Didrikson was a woman ahead of her time

The first fabulous sports Babe

'The Terrific Tomboy'
By Larry Schwartz

"It wasn't that she was cocky or arrogant. She was actually speaking the truth. And some people probably didn't like it at that time because it was coming from a woman," says Jackie Joyner-Kersee about Babe Didrikson on ESPN's SportsCentury show (Friday, December 3, 7:30 p.m. ET).

Didrikson, the winner of two gold track-and-field medals at the 1932 Olympics and a three-time winner of the U.S. Women's Open in golf, was voted No. 10 among North American athletes of the 20th century by SportsCentury's distinguished 48-person panel.

Signature event:
July 16, 1932 -- The night before the 1932 AAU championships in Evanston, Ill., Babe couldn't sleep because of severe stomach pains. A bad case of nerves caused by excitement had Babe tossing and turning. But despite the lack of sleep, Babe was primed by the time the meet, which served as Olympic qualifying, started.

In a span of three hours, the 21-year-old Didrikson competed in eight of 10 events, winning five outright and tying for first in a sixth. She set world records in the javelin (139 feet, 3 inches), 80-meter hurdles (11.9 seconds), high jump (5 feet, 3.19 inches, tying for first with Jean Shiley) and baseball throw (272 feet, 2 inches).

Didrikson also took first in the shot put (39 feet, 6¼ inches) and long jump (17 feet, 6.625 inches) and finished fourth in the discus.

As the sole representative of Employers Casualty Company of Dallas, she scored 30 points, eight more than the runner-up team, which had 22 athletes.

Odds 'n ends

  • In Susan Cayleff's well researched biography, "Babe: The Life and Legend of Babe Didrikson Zaharias," she concludes Babe "tapped the American imagination and manipulated it for all her 45 years. . . . . In short, she was a hustler. . . . She was a consummate storyteller."

  • In 1931, Babe averaged an astounding 21.2 points in five games to lead the Employers Casualty Company to the AAU's tournament championship.

  • After winning two gold medals and one silver at the 1932 Olympics, she was honored with ticker-tape parades in Dallas and Beaumont, where she was raised.

  • Among her nicknames were "The Amazing Amazon," "Belting Babe," "The Terrific Tomboy," "The Texas Tornado," and "Whatta-Gal Didrikson."

  • Babe's sexual identity provided a constant tension in media coverage from 1931 through 1938, when she married wrestler George Zaharias.

  • After losing a golf match to Babe and Grantland Rice in 1932, Paul Gallico labeled her a "muscle moll" in a Vanity Fair article. The next year, in another story for Vanity Fair, he accused Babe of being neither male nor female and discussed, but dismissed, her being a lesbian.

  • After turning to golf in 1933, Babe would practice for hours, sometimes hitting as many as 1,500 balls a day.

  • In 1935, Babe went on a one-month tour with Gene Sarazen, that year's Masters champion and the winner of seven majors. She would occasionally outdrive him.

  • Babe often played in celebrity golf tournaments. Among the stars she was paired with were Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Mickey Rooney, Johnny Weissmuller and Babe Ruth. Didrikson would refer to Ruth and herself as "the big Babe and the little Babe."

  • Didrikson and other sources claimed she won 17 consecutive golf tournaments in 1946 and 1947. She didn't. After winning 13 straight, she lost in the first round at the National Open in Spokane, Wash., in August 1946. Babe conveniently erased this tournament when she spoke of her streak. After losing in Spokane, Babe won four more tournaments.

  • Besides being able to drive 250 yards, Babe also was an excellent irons player and had a terrific touch on the greens.

  • Though Babe didn't turn pro in golf until 1947 and died in 1955, she won 10 majors in that time.

  • When Babe was voted the Greatest Female Athlete of the first half of the 20th century, she received 319 first-place votes and 34 for second of the 361 cast in the AP poll. She also was voted the greatest woman track and field athlete.

  • In 1950 she won two-thirds of the LPGA tournaments and earned $14,800, the leading money-winner on the tour. The next year, she won seven of 12 starts and took home $15,087.

  • In 1951, Time magazine called her "Big Business Babe." Her tour winnings were small potatoes to her lucrative endorsements, movie and TV shorts, royalties on equipment bearing her name and personal fees for exhibitions. She earned more than $100,000 annually.

  • She was the LPGA's second president - after Patty Berg - from 1953-55.

  • In the forties, as the wife of wrestler George Zaharias, Babe began to downplay her "Texas toughie" image and tried to affirm a feminine persona. But in the last years of her life, when young golfer Betty Dodd became her primary companion, the perception of lesbianism crept back into the public's mind.

  • In 1953, the two appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, with Babe playing the harmonica and Dodd the guitar.

  • When Babe died of cancer in 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower began his press conference with a moving tribute to her.