Didrikson Zaharias, Mildred Ella ("Babe")
DIDRIKSON ZAHARIAS, Mildred Ella ("Babe")
(b. 26 June 1911 in Port Arthur, Texas; d. 27 September 1956 in Galveston, Texas), accomplished multisport female athlete who was an Olympic gold medallist, a cofounder of the Ladies Professional Golf Association, a pioneer in women's sports, and a medical humanitarian.
Didrikson was the sixth of seven children born to Ole Didriksen, a seaman, furniture refinisher, and cabinetmaker, and Hannah Marie Olson, who took in wealthy neighbors' laundry for pay. An early error in Didrikson Zaharias's school records changed the spelling of her name from "Didriksen" to "Didrikson." She let the error go unchecked into adulthood because she thought the new spelling sounded less ethnic. Three of Didrikson's siblings were born in Norway. In 1905 her father immigrated to Port Arthur, Texas, and fulfilled immigration requirements by working for three years before bringing his family to join him.
Didrikson's nickname "Babe" originated from the Norwegian baden, meaning baby. For a short while Babe was the youngest, and her mother, never fluent in English, used a mixed Norwegian-English within the home. The adult Babe claimed her nickname's origin stemmed from childhood pals who dubbed her in honor of Babe Ruth, the legendary baseball slugger. Early on Didrikson learned the value of colorful and hyperbolic storytelling from her father, who frequently regaled the clan with exotic tales of his days at sea. Babe adopted his style and regularly distorted facts to entertain an audience.
In the gritty, seaport shipping town of Port Arthur, Didrikson was a natural leader among her peer group and managed to escape parental scrutiny to indulge in competitive games. She challenged any child, usually boys, to marble-shooting competitions, foot races, jumping contests, and throwing marathons. She loathed household chores, such as cleaning, cooking, and sewing, that were considered girls' proper domain. Her parents proudly encouraged her exceptional athleticism. Didrikson relished this supportive atmosphere and never felt parental judgment against her tomboyishness, which bordered on ruffian status. She un-apologetically fought, cursed, and masterminded dangerous pranks. After a crushing hurricane forced her mother to insist that they move seventeen miles inland to Beaumont, Texas, Didrikson was quickly dubbed "the worst kid on Doucette Street." On this street she practiced her "hedge hopping," knee crooked, as she imagined Olympic glory.
First at David Crockett Junior High, then at Beaumont High, Didrikson distinguished herself as a stellar athlete. She excelled in baseball, basketball, tennis, golf, swimming, and diving. In high school she was charismatic, adored by some teammates and loathed by others. She shunned the stereotypical interests assigned to girls and consequently was an outsider to the daily activities of both boys and girls. The Beaumont-based sports writer "Tiny" Bill Scurlock wrote of Babe in these years that she was "flamboyant, down-to-earth, apparently gruff at times … but considerate, humorous friendly, warm-hearted and generous."
Her reputation on the basketball court lured Colonel M. J. McCombs from the Dallas-based Employer's Casualty Insurance Company (ECIC) to a Royal Purple high school game with an eye toward recruiting her for his company's industrial league team. Duly impressed with her aggressive play and scoring ability, he offered her a $75-per-month salary to work as a "secretary" and play ball for the company team. During the middle of the Great Depression, this was a terrific wage, and her parents agreed in part to encourage her athleticism but also to garner this fantastic salary for the family's betterment. Didrikson withdrew from Beaumont temporarily on 14 February 1930, to return in June for her diploma, and sent $45 home each month.
In reality Didrikson never sat behind a typewriter, but she led the Golden Cyclones to two national championships in 1930 and 1931. She was twice selected to the All-America team. She also honed her self-promotional skills while at ECIC. She insisted on wearing skin-tight orange satin shorts and tank tops that semiscandalized the fans but packed the house full. Her teammates quickly followed suit.
During the basketball off-season Didrikson competed on other ECIC teams. She was a feared slugger in softball and once falsely claimed she had hit thirteen home runs in a double header; and she was the star attraction of the diving team dubbed "Mildred Didrikson and Her Employer's Casualty Girls." The team members also gave golf lessons at the Dallas Country Club and in the summer competed in track and field at McCombs's behest. Her practice sessions became legendary. She pushed herself physically beyond all reasonable comfort, but the results were mighty. At an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) sanctioned meet in June 1930, Didrikson, competing on a badly cut foot, set a U.S. record in the high jump and placed first in the shot put, baseball throw, and javelin. Her team won the meet, outscoring their nearest competitor 78 to 46. Didrikson scored 28. The Golden Cyclones won the AAU crown. This cemented Didrikson's determination to try for the 1932 Olympics, a dream she had harbored since her childhood. At the 1932 AAU championships in Evanston, Illinois, which doubled as the U.S. Olympic team tryouts, Babe competed as a one-woman team, a clever stunt concocted by McCombs, and she blew away her competition. She won six of the ten events in which she competed: the shot put, setting AAU and U.S. records of 39 feet 6.5 inches; the baseball throw, setting a world record of 272 feet 2 inches; the javelin throw, besting her own world record with 139 feet 3 inches; the 80-meter hurdles with 12.1 seconds; first place tie with Jean Shiley in the high jump with 5 feet 3/16 inches, setting an AAU record; and the broad jump with 17 feet 6 inches. She captured fourth in the discus. In the space of three hours Didrikson won six gold medals, broke four world records, and single-handedly earned thirty points. The second place team scored twenty-two points.
This stellar series of accomplishments catapulted Didrikson into the national headlines. Ironically, Olympic rules insisted that women compete in only three events per Olympic Games. They reasoned that women's frail physiology and childbearing capabilities would be damaged with greater exertion. Frustrated, Didrikson chose the javelin, the high jump, and the 80-meter hurdles. At the Los Angeles Games, Didrikson's stellar performances gained her international recognition as the undisputed female Olympic star. She set a world record in the javelin with a throw of 143 feet 4 inches. In the 80-meter hurdles she set world and Olympic records with a time of 11.7 seconds, which surpassed her previous mark set at Evanston. This victory, she quipped to an eager press corps, is where "all that hedge hopping on Doucette Street finally paid off." In her third event she was awarded a controversial tie for first with Jean Shiley, her steady rival in the high jump. Didrikson actually outjumped Shiley, but her unorthodox style provoked controversy. After a thirty-minute delay and numerous reviews of the visual tape, Didrikson was awarded a half-gold, half-silver medal, the only one of its kind. It symbolized in a clear way the controversy Didrikson embodied.
Following her Olympic triumphs, Didrikson parlayed her fame into paychecks through a brief stint as a stage entertainer in Chicago, where she sang, played the harmonica, and "performed" on a treadmill. She pitched for the all-male, all-bearded barnstorming baseball team of former big leaguers called the House of David, and she arranged one-on-one pitching outings against active big leaguers such as Jimmy Foxx, and Paul Dean, and Dizzy Dean. This vagabond existence was lonely and profitable, and it smacked of sideshow theatrics. From 1932 through 1934 Didrikson was hounded by cruel portrayals in the press, which cast her as neither female nor male but rather the premiere member of a "Third Sex" and, equally disparaging, a "muscle moll."
Didrikson sought two things, relief from the unkind speculation about her gender identity and a steady source of income that emanated from athletic talent, not circus-like antics. To this end she tackled golf with the same vehement devotion she had levied at track and field. Plagued with a series of amateur versus professional designations, Didrikson found her playing opportunities severely limited. She believed she was not of the ilk that women's golf sought to attract because she was working class, ethnic, loud, coarse, and self-aggrandizing. Under the gentle and humorous tutelage of Bertha Bowen, a higher-up in Dallas's women's golf scene, Didrikson successfully transformed herself into a "lady golfer" replete with makeup, toned-down language, and permed hair. While she flailed against this transition to "proper womanhood," she understood that any further economic success depended upon a transformed public image. During these years she practiced golf tirelessly, often driving 1,500 balls in a day until her hands bled.
In January 1938, still struggling to regain her amateur standing, Didrikson was paired with a professional wrestler, George "the Crying Greek from Cripple Creek [Colorado]" Zaharias, at a celebrity golf tournament in Los Angeles, California. After a swift courtship, they married on 3 January 1938 in St. Louis, and had no children. George Zaharias also became her manager, promoter, and biggest fan. Didrikson Zaharias liked to tell the press that Zaharias was originally a svelte and fit "Greek G-d" who later, through slothful eating habits and complete physical abandon, ballooned out to over 400 pounds. She then changed her estimation of her husband to "just another gawddamned Greek." A laugh, Didrikson Zaharias believed, was worth any cost, even if at was at George's or her own expense. During these lean years Didrikson Zaharias engaged in one-on-one matches with great male golf professionals, including Gene Sarazen.
Restored to competitive status, Didrikson Zaharias dominated women's golf in the 1940s. She routinely hit 250-to 275-yard tee shots and sank 20-foot putts easily. She pandered to the gallery, performing outrageous trick shots while bantering saucy one-liners. These antics made her a thorn in the sides of some of her golf peers, Betty Hicks prime among them. But all golfers acknowledged that Didrikson Zaharias brought to their sport the flair and the box office so badly needed. Her staunchest ally and defender was Peggy Kirk Bell.
Didrikson Zaharias was overpowering her competition by 1945. She won her second Texas Women's Open, her third Western Open, and placed first over Betty Jameson in seventy-two-hole challenge matches at Los Angeles and San Antonio. For this she was named Woman Athlete of the Year in the annual Associated Press poll. She had won that award in 1932 for her track and field excellence, and she ultimately won it a total of six times in her life.
In 1946 Didrikson Zaharias began her phenomenal winning streak of thirteen consecutive tournaments. Most newsworthy was her capture of the British Women's Amateur Championship in 1947. She was the first American woman to win the coveted title. In matches Didrikson Zaharias often obliterated her nearest opponent by upwards of ten strokes. In other instances she eked out thrilling last-minute victories. This unparalleled record opened up new economic opportunities, including endorsements of sports equipment, a clothing line named after her, a ghostwriting stint as a golf columnist, and a position as saleswoman for batteries, watches, and other miscellaneous products. She became the first female athlete to earn over $100,000 in her career.
By 1950 Didrikson Zaharias was the undisputed queen of women's golf. She and George Zaharias helped found the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) from 1946 to 1947 that assured competitors of improved paydays. Yet their strong-armed tactics, reminiscent of Zaharias's "wrastlin' racket," alienated most of the league's other founders. Despite her stormy relationships with her golfing peers, Didrikson Zaharias was elected president of the LPGA three times.
By 1950 Didrikson Zaharias yearned for a permanent home and a less-grueling life. George Zaharias did not agree and ignored her mounting fatigue and the distance growing between them. At a tournament in San Antonio, Didrikson Zaharias met Betty Dodd, a much-ballyhooed young golfer, twenty years Didrikson Zaharias's junior, who became her travel companion, personal caretaker, intimate companion, and second lifelong mate. Throughout their six-year relationship, Didrikson Zaharias adamantly denied and hid their sexual intimacy. Zaharias, fully aware of the women's bond, chose to remain in residence at the various homes he grudgingly finally agreed to establish. He frequently took long solo road trips in their flamboyant pink Cadillac, leaving Didrikson Zaharias and Dodd alone to pursue the simple pleasures of home life and golf tournaments.
In April 1953 Didrikson Zaharias, who had been remarkably healthy throughout her life, was diagnosed with colon cancer. Once the colostomy was performed, she and Dodd entered a new phase of their relationship. Dodd became the only medical caretaker Didrikson Zaharias fully trusted. Her physicians at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston told Didrikson Zaharias she was cured of the disease, and she went public with her cancer as a self-help role model, an extremely brave action in the 1950s, when cancer was stigmatized and feared. Didrikson Zaharias appeared on behalf of the American Cancer Society, engaged in much-needed fund-raising, and started a series of Babe Zaharias Golf Tournaments to benefit cancer treatment and research. Her struggles took on Herculean dimensions in the press. She returned to competitive golf a mere fourteen weeks after her operation and regained championship form in February 1954.
Between 1953 and September 1956, when she finally succumbed to the disease, Didrikson Zaharias struggled through a series of debilitating hospitalizations, indeterminate diagnoses, and immense personal stress aggravated by the increasingly acrimonious relationship between Zaharias and Dodd. Upon her death Didrikson Zaharias was mourned by surviving kin, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the European press, fans, peers, and her two partners. She is buried in Forest Park Cemetery in Beaumont.
The sports legacy of Didrikson Zaharias is unparalleled. She captured eighty-two golf tournament wins in her eighteen-year dominance of women's golf; she was inducted into seven sports halls of fame; she was named Female Athlete of the Half Century in 1950; and she held and broke hundreds of individual sports records. An impressive museum in her honor in Beaumont rotates her trophies twice yearly to allow each some "show time," so great are they in number. She also distinguished herself as a medical humanitarian through her efforts on behalf of cancer education and fund-raising.
At the close of the twentieth century, as the lists of greats were compiled, Didrikson Zaharias emerged as the top female athlete of the century chosen by the Associated Press and the ESPN Sports Network. Few would dispute her reign as the greatest all-sport athlete. Her own life fore-shadowed the dilemmas and struggles faced by generations of women athletes. At the same time she greatly expanded the opportunities for all those who followed in the paths she blazed.
Didrikson Zaharias's personal papers are in the Special Collections of the John Gray Library at Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas, and newspaper clippings chronicle her illustrious career in the scrapbooks at the Babe Didrikson Zaharias Museum, Beaumont, Texas. See Babe Didrikson Zaharias as told to Harry Paxton, This Life I've Led: My Autobiography (1955). The most comprehensive biography is Susan E. Cayleff, Babe: The Life and Legend of Babe Didrikson Zaharias (1995). A young adult version also by Cayleff is Babe Didrikson: The Greatest All-Sport Athlete ofAll Time (2000). Also of value is William Oscar Johnson and Nancy Williamson, Whatta-Gal (1975). An obituary is in the New York Times (27 Sept. 1956).
Susan E. Cayleff