All of my life I have always had the urge to do things better than anybody else.
- Babe Didrikson Zaharias
Mildred 'Babe' Didrikson Zaharias, named by ESPN as the tenth-greatest athlete of the twentieth century, was born June 26, 19111 and died September 27, 1956 at the age of 45. A short list of her sports accomplishments include winning two gold medals and one silver medal in track and field at the 1932 Olympic games, and winning 82 golf tournaments.
Before I was ever in my teens, I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up. My goal was to be the greatest athlete that ever lived.
Born Mildred Ella Didriksen2 in Port Arthur, Texas to Norwegian immigrant parents Ole and Hannah Didriksen, the family moved to nearby Beaumont, Texas after a hurricane in 1915. A tomboy, Didrikson along with her siblings were encouraged to play on the gymnasium equipment Ole built in the family's backyard. It was during neighborhood sandlot baseball games that she acquired the nickname Babe; the boys she played with thought she batted like Babe Ruth3.
When she entered Beaumont High School, Didrikson played a number of sports, including baseball, basketball, swimming, tennis, and volleyball. Only keeping her grades high enough to remain eligible to play sports, her best sport in high school was basketball (the most popular women's sport at the time) and the team never lost a game when Didrikson played.
Basketball and track
The formula for success is simple: practice and concentration then more practice and more concentration.
Didrikson's basketball prowess attracted the attention of Colonel Melvorn J. McCombs of the Casualty Insurance Company in February of 1930, when she was still a senior in high school. With the promise she would have plenty of time to concentrate on athletics, Didrikson dropped out of high school and joined the company as a stenographer in order to play on the company's semiprofessional women's basketball team, the Golden Cyclones in Dallas, Texas. Voted onto the list of All-American women's basketball players for the next three years, Didrikson led the Cyclones to the finals in 1930 and 1932 and the championship in 1931. At that time in women's basketball, a team score in the twenties was considered good; Didrikson usually averaged a score of twenty points herself per game.
On July 16, 1932 at the Amateur Athletic Union championships Didrikson was the sole member of the Golden Cyclones track team, and in three hours she broke four world records. Out of the ten track and field events offered, Didrikson competed in eight and placed in seven. Taking first place in five events - the baseball throw, javelin, shotput, long jump and 80 meter hurdles - she tied for first in the high jump and came in fourth on the discus throw. She broke the world records in the 80m hurdles, baseball throw, high jump, and javelin events. Didrikson won the national women's team championship by herself that day with thirty points, with the second place twenty-two member Illinois Women's Athletic Club scoring twenty-two points.
The Babe is here. Who's coming in second?
Having qualified for the Olympics in the javelin, 80m hurdles and the high jump at the AAU event, Didrikson became a member of the United States Olympic team of 1932. Actually, Didrikson had qualified for five events, but the Olympic rules at the time only allowed women to compete in three events. Her fellow Olympic teammates did not like Didrikson, considering her a braggart, overly aggressive, and a prima donna.
At the Los Angeles Olympic Games, Didrikson won the gold medal and set a world record in the 80m hurdles, won the gold medal in the javelin throw, and received a controversial silver medal and tied the world record in the high jump. Even though Didrikson tied for first place (and therefore the world record) with Jean Smiley in the high jump she received the silver medal because the judges ruled her form - going head-first over the bar, now known as the Western roll - was a foul, even though no foul was called on her previous jumps. Ticker-tape parades greeted her return to both Dallas and Beaumont, and Didrikson was named the "World's Greatest Girl Athlete" by the magazine Famous Athletes of Today, and "Female Athlete of the Year" for 1932 by the Associated Press.
You can't win them all -- but you can try.
Losing her amateur status because she appeared in an automobile advertisement, Didrikson was no longer eligible to play with the Golden Cyclones. In order to earn money, the "Amazing Amazon" first travelled to Chicago, Illinois and appeared in a vaudeville act, where she performed athletic feats and played the harmonica. Later she travelled the country with a billiards exhibition team, formed a barnstorming professional basketball team (with both men and women) called Babe Didrikson's All-Americans, and participated in some 1934 baseball spring training exhibition games. Also in 1934, Didrikson joined the House of David baseball team on a nationwide tour, where she struck out Joe DiMaggio during one exhibition game.
I played many sports, but when that golf bug hit me, it was permanent.
Sportswriter Grantland Rice suggested the "Texas Tornado" take lessons to improve her golf game, and in 1933 she went to California in between engagements and took lessons from Stan Kertes. Sometimes hitting 1000 golf balls a day until her hands were sore and had to be bandaged, Didrikson played her first golf tournament in 1934. Winning the Texas Women's Amateur Championship in 1935, the United States Golf Association ruled she was not eligible to play amateur golf, and Didrkson returned to touring the country giving exhibitions. Touring with golfer Gene Sarazen in 1935, sometimes she was able to drive the ball further than Sarazen, the winner of seven major golf tournaments, with Didrikson regularly driving the ball 250 yards.
Qualifying for the 1938 Los Angeles Open as the first woman to ever qualify for a men's Professional Golfer's Association tournament, Didrikson met George Zaharias, the "Weeping Greek from Cripple Creek", and they married on December 23, 1938. He became her manager, and she won the Western Open and Texas Open tournaments of 1940. Making a deal in 1940 with the USGA to regain her amateur status, the "Terrific Tomboy" agreed to not participate in professional athletic events for three years, and in 1943 she was again eligible to play in amateur tournaments.
Again in 1945 Didrikson was named Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year (she also won it in 1946, 1947, 1950, and 1954), and over the course of the 1946-1947 season she won thirteen consecutive tournaments (not seventeen as she would claim: she lost in the first round of the Spokane Open in 1946.) Before she turned pro in 1947, Didrikson became the first American to win the British Women's Amateur Championship and won seventeen of eighteen tournaments played.
Fred Corcoran became her manager when Didrikson turned pro in 1947, and the two of them, along with thirteen other women golfers, founded the Ladies Professional Golfer's Association in 1950 after the WPGA folded in 1949. Named Woman Athlete of the Half Century by the Associated Press in 1950, "Whatta-Gal Didrikson" won ten majors, including the 1948, 1950, and 1954 U.S. Women's Open, and had won every women's golf title at least once from 1940 to 1950.
In response to a female spectator asking where Didrikson's whiskers were:
I’m sittin' on ‘em, sister, same as you.
Questions about Didrikson's sexuality4 were rampant during the 1932 Olympics; the press wondered if she was neither male nor female but some "third" category, and in the locker room at the Olympics some of the other female athletes accosted her to check for themselves. Labelled an "Amazon" (a code word for lesbian athlete by sportswriters of the day), questions remained until she married Zaharias. Once she was married, Didrikson began to play up her femininity - growing out her hair, getting her nails done, and dressing stylishly. Buying a home with her husband in Florida, Didrikson invited photographers over to see her posed in an apron playing the part of housewife; her obituary in the New York Times mentions that she "...spent considerable time making chintz curtains."
Unhappy with her marriage and wanting a separation, Didrikson began to travel openly with nineteen year old golfer Betty Dodd to golf tournaments in 1950. Unwilling to grant her wish, Zaharias and his wife apparently came to an agreement, and Dodd moved in with the couple, living there until Didrikson's death in 1956. Dodd and Didrikson even appeared together in 1953 on The Ed Sullivan Show, with Didrikson playing the harmonica and Dodd playing guitar. When Didrikson announced she had cancer in 1953, Dodd acted as her caretaker, and that seemed to mollify the public as to why Dodd was constantly with Didrikson.
Well, that's the rub of the greens.
- Didrikson in response to learning her cancer had spread.
In April 1953 Didrikson was diagnosed with cancer, soon after winning the inaugural Babe Zaharias Open. Surgery was performed that same month, and the doctors said her professional athletic career was finished; though the original tumor was removed, the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. A mere fourteen weeks after the operation, however, Didrikson was back to playing tournaments, and she won the Ben Hogan Trophy as comeback player of the year.
Persistent pain in Didrikson's hip was the first sign of trouble in 1955, and by that June the cancer had gotten bad enough that she spent the rest of her life in and out of the hospital. Along with her husband, Didrikson established the Babe Zaharias Fund in September of 1955 to help finance cancer clinics and treatment centers. The "Belting Babe" died on September 27, 1956 at John Sealy Hospital in Galveston, Texas and was buried in Beaumont.
The Babe Didrikson Zaharias Museum and Visitor's Center is located at 1477 North Martin Luther King Parkway in Beaumont, Texas and features memorabilia and trophies.
1 Various sources list either 1911 or 1914 as her birthdate; her baptismal certificate and tombstone list 1911.
2 Didrikson changed the spelling.
3 Another story says Didrikson was originally called "Baby" by her mother, and it became "Babe" later.
4 Though Didrikson never publicly admitted she was a lesbian, her partner, Betty Dodd, was interviewed for Susan Cayleff's biography BABE: The Life and Legend of Babe Didrikson Zaharias (University of Illinois Press, 1995) and talked about their relationship.
Thanks to liveforever for pointing out a factual error which has been corrected.