Eddie Waitkus Was No Roy Hobbs, Just a Good First Baseman

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Ruth Ann Steinhagen, the Cubs fanatic who shot Eddie Waitkus in 1949, died late last year. While that’s not much of a story in itself, some baseball writers have used her death to point out the similarities and differences between Waitkus and Roy Hobbs, the character he inspired in Bernard Malamud’s baseball epic, The Natural.

Eddie Waitkus Bowman Gum Card - 1951
Eddie Waitkus Bowman Gum Card 1951

In a piece penned by Cliff Corcoran for SI.com entitled, “Waitkus remembered for being shot, but he was no Natural“, Corcoran lays out a handful of numbers showing that the inspiration for the character Roy Hobbs wasn’t all that great. While Corcoran is right, it’s this type of sabercentric thinking that eliminates any amount of respect for the achievements of an overall solid first baseman.

From 1941 on, Waitkus saw almost 2,000 at-bats before being shot by an obsessed Cubs fan in 1949, giving rise to perhaps the greatest fictional baseball player of all time. In his 5 seasons as a Major-leaguer prior to the incident, Waitkus put up a respectable BA of .275 and a .326 OBP. He didn’t hit for power (or knockout any stadium lights), but he did manage to knock in 162 runs prior to the shooting.

He wasn’t a bad player, but you wouldn’t learn that from reading Corcoran’s drab, dismissal of his career:

Waitkus hit for respectable averages (.304 in 1946, .306 in 1949 before the shooting, .285 on his career), but they were empty. He hit for little power and drew only an average number of walks. He did make a pair of All-Star teams and drew some low-ballot MVP votes in two seasons, but only thrice did he surpass two wins above replacement, the approximate value of an average non-star regular (per Baseball-Reference’s WAR), peaking at 2.7 in 1948, when he hit a career-high seven home runs.

Notice the mention of MVP votes, and two All-Star appearances, capped with the end-all-be-all for many sabermetricians, an unworthy WAR. Wins above replacement. Wins above an imaginary player.

The reality is, Waitkus was a good hitter, and a very good defender to boot. In 9,938 chances at first base, Waitkus put up a solid .993 fielding percentage, committing only 72 errors in his 11 seasons played.

What is it about some sabermetrics that make baseball writers forget about everything else? Take the Mike TroutMiguel Cabrera debate of 2012, where one side of the argument found themselves pointing at a hazy formula (WAR) for the basis of most of their exclusion of Miguel Cabrera as an MVP candidate. Those sabermetricians didn’t seem to care that Cabrera helped his team to a World Series appearance and Trout didn’t. They also failed to recognize that during the final month of regulation play, Cabrera hit .346 with 24 RBI, and Trout hit .256 with 3 RBI. Perhaps if there was a formula that registered “clutch”, many of the stats-fiends would have changed their minds about Cabrera.

The take away: it’s easy for baseball analysts to dismiss memorable careers by simply pointing at a single, unclear formula like WAR. Such is the case with Mr. Corcoran and his attempt to show contrast between Eddie Waitkus, a good first baseman, and Roy Hobbs, an imaginary slugger who literally hit the cover off of balls, and summoned lightning with a bat he made when he was a boy.

For what it’s worth, Corcoran is right about the comparison, but later in his piece he makes a hasty assumption.

Malamud (The Natural writer) built his now-iconic character around what was by far the most interesting thing about Waitkus’s career, the shooting…

But, perhaps if we used a bit of common sense, we might determine that the shooting itself was not, by any stretch of the imagination the most interesting thing about Waitkus’ career. Perhaps it was the fact that the first baseman had a piece of lead lodged near his heart, came back the very next season, and went on to complete a very respectable Major League career.

The most interesting thing about Eddie Waitkus’ career was how his strength of character and body allowed him to come back from a devastating traumatic injury, and continue put up reasonably good numbers. It’s safe to say most players’ careers would have been over.

Is there a formula for determining Wins above replacement after returning from a gunshot wound to the chest?

An indictment on a writer’s embellishment shouldn’t result in the dismissal of a generally good career for a first baseman.

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Tomas Laverty
Tomas Laverty, frequent contributor to the MLB section, runs a Detroit web design company called Detroit Spaces.