance. Watikus was originally a member of the Chicago Cubs, in Steinhagen’s home city. She adored the first baseman and would get as close as she could to him when he exited the field after Cubs games at Wrigley Field.

Steinhagen wrote a memoir of her fantasized love affair with the baseball player as part of a court order after the 1949 shooting.

“I used to go to all the ballgames just to watch him. We used to wait for them to come out of the clubhouse after the game, and all the time I was watching him, I was building in my mind the idea of killing him.”

The young lady had a problem with creating this fantasy world in her head about falling in love with men she knew she would never get the chance to meet in real life. This was something her mother mentioned to the authorities after she attempted the murder of Watikus.

Steinhagen suffered a fatal blow when she learned the news her beloved Watikus was traded to Philadelphia after the 1948 season. She became even more obsessed with the ballplayer, even going as far as to make a shrine to worship Watikus.

“As time went on, I just became nuttier and nuttier about the guy. I knew I would never get to know him in a normal way, so I kept thinking, I will never get him, and if I can’t have him, nobody else can. Then I decided I would kill him. I didn’t know how or when, but I knew I would kill him.”

She seized the opportunity to act upon her lust when the Phillies visited Chicago to play the Cubs in June of 1949. Steinhagen rented a room at the Edgewater Beach Hotel where the Phillies were lodged and sent a telegram to Watikus’ room requesting he come to see her.

The original plan was to stab him as soon as he got comfortable, but he forced her to take a different path when he walked into her room more quickly than she anticipated. So Steinhagen grabbed a .22 caliber rifle and forced him up against the window telling him he had bugged her for the last two years and now was his time to die.

Luckily for Watikus, the bullet she fired through his chest did not cause him much damage besides hitting a part of his right lung and having the bullet lodged into a muscle in his back. Part of her plan was to commit suicide after shooting him but instead, she called the hotel lobby and turned herself in.

Watikus would return to play baseball the next season but he would never be the same player after suffering the bullet wound. Steinhagen was ordered to be placed in a psychiatric hospital and only stayed there for three years – she was not charged with any crimes after that. Luckily for Watikus, he never saw her again…in fact, no one really knew she was still around until reports came out that she died in December of 2012.