Sunday, August 02, 2009

Johnny Yen's Chicago Stories: Not One, But TWO!

As a typical midwestern American kid growing up watching television, one of the stereotypes I saw frequently was the combative in-laws. Happily, I grew up not to have that relationship; my in-laws are delightful people. I get along wonderfully with them. I suspect that with my father-in-law, it helps that I'm a huge baseball fan (and a native Chicagoan) like he is.

My father-in-law was born and raised in Chicago, and after serving in the military, ended up in Long Island, then finally the Minneapolis area. Over the years, he transferred his loyalties from the Cubs to the Minnesota Twins. Given that the Twins have won two World Series in my lifetime (1987 and 1991), this was proabably a wise move.

A couple of years ago, I was on the phone chatting with him, and of course, talking baseball. Somehow we began talking about the Cubs player who was shot by a deranged female fan, a story that was the inspiration for the book and the movie "The Natural."

In talking about the specifics of the incident, we remembered vastly different things. My father-in-law is 81 years old, but is still sharp as a tack. I actually questioned if I was remembering things wrong. I ran and grabbed my copy of Richard Lindberg's great book "Return To The Scene of the Crime: A Guide to Infamous Places In Chicago" to check if I was remembering my facts straight. And it was then I discovered that we were both correct. We were talking about two different guys. Not one, but two Cubs players were shot in hotel rooms by deranged female fans. I was talking about Billy Jurges and my father-in-law was talking about Eddie Waitkus.

Billy Jurges was shot in the Hotel Carlos, now the Sheffield House, at 3834 N. Sheffield Avenue, about two blocks north of Wrigley Field by a young showgirl named Violet Popovich on July 6, 1932. She had become increasingly obsessed with him, even renting a room at the Hotel Carlos, where Jurges lived. Jurges ignored warnings from people around him who saw how obsessed she was getting with him, and remained friendly with her. After three frantic calls from Ms. Popovich, Jurges allowed her into his room. After threatening to kill herself, Ms. Popovich fired three shots at Jurges, hitting him once in his hand and once in his side. Jurges lunged at her and disarmed her before she was able to fire again.

After Popovich was subdued by the police, Jurges was taken to Illinois Masonic Hospital (coindicentally, this is the hospital that I will be doing my clinicals for next semester's nursing school classes). Jurges wounds were treated, and he missed the remainder of the 1932 season. The Cubs brought in former Yankee Mark Koenig to replace him. That year, the Cubs went to the World Series, playing the Yankees. It was during that Series that Babe Ruth had his famous "called shot" in Wrigley Field.

Oddly, Jurges declined to press charges, and Violet Popovich was released. Jurges continued to play for the Cubs until 1948, and afterward worked as a manager and a scout.

Eddie Waitkus was a World War II hero whose career, oddly, briefly crossed paths with Billy Jurges'; he played on the Cubs from 1946 to 1948. While he played in Chicago, a female fan, Ruth Ann Steinhagen, had become obsessed with him. Waitkus was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1949, but this did not diminish Ms. Steinhagen's obsession, but increased it.

On June 14, 1949, Waitkus was in town with the Phillies to play the Cubs. He was staying in the Edgewater Beach Hotel, on Bryn Mawr Avenue. Checking into the hotel under the name of a high school classmate of Waitkus', Ms. Steinhagen sent him a note that she needed to see him on an urgent matter. When he entered her room, Steinhagen shot him with a rifle.

Mr. Waitkus' wounds were much more serious than Jurges' had been; he nearly died in the operating room. Fortunately he lived, but was never the same. He probably suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from the incident, and it affected his career. Ms. Steinhagen never stood trial for the shooting; she was confined to a mental institution.

As always, there were two odd little coincidences in this story for me. The first was that the only time I have ever been in the Edgewater Hotel, which now is an apartment building, it was to meet the guy who was to perform the marriage ceremony for my now-ex-wife Cynthia and I. He lived in the building. The other involves my current wife, Kim. When I met her, in 2004, she was living on the 3600 block of Sheffield Avenue, a few doors north of Wrigley Field-- and a block and a half south of the Sheffield House-- formerly the Carlos Hotel-- on the same side of the street. If you stand on the steps of her old apartment building, you can see the old Carlos Hotel.

Guess it's a good thing for me that both current and ex-wives hate guns.


Churlita said...

It's always so weird how when people become obsessed, they feel they have to harm the other person. I've never understood that.

So, which of those stories was the basis for The Natural?

Johnny Yen said...

The Eddie Waitkus one was the basis for "The Natural."

Yeah, I've never understood the whole obsession/stalking thing. I mean, there are 3 billion men and 3 billion women on the planet-- why do you have to have THAT ONE!?