Wow! After less than two weeks of blogging, I just found out that I made my Leader List debut at number 44. I didn’t realize so many of you were reading my little missives! A big “thank you” to everyone who’s stopped by to visit – I hope I can keep up the good work.
In keeping with the MLBlog tradition of dedicating an entry to a famous, or maybe not-so-famous, number 44, I began by compiling a list of Phillies who have worn that number. Hmm. No one name jumped right out at me.
There was Vicente Padilla. Word always was that he had great stuff, but just couldn’t quite get it together. While with the Phillies, he had a fan group known as “Padilla’s Flotilla”.
There was Mike Maddux, brother of Greg, mentioned in my recent post, The Other Brother.
There were quite a few who toiled in relative anonymity, like Amalio Carreno, Steve Comer, Yoel Hernandez, and most recently Les Walrond.
There was Steve Fireovid, whose name brought to mind images of flaming Latin poets.
There was Dick Ruthven, who was a member of the 1980 World Champs, and twice an All-Star.
But to me the most interesting number 44 was Eddie Waitkus. Waitkus had two stints with the Phillies, from 1949-1953, during which he wore the number 4, and then for 33 games in 1955, during which he wore the number 44.
Waitkus, a first-baseman, began his career with the Cubs, playing briefly in 1941 (12 games), then playing full-time from 1946-1948. He was named an All-Star in 1948. While in Chicago, Waitkus became a favorite, especially among female fans. One young fan, Ruth Ann Steinhagen, became particularly obsessed.
Then, before the 1949 season, he was traded to the Phillies. Steinhagen, upset that Waitkus was no longer a Cub, concocted a scheme to lure him to her hotel room during a Phillies road trip to Chicago. She left a note for him using an alias, asking him to meet with her. Once he had entered the room, she pulled a rifle out of the closet and shot him in the chest.
Amazingly, he survived, and was named an honorary member of the 1949 All-Star team, as he had been leading the voting for first base at the time of the shooting.
He returned the next season to play 154 games for the 1950 “Whiz Kids”, compiling a .284 batting average. However, his numbers declined the next two seasons, and the Phillies were looking to trade him. By 1953, he appeared in only 81 games, splitting time at first base with Earl Torgeson.
At the beginning of the 1954 season, Waitkus was sold to the Baltimore Orioles. Always known as a slick fielder, he had a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage that year.
After playing in 38 games for the Orioles in 1955, he was released, and a few days later signed with the Phillies. He appeared in 33 games before being released after the end of the season.
After leaving baseball, Waitkus battled depression stemming from the shooting, which in turn led to problems with alcohol. Towards the end of his life, he found some solace working with young ballplayers at the Ted Williams Baseball Camp in Massachusetts. He died of cancer in 1972, at the age of 53.
Waitkus’ story inspired, in part, the Bernard Malamud book “The Natural”. Anyone interested in a more thorough telling of his career and life should read “Baseball’s Natural: The Story of Eddie Waitkus” by John Theodore. We will never know what his career might have been like had it not been for one crazed fan.
(photo from www.waitkus.org)