Babe Didrikson Zaharias was one of the most talented female athletes of all time in America, with a swagger to match. An Olympic athlete in 1932 in track and field, she went on to dominate in the LPGA, which she co-founded.
"It's not enough to just swing at the ball. You've got to loosen your girdle and really let her fly." ~ Babe Didrikson Zaharias
Mildred Ella Didrickson was born on June 26th, 1911 in Port Arthur, Texas. Her parents Hannah and Ole were immigrants from Norway, and Babe was the sixth of seven children. Her mother was a former skier and skater, and her father worked as a ship's carpenter.
In 1914 when Babe was only four a hurricane hit Port Arthur, killing 275 people and devastating the area. Babe's family moved inland to Beaumont, Texas, and tried settling once again. They did not have much money and Babe began working part-time jobs while she was still at school, earning a penny for every penny-sack she sewed.
Babe began playing baseball with the boys in the neighborhood. She became known for her ability to hit a home run and claims to have acquired the nickname "Babe" after the great Babe Ruth, though one theory holds that the nickname came from her mother, who called her "bebe" since she was a toddler. She learned to run by racing streetcars, wore her hair short, and wore boys' clothes.
In her autobiography, This Life I've Led, she wrote, "I played with boys rather than girls. I preferred baseball, football, foot-racing and jumping with the boys, to hop-scotch and jacks and dolls, which were about the only things girls did." She made it no secret that her goal was to be "the greatest athlete that ever lived." Her father encouraged her ambition, and made her a barbell out of a broomstick and two heavy flatirons.
Babe attended Beaumont High School but did not get good grades, and did barely enough to remain eligible to play sports. She played baseball and basketball, and was so skilled at the latter that the team never lost a game during Babe's run. She was the highest-scoring player every year that she played, and
caught the attention of Melvorne J. McMcombs, the manager of the Golden Cyclones, a women's basketball team in Dallas.
The Golden Cyclones were sponsored by the Employers Casualty Company, which not only funded the team but promoted the idea that athletes were better workers. In 1929 Babe left high school without finishing it to work for the company as a secretary, but also to play on the company's numerous athletic teams, including their basketball, baseball, diving, tennis, and track and field.
Dominance in Sports
Babe quickly became a star with the Golden Cyclones. The basketball team won the national championships in 1930, 1931, 1932, and Babe was the star All-American forward all three years. She often scored thirty or more points, and she practiced non-stop in softball, and track and field as well.
While she was naturally talented and zealous, it was Babe's hard work that pushed her even further out in front, into a league of her own. In The Life and Legend of Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Susan Cayleff described Babe at that time as follows: "We don't see a young athlete striving solely for steady improvement or personal bests. We see a woman with a consuming hunger attacking - and determined to conquer - world records."
A one-woman force
It was the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Track and Field Tournament where Babe put on one of her most impressive displays of athleticism. The meet was a chance to qualify for the 1932 Olympics, and on July 16th, 1932, Babe shocked everyone in the stadium by doing not only that, but by showing up at the team event as the only representative for Employers Casualty Insurance Company.
Facing teams composed of 12, 15, even 22 other women, Babe ran onto the field by herself when introduced, waving her arms vigorously. The crowd, for its part, gasped in surprise at the emergence of this one-woman track team. They had not seen anything yet.
The tournament lasted three hours on a swelteringly hot day in Evanston, IL, and Babe ran from event to event with barely enough time to catch her breath. She competed in eight of ten events, winning gold medals in five, and tying for gold in a sixth. She set world records in four events.
By the end of the three hours, Babe had scored 30 points for her team, winning the championship and 8 points in front of the second-place team, the Illinois Athletic Club, which had brought 22 athletes. She also qualified for the Olympics in five events.
As Arthur Daley would write in the New York Times about her performance, "Implausible is the adjective that best befits the Babe." Some describe this as the single most astonishing act by any athlete, man or woman, in track and field history.
At the Olympics, Babe was a favorite to win, though she was only allowed to complete in three of the five events she qualified in - a unique rule for women, as they were considered too weak to compete in more than three.
|Babe at the Olympics, 1932|
In those Olympic Games, Babe was the only person to break a world record in his or her events. Other athletes, including many males, broke Olympic records, but she was the lone athlete that set new marks for the world. The press at the games called her the "Iron Woman," the "Amazing Amazon," and "Whatta Gal Didrickson."
On the Greens
Babe took up golf in the early 1930s and showed a real talent for it, shocking no-one. To get even better, she would stay on the greens for over ten hours a day, playing until her hands were sore and bloody.
By 1932 she had played 11 games, and was driving the ball 260 yards from the first tee. She entered her first tournament in 1934 and won the qualifying round. One year later, she was making $15,000 a year from endorsements and golf matches.
Bragging and Backlash
Babe's talent was undeniable, but neither was her braggadocio. From the very start of her competitive career she was often resented by her opponents and even spectators for what they considered a boastful or immodest attitude.
It was true, Babe liked to let everyone know she was the best, and she was. As she announced once upon arriving at a tournament: "The Babe is hear. Who's coming in second?"
Even years later, this would seem to itch the sides of certain sportswriters, for instance ESPN's Larry Schwartz, who in 1991 described her thusly: "She frequently acted like a self-centered prima donna, a boastful person who constantly sought attention. Although she became somewhat less arrogant over the years, she still remained flamboyant and cocky - and often overbearing."
Jackie Joyner-Kersee, another dominant Olympic track and field athlete, saw it differently. In the 1990s she said in an interview with Schwartz, "It wasn't that she was cocky or aggressive. She was actually speaking the truth [that she was the greatest]. And some people probably didn't like it at that time because it was coming from a woman."
Her attitude wasn't the only thing people and the press complained about; it was also Babe's appearance. Her refusal to fit into the traditional mold of what is female seemed to infuriate some individuals, who called her a freak, an aberration, and "a living put down to all things feminine."
Babe voiced her opinion of such matters in the press, telling reporters how she really felt about feminine wear; she "did not wear girdles, bras, and the like because she was no 'sissy.'"
Joe Williams, a reporter for the New York World Telegram famously responded, "It would be much better if she and her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up and waited for the phone to ring."
Others took it even further, demanding to know if she was a man, a woman, or an "it." It was not unusual for Babe to be intercepted in the changing room by another female athlete who demanded to know her gender. In magazines, writer Paul Gallico called her a "muscle moll" in Vanity Fair, stated she was neither male or female, and spoke of her dismissively, labeling her a lesbian who had failed at being a woman.
For all the rage she sparked in others, Babe continued to make money from her sponsorships, appearances, and by winning tournaments; something that probably only increased the ire of her critics, as now she was not only a woman who was beating everyone athletically, but was supporting herself financially - something few women in that time did. From her contract with Employer's Casualty alone, she made three times what the average man made, and six times what the average woman did.
Over time, the constant criticism and pressure to look more female wore away at Babe, and she began changing her behavior. She wore clothing that was more frilly and delicate, and told the press she was looking for a husband. She even went so far as to announce that perhaps women's participation in sports should be limited, and that women should "get toughened up by playing boys' games, but don't get tough."
These uncharacteristic comments were construed by those who understood her history as Babe's effort to fall in line. As noted by her biographer, "Babe's successful ascension to femininity is [falsely] hailed as an applaudable accomplishment, not the tumultuous, contrived, and limiting self-molding that it really was the toll taken on self-esteem, individuality, and difference is ignored."
On the flip side of that, there were still writers who saw her physically for exactly what she was, nothing more, nothing less - such as sportswriter Grantland Rice, who wrote, "She is beyond all belief until you finally see her perform. Then you finally understand that you are looking at the most flawless section of muscle harmony, of complete mental and physical coordination, the world of sport has ever seen."
Babe continued playing golf through the 1930s and made some money with the House of David baseball team, among which she was the only woman. Through exhibition games she accomplished such feats as striking out Joe DiMaggio with three fast pitches, and earned several thousand dollars a month, a considerable amount of money during the Great Depression.
In 1938 she met George Zaharias, and the couple struck up a relationship that seemed based not on romance, but on a mutual understanding. As described by Babe's biographer Cayleff, "Zaharias's exaggerated manliness, she wrote, "contrasted favorably with Babe's attempted womanliness. They were working-class sports entertainers who reflected mainstream sensibilities: individualism, the will to succeed, and materialism. The two performers had found each other."
They married on December 23rd, 1938. George acted as Babe's manager and the two travelled widely on the golf circuit until 1950, which Babe giving golf exhibitions to raise money for war bonds during WWII.
In 1950, Babe and thirteen other women, all famed golfers, co-founded the Ladies Professional Golf Association. They gathered corporate sponsors and held professional tournaments, offering large cash prizes to the winners. Babe became the league's star player, winning money from the tournaments and attracting others to compete, as the availability of a cash prize for women was publicized.
Babe was the driving force behind the LPGA and the reason it was able to keep going in its first few years. A tactic Babe would use would be to call a promoter, negotiate an exhibition appearance for herself, then say "...and I'll bring along a few of the girls."
Some of the earliest LPGA events were born from the PR-savvy Babe; the athlete so frequently criticized for being too aggressive or blowing her own horn was doing it now on behalf of the young LPGA.
Health in decline
In 1950 Babe and her husband George bought a country club in Tampa and moved into the clubhouse there. They did not see each other much and travelled frequently, and when Babe met the talented golfer Betty Dodd that same year the two bonded quickly and would soon be inseparable.
Betty would move into the clubhouse with Babe and her husband, and some sources describe the partnership between Babe and Betty as one of primary partners; two who shared a deep emotional bond.
There was no lack of love on either side of the relationship, that much was certain - as Betty would describe after Babe passed away, "I had such admiration for this fabulous person. I never wanted to be away from her even when she was dying of cancer. I loved her. I would've done anything for her."
By the end of 1952, Babe was feeling exhausted. Less than six months later she was diagnosed with colon cancer. Betty Dodd became her full-time caregiver and she underwent surgery to have the cancer removed.
Six months after surgery she returned to competitive golf, tying for the championship at the U.S Women's Open. Later that year, she established the Babe Zaharias Fund to benefit cancer treatment centers and clinics.
In 1955 the cancer returned, and on a trip to visit friends in Fort Worth, Texas, she asked her friends one night to drive her to the Colonial Country Club. Once there, she went for a walk on the dark greens, bending down to touch the ground and kiss the grass. "I just wanted to see a golf course one more time," she told them.
Babe died on September 27th, 1956 at the age of 45. She is buried in Beaumont, Texas.
"If you win through bad sportsmanship, that's no real victory." ~ Babe Didrikson Zaharias
Patty Burg, on Babe: "When I come in second to her I feel as though I have won. It's kind of like the Yankees. They're the champs and you want them to win."
- Babe Didrikson Zaharias's Legacy Fades, Don Van Natta Jr, The New York Times, nytimes.com, June 25th, 2011
- Amelia to Zora: 26 Women Who Changed the World, Cynthia Chin Lee, Charlesbridge Publishing, 2005
- Didrikson was a Woman Ahead of Her Time, Larry Schwartz, ESPN, ESPN.com, 2016
- Top 10 Athletes Turned Golfers, Real Clear Sports Editors, RealClearSports.com, May 17, 2013
- Babe Didrickson Zaharias, Kelly Winters, The Gale Group, encyclopedia.com, 2004