Didrikson was a woman ahead of her time
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com
The first to prove a girl could be a stud athlete, Babe Didrikson began as a muscular phenom who mastered many sports and ended as a brilliant golfer. An exuberant tomboy whose life was athletics, she was accomplished in just about every sport - basketball, track, golf, baseball, tennis, swimming, diving, boxing, volleyball, handball, bowling, billiards, skating and cycling. When asked if there was anything she didn't play, she said, "Yeah, dolls."
As a teenager she knew her life's ambition. "My goal was to be the greatest athlete who ever lived," she said.
While others dispute her story, Didrikson said that she was nicknamed Babe early in her teens by boys awed at her long-distance homers. As she grew older, there seemed to be more Ty Cobb than Ruth in her, a dark rage that made losing intolerable. Like for Cobb, animosity seemed to be the fuel that stoked Babe's competitive fire.
The Associated Press voted her the Greatest Female Athlete of the first half of the 20th century. The wire service also voted her Female Athlete of the Year six times - once for her track dominance and five times for her golfing prowess.
Babe performed at a time when female athletes were considered freakish at best, downright unacceptable at worst. For most of her life she was the antithesis of femininity; not until her later years did she dress and act less manly. "She was not a feminist, not a militant, not a strategist launching campaigns against sexual liberation," wrote William Johnson and Nancy Williamson in Whatta-Gal!: The Babe Didrikson Story. "She was an athlete and her body was her most valuable possession."
Some writers condemned her for not being feminine. "It would be much better if she and her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up and waited for the phone to ring," Joe Williams wrote in the New York World-Telegram.
Others were enthralled by the 5-foot-5 Babe, who was muscular but never heavy. "She is beyond all belief until you see her perform," famed sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote. "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."
While she excelled in competition, she often alienated teammates and competitors. 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.
Babe didn't seem to have much interest in men until she was swept off her feet when she was paired with George Zaharis at the 1938 Los Angeles Open. Zaharis was a gregarious man, a 235-pound wrestler who as a stock villain was making a fortune as the Weeping Greek from Cripple Creek. They married 11 months later and Babe would change her name to Babe Didrikson Zaharias.
He would become her manager and advisor, but in the later years of their marriage, problems arose as Zaharias lost influence with his wife. Babe spent more time with good friend Betty Dodd, a young golfer who was a natural athlete and had no interest in looking feminine. She often stayed at the Zaharis' home in Tampa.
As an amateur golfer, Babe won an amazing 13 consecutive tournaments during 1946. The next year, she was the first American to win the British Amateur. Among her 55 tournament victories were three U.S. Women's Opens. With Zaharias, Patty Berg and Fred Corcoran, she founded the Ladies Professional Golf Association in 1949.
At birth in Port Arthur, Texas, she was Mildred Ella Didriksen (she would later change the spelling of her name). Though Babe wrote in her autobiography that she was born on June 26, 1914, it seems as if the correct year is 1911, which is what it says on her tombstone and on a baptismal certificate. Her parents, emigrants from Norway, moved the family 17 miles inland to Beaumont in 1914 after a hurricane destroyed their Port Arthur surroundings. (It also killed 275 people.)
While playing basketball for Beaumont High School in 1930, Babe was offered $75 a month to work for Employers Casualty Company of Dallas to play for its team. Actually, she was paid to be a secretary because she would have lost her amateur status had she been paid to play. Because she had not yet graduated high school, her parents hesitated before allowing her to go.
She was outstanding from the start, earning AAU All-American honors from 1930-32. Early in her stay in Dallas, she also took to the track. Soon after taking up the sport in 1930, she won four events in an AAU competition.
Babe single-handedly won the 1932 AAU championships, which served as Olympic qualifying, on July 16 in Evanston, Ill. The sole representative of Employers Casualty, she scored 30 points, eight more than the runner-up team, which had 22 athletes. In a span of three hours, she competed in eight of 10 events, winning five outright and tying for first in the high jump. She set world records in the javelin, 80-meter hurdles, high jump and baseball throw.
While she qualified for five Olympic events in Los Angeles, women were allowed to compete in only three. She won the first women's Olympic javelin (143 feet, 4 inches) and set a world record in winning the first Olympic 80-meter hurdles (11.7 seconds). In the high jump, she and Jean Smiley both broke the world record at 5-foot-5+, but Smiley received the gold and Babe the silver when Babe was disqualified on a dubious ruling after her final jump. The official ruled Babe's head cleared the bar before the rest of her body, a rule that no longer exists. Also, while Babe had jumped in the same manner throughout the competition, nothing was said to her about her style being illegal.
During the next few years, she performed on the vaudeville circuit, traveled with a basketball team called Babe Didrikson's All-Americans and toured with the bearded House of David baseball team.
Looking for another challenge, in 1933 she turned to golf, which she had played in high school. Soon after winning the Texas Women's Amateur in 1935, the U.S. Golf Association ruled that "for the best interest of the game," Babe was not an amateur because she had competed professionally in other sports. While Babe continued to golf - as well as play as many as 17 sets of tennis in one day and starring on the bowling lanes - it was not until 1943 that she was reinstated as an amateur.
When asked how she could regularly drive the ball some 250 yards though she didn't weigh more than 145 pounds, she said, "You've got to loosen your girdle and let it rip."
She ripped it far and straight enough, and putted well enough, that not only did she dominate women's golf, but for three straight years (1945-47) AP named her the Female Athlete of the Year. She turned pro in the summer of 1947 after winning 17 of 18 tournaments.
In 1948, Babe won her first U.S. Women's Open, the World Championship and the All-American Open. She continued her impressive performance on the LPGA Tour for the next several years.
Shortly after winning the inaugural Babe Zaharias Open in Beaumont in April 1953, Babe learned she had cancer. Surgeons removed the tumor, but discovered the cancer had spread into her lymph nodes, which were inoperable.
Fourteen weeks later, she played in a tournament. By the next year she had completed an incredible golf comeback, winning her third U.S. Women's Open - by an incredible 12 strokes - on the way to five titles and her sixth AP Female Athlete of the Year award.
Pain in her lower spine, caused by cancer, became unbearable in 1955. On Sept. 27, 1956, Babe died of the disease in Galveston, Texas. She was 45.