Babe Didrikson Zaharias
Real Name: Mildred Ella Didriksen
As the 6th of 7 children, she was called “Baby” as an infant. By the time #7 came along, the neighborhood boys had already adjusted Mildred’s nickname to Babe (after Babe Ruth) because she hit so many home runs in their sandlot baseball games.
The Early Years
During high school, Babe was recruited by Employers Casualty Insurance Company’s sports manager Colonel Melvin J. McCombs to play basketball for the company’s women’s team, the Golden Cyclones. After a smashing season, the Golden Cyclones also competed in swimming, baseball, and tennis. Then McCombs had Babe compete in the AAU National Championship track meet…as a one-woman team.
The One-Woman Team
She won. At 21 years old, she competed in eight of the meet’s ten events and singlehandedly outscored the 2nd place team (which had over 20 members) 30 to 22. She placed first in five events and tied for first in another. In the process, she broke four world records (three of which belonged to her already) and qualified for the 1932 Olympics.
The 1932 Olympics
Babe competed in three events and medaled in all of them. In the javelin throw and the 80-meter hurdles, she took gold and broke (her own) world records. In the high jump, she and an opponent cleared the same height in a jump off but Babe was awarded the silver medal due to controversy about the legality of her form. (The Fosbury flop was still more than three decades in the future.) Coming off her unprecedented victories in track and field, she seemed unstoppable…until it was time to go pro.
Babe floundered after making the decision to earn money as an athlete. She dabbled in show business, spending a week as the star of a vaudeville act and participating in exhibition games in billiards, basketball, and baseball. But by the end of 1934, she had been taking lessons and keeping a strenuous training schedule, and she was ready to compete in the next sport…
The Next Sport
…golf. She entered and won her first tournament in Fort Worth, Texas. Babe went on to win 82 golf tournaments in her career, including 17 amateur women’s tournaments in a row (which hasn’t been done since). By 1950 she had won every golf title available to women at the time. She is now remembered primarily for her career on the green.
More Babe Stuff
- Babe met professional wrestler George Zaharias when they were partnered for a golf tournament and married him in 1938. Although their marriage was not always happy, they remained loyal to one another.
- When a friend introduced her to teenage golfer Betty Dodd, the two became fast friends (often arousing George’s jealousy) for the rest of Babe’s life. Dodd even lived with the Zahariases for a while.
- She was instrumental in founding the Ladies PGA.
- Babe’s confidence was as wide as her native Texas, and her verbal swagger matched it. She was known to shout to competitors before a match, “Okay, Babe’s here! Now who’s gonna finish second?”
- She received the Associated Press’s Woman Athlete of the Year award six times, a record still unmatched today.
- She was proficient on the harmonica, which she played on stage in her one week of vaudeville and later with Betty Dodd, who sang and played guitar.
- In 1953 she underwent surgery for colon cancer. She went on to win the U.S. Women’s Open shortly thereafter. Her cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, but that information was kept from her until it became evident. She was in and out of the hospital during her last year of life and finally succumbed in 1956 at age 45.
Babe’s legacy includes more than athletic accomplishments: she spent much of her career bucking the notion that women did not belong in sports. Up until a year before she competed in the Olympics, the inclusion of women’s sports in the Games was still a subject of heated debate. Later, when Babe was touring with a men’s baseball team, newspaper columnist Joe Williams wrote of her, “It would be much better if she and her ilk stayed home, got themselves prettied up and waited for the phone to ring.” But sportswriter and fan Grantland Rice lauded Babe as “the most flawless section of muscle harmony, of complete mental and physical coordination the world of sport has ever known.” By her unflagging pursuit of her own ambitious athletic goals, Babe helped to open up the world of professional sports for future women athletes.
Note: I highly recommend Russell Freedman’s Babe Didrikson Zaharias: The Making of a Champion, which was my principal source for this post. I found the chapter about Babe as a one-woman track team especially entertaining.