Congressional Baseball Game Heroes and a True 'Natural'
Last night, the baseball gods were on duty at the annual Congressional Baseball Game played at Nationals Park.
Although President Trump declined an invitation (he had an excuse: It was his 72nd birthday), Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana was there, along with four other victims of last year’s shooting by a political zealot who tried to murder several Republican lawmakers while they practiced on an Alexandria baseball diamond a few days before the annual charity game.
The other four victims -- Capitol Police officers Crystal Griner and David Bailey, lobbyist Matt Mika, and congressional aide Zack Barth -- tossed out the ceremonial first pitches and then Griner and Bailey walked Scalise out to his position.
That was when the baseball deities decided to milk the moment. By far the most seriously wounded of last year’s victims, Scalia still walks with a limp -- and will for the rest of his life. He was in the field as the game started, however, manning second base. The game’s first pitch produced a sharp grounder hit just to Scalise’s right. He took one step, bent down, backhanded the ball, and threw to first from his knees to get the out. Fans cheered, regardless of political party, and Scalise’s teammates mobbed him.
As for the game itself, the Democrats overwhelmed the GOP, 21-5, which sounds more like a football score, and as best I can tell, the Republicans will be hard-pressed to win this game as long as Cedric Richmond is serving in Congress. The Democrat pitched a complete game victory, as he did last year, and hit the cover off the ball when batting, which he also did last year. If Donald Trump wants to help his party compete in this game, he might want to find an ambassadorship or something for Rep. Richmond. He’s too good.
But winning isn’t the point of charity baseball, or games played by men and women in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, anyway. “We’re all Americans, we all love the game of baseball” is how Zack Barth put it yesterday. “And we’re all out to have fun for one night.”
Steve Scalise’s heroics reminded me of another baseball player who came back from a shooting, and it happened exactly 69 years ago to the day of last night’s Congressional Baseball Game.
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Unless you already knew the story, when young pitching phenom Roy Hobbs is shot by a mysterious woman in a Chicago hotel room a few minutes into “The Natural,” it’s as stunning to moviegoers as it was to Hobbs, played by Robert Redford in the film.
Literature buffs, not to mention baseball aficionados, were not shocked. That’s what happened in Bernard Malamud’s novel of the same name. More to the point, it’s what happened to a real-life ballplayer named Eddie Waitkus on June 14, 1949.
Malamud’s 1952 book and Barry Levinson’s 1984 movie are parables -- although they reach different conclusions -- but for Waitkus it was a frightening experience of gun violence at the hand of an obsessed, mentally ill young stalker he’d never met. It nearly cost him his life.
That life began on September 4, 1919, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The son of Lithuanian immigrants, Eddie starred in the classroom and on the baseball diamond at Cambridge Latin High School. Even after tragedy struck the family -- his mother died of pneumonia when he was 14 -- Eddie graduated sixth in a class of 600, excelled on the debate team, and shined on the diamond as a slick-fielding first baseman who hit line drives all over the field.
Although he lacked the home run power we now expect from first basemen, Eddie Waitkus showcased his talent in summer leagues after graduation and was considered the best young prospect in New England. A Boston sportswriter named Fred Barry, who couldn’t have known what was to come, wrote: “These big league ‘wise men’ viewed the left-handed batting and throwing of 19-year-old Waitkus and termed him a ‘natural.’”
Given a tryout by the Chicago Cubs, Eddie signed for $2,500 and was in the big leagues by 1941 when he was 21 years old. He didn’t hit at first, so Waitkus was consigned to the Cubs’ top farm team, the Los Angeles Angels. There, Eddie polished his game, batting .336 and leading the Pacific Coast League in hits.
Instead of being called up to the majors, however, Waitkus missed the next three seasons because he was assigned by his government to places you might have heard of: New Guinea, Bougainville, Luzon. In the Philippines, he narrowly avoided being captured by the Japanese.
“In September 1945, while the Cubs were winning the National League pennant, he and the rest of the 544th were among the first troops ashore at Wakayama, Japan,” wrote baseball historian C. Paul Rogers III.
Arriving home with numerous decorations, including four Bronze Stars, Waitkus exchanged his drab olive U.S. Army uniform for the famous blue pinstripes of the Chicago Cubs, won back his starting job at first base, and began amassing the career stats that made him, if not a Hall of Famer, an acclaimed major leaguer. He fielded his position with uncommon skill and in an 11-year MLB career batted .285, scored 528 runs, and struck out only 204 times in 4,681 plate appearances.
He was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies before the 1949 season, which meant that he was playing a road game in Chicago when disturbed 19-year-old Ruth Ann Steinhagen shot him with a .22 rifle at the Edgewater Beach Hotel, where the Phillies were staying. He had served more than two years in the bloody Pacific without taking a round, and now he was bleeding to death in a small Chicago hotel room.
Inexplicably, but fortunately, Miss Steinhagen called the front desk. “I have just shot a man,” she said. Although adjudged not guilty by reason of insanity, that call she made on the hotel telephone spared Eddie’s life. The bullet pierced his lung and lodged itself in his spine. But he made it through the night, underwent several operations, spent a month in the hospital, and was met with a standing ovation by 20,000 Phillies fans at an August 19 “Welcome Eddie Waitkus” night at Shibe Park.
In the offseason, Eddie spent four grueling months in physical rehabilitation in Clearwater Beach, Florida, where he not only regained his strength but met his future wife, Carol. In 1950, he started every game that year for the Phillies, the old man (at 30) on the famed “Whiz Kids” who won the National League pennant, Philadelphia’s first in 35 years. It was Eddie’s high-water mark in baseball.
By 1954, he was out of the game, and in retirement he struggled with depression, which he tried to self-medicate by drinking. Today, he’d be diagnosed as having post-traumatic stress disorder, both from his shooting and his combat experiences.
He drifted away from Carol and his kids, moved back to the Boston area, and late in life found some peace of mind as a summer coach at the Ted Williams Baseball Camp in Lakeville, Massachusetts. In a way, he’d come full circle as the young “natural” whose potential was beloved by New England baseball scouts.
In his one year with the L.A. Angels, Waitkus had been tapped as an extra in crowd scenes in various Hollywood movies. In one film, “Pride of the Yankees,” he was more than that. The director evidently thought Eddie’s smooth glove work and classic left-handed swing would be more convincing to audiences as Lou Gehrig than Gary Cooper, so Waitkus was the body double in some scenes.
Robert Redford, in turn, had modeled his swing after the incomparable Ted Williams. And make no mistake, Redford’s beautiful swing is what makes “The Natural” a classic baseball film. As for the original natural, let’s give Ted Williams the last word.
“I always knew Eddie Waitkus was a great ballplayer, but he was a hell of a man, too,” Williams said after Eddie died of cancer at age 53. “The kids at camp loved him. He was magnificent with them, and we were truly lucky to have him. He was a classy-looking hitter and a classy-looking fielder. I loved that camp, being around the kids, teaching baseball. And I know Eddie did too.”