Since the first days of baseball, there have been women who wanted to get close to the players. A few of those eager women have been unable to control themselves, working their way so they could rub their shoulders (and other body parts) with the men on the field. More than once this cozy relationship between players and the groupies they call “Baseball Annie’s” has turned violent.
When he was in his second season in the majors, 24-year old Billy Jurges was shot by a love-crazed woman who desperately wanted to be the wife of a baseball player. The story of that shooting illustrates the extreme obsession that can develop between fans and athletes. It also shows us how different that era was in how violence was handled in society.
Violet Popovich was a dancer (of sorts) who fluttered around baseball players in Chicago. She briefly dated Leo Durocher, a fancy dresser and an inveterate letch who probably noticed the curvaceous young Popovich when she was on stage in a slinky outfit in a Windy City nightclub. Her stage name was Violet Valli, and she dated several ballplayers before she reached her twentieth birthday. Eventually she set her sights on two men.
The Cubs left fielder in the early 1930s was Hazen “Kiki” Cuyler, a perennial batting crown candidate with wavy hair. (His first name was pronounced KY-KY, as in the first syllable of his last name). Sports writer J.T. Meek called Cuyler, “the game’s fashion plate” for his impeccable dress and gentlemanly manners off the diamond. Cuyler was an accomplished ballroom dancer and he had a good singing voice. Ladies loved him, including apparently, Miss Valli. Even though Cuyler was married with a couple of kids back home in Michigan, he and Popovich became entwined in an affair during the 1932 season. But for some reason Cuyler cooled on the dancer and rebuffed her, and that’s when Violet cast her eyes on Jurges, the young Chicago shortstop.
More than a few ballplayers in the league warned Jurges about Violet Valli, but as young men will do, he ignored sage advice on affairs of the heart. Jurges and the dancer fell into a passionate relationship that grew hotter as the summer wore on. Ultimately, it led to a fateful encounter in a hotel room after he refused to marry her.
Many of the younger men on the Cubs lived in the Hotel Carlos, located on Sheffield Avenue, during the season. On the morning of July 6, 1932, Violet arrived at the Hotel Carlos and tapped on the door of Jurges’ room on the fifth floor. By this time, the dancer was crazy about Billy. She couldn’t stop thinking about the young ballplayer. “I met him at a party and he was one in a hundred thousand, and I fell hard,” she later testified.
Billy tried to explain that their fling was over, but Valli pleaded. That’s when the dancer pulled a pistol from her purse, and before Jurges could wrestle it away, she fired it three times. Two shots hit Jurges, one in his side, the other grazing a finger. The third shot plunged into the girl, traveling into her hand and her wrist. Both Jurges and Valli tumbled to the floor, but Violet quickly sprang to her feet and fled the room. Jurges was found by Marv Gudat, a teammate who heard the noise and thought it sounded like firecrackers.
Jurges was not seriously hurt and he received medical attention from the Cubs’ team physician, who also had a room in the hotel. Popovich was detained and also received medical care before both she and Jurges were taken to a hospital for further examination. The police took statements at that time. The following day a photo ran in the newspaper showing Jurges bandaged and lying in a hospital bed. He looked worse off than he really was, and the caption betrayed the facts of the incident:
A suicide note had been found, written by Violet before her encounter with Jurges. She might have intended to kill herself after killing Jurges, but she bungled both parts of that plan. Eventually it became clear that Valli had intended to also confront Cuyler, but he was not in his room. It was a premeditated plan by an unstable young woman.
Times were different in the 1930s, and Violet Valli was released when Jurges refused to file charges against his former lover. Valli not only got away with attempted murder, she profited from the notoriety. She returned to the stage to dance, adverts calling her “The Girl Who Shot For Love.”
Jurges recovered too, rather quickly, and was in the Cubs’ lineup after missing less than three weeks. He hit the ball well after returning to the lineup, and the Cubs won the pennant. Jurges hit .364 in the 1932 World Series, only a few months after being shot twice by a spurned lover. He played 17 seasons in the major leagues and was an All-Star three times.
Years later, in 1949, another young player, a promising star named Eddie Waitkus, was shot by a 19-year old woman who was obsessed with him, also in a hotel room in Chicago. Waitkus survived the shooting, which was much more serious than the Jurges affair, and returned to play baseball. The Waitkus shooting inspired Bernard Malamud’s 1952 novel, The Natural.
Great behind-the-scenes story about Billy Jurges and old time baseball (as well as the legal system at that point.) I have two Billy Jurges cards — a 1933 Goudey and a 1941 Play Ball — and, while I always liked the cards for their artistic depiction of the ball player, I find I enjoy them even more after reading Dan Holmes’ account. I’m glad Dan included the info about Eddie Waitkus because I assumed it was the Jurges incident that inspired Malamud’s story “The Natural”. Thanks, Dan, for a peek into the past. It has enriched the Jurges cards for me.
Thanks for your comment, Bruce. I appreciate you reading the blog.
I also find it fascinating that the young woman was released (she spent a short time in a mental hospital) and was out dancing within a few weeks. Over the next few decades her whereabouts were occasionally featured, as a sort of “where are they know?” She later married and had a child.