Eddie Waitkus—1952, Bowman, OR When Love in the Form of a Silver Bullet Slowed Fast Eddie Down

Eddie Waitkus, ed

This is the third post in a week related to The Natural (1984), but I for one have not lost interest yet. Shortly after seeing the film, I started searching for Eddie Waitkus cards, “and original, not re-released—underlined.” To my surprise, even many of the older Waitkus cards are quite affordable, though this may have something to do with his rather uneven playing career after the infamous Steinhagen episode.

In as much, I recently found this 1952 Bowman card of Eddie Waitkus for $3.60 (including shipping) in an online auction. For an authentic, painterly Bowman of the original “Natural” (a nickname by which he was actually known as a young rookie), I thought the price was more than a fair deal. Not unlike Waitkus by this point in his playing career in 1952, the card has seen some wear with a noticeable corner crease and a little loss of sharpness and vibrancy in color. You may also observe by the front signature script that his name often appeared as “Edward” instead of Eddie on his cards.

1952 was three years after Waitkus had been shot by Ruth Ann Steinhagen in her room in the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago. That fateful day in June of 1949 during his first season with the Philadelphia Phillies (after being traded by the Cubs) would haunt Waitkus for much of his later career and life after baseball. He reportedly suffered post-traumatic stress syndrome and experienced problems with alcoholism.

His career statistics attest to a decline in his performance on the field as well. Beginning in 1952, Waitkus saw fewer and fewer chances at bat. After the shooting, he also never hit .300 again, which he had managed twice before—both in 1946 and up to the point when he was shot in that ultimately harrowing season of 1949. He was even an All-Star selection in 1948 and 1949, but he never achieved that distinction again either.

Waitkus continued to play in the majors until he retired in 1955. Although most of his later years are generally characterized by struggle and martial strife, he did return to baseball—as an instructor at the Ted Williams baseball camp. As with many ballplayers from his era who heavily consumed tobacco, Waitkus eventually died from esophageal cancer. He was age 53.

A story of the story that rekindled my love for baseball & baseball cards

Michael Chabon is probably my favorite living writer. I first began reading his work while I was in college. Chabon’s writing felt far more interesting and especially relevant to me at that age than, say, the stuffy and esoteric literary criticism of Samuel Johnson or Alexander Pope, which was what I should have been reading for a tedious course so imaginatively titled as 18th Century British Literature. In fact, Chabon’s unique style, his “flare” (for lack of a better term), proved all too infectious for me; in that department, he was in my mind second to none except maybe F. Scott Fitzgerald, and for better or worse I have yet to fully shake off the rather ornate shackles of such florid influences in my own writing. . . .

Then well over a decade after first encountering Chabon’s early fiction, I started to read his nonfiction with every bit as much enthusiasm. And that’s when I came across a piece called “A Gift” in a collection of essays, Manhood for Amateurs (2010). In “A Gift,” the narrator reflects on some of the intersections of boyhood and fatherhood—one such common thread being the gift of baseball cards, which his father sends him for a birthday present one year. And the cards? A handful of those painterly 1952 Bowmans.

So after about twenty years and not so much as a glance at a baseball card—as well as little interest in spectatorship when whispers of the steroid scandal began following 1998’s epic and, now it turns out, fictitious home run race—Chabon’s story at once rekindled a passion in me for both baseball and baseball cards. I couldn’t be more thankful.

Under an earlier, different title (“Baseball cards: communication between father, son”), Chabon’s story follows here.