Didrikson, Babe (1911-1956)

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Didrikson, Babe (1911-1956)

More than a hero to feminists and young women who aspire to athletic achievement, athlete Babe Didrikson was a sports hero in the finest American tradition, larger than life, with super-sized faults to match her virtues. Carrying a chip on her shoulder from her rough and tumble upbringing, Didrikson approached life with a swagger and a wisecrack. She brought controversy and excitement to the refined world of women's golf, and challenged assumptions everywhere she went. She broke world records regularly and broke barriers set up against women. Her statistics are an inspiration to women athletes everywhere. But it is the flesh and blood Didrikson, angry, cocky, competitive, and irrepressible, that forged her place in history's sports hall of fame.

"Before I was even into my teens I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up," Didrikson wrote, "My goal was to be the greatest athlete who ever lived." Didrikson achieved her goal. The Associated Press named her Female Athlete of the Year six times between 1932 and 1954, and in 1950, they gave her the title Female Athlete of the Half Century. She was an All-American basketball player, an Olympic gold medal winner in track and field, a record-breaking golf champion, and a proficient dabbler in other sports from swimming to shooting pool. Didrikson's athletic achievements clearly transcend the footnote usually allowed for women in sports.

Mildred Didrikson was born in the south Texas town of Beaumont. The sixth of seven children in a working-class family, she learned early the value of toughness and self-reliance. Roaming the streets of Beaumont, she taught herself to run by racing the streetcars and learned hurdles from leaping over hedges. It was the boys in her hometown who gave her the name "Babe" because she hit so many home runs in their sandlot games.

Didrikson dropped out of high school and was playing semi-professional basketball when she was made an All-American in 1932. That year she participated in an Amateur Athletic Union track-and-field championship as a one-woman team. She entered eight events and won six, and the championship. A team of twenty-two women came in second, eight points behind Didrikson. That day on the field, the smart-aleck kid from south Texas set world records for the high jump, the eighty-meter hurdles, the javelin, and the baseball throw. A few weeks later, competing in the Olympics in Los Angeles, she won gold medals for the javelin and the eighty-meter hurdles and a silver for the high jump. She would have won the gold for the high jump, but her best jump was disqualified on a technicality because her head went over the bar before her feet.

In 1935, Didrikson took the golf world by storm. Before her career was over she had won fifty-five professional and amateur tournaments and set a record with seventeen wins in a row. Staid golfing audiences were put off by Didrikson's irreverent, wisecracking style, but her drives were regularly fifty to one hundred yards longer than her opponents', and it was not uncommon for her to come in well under the men's par, so she was hard to dismiss. The upper-class golfing establishment tried to exclude her because she played professionally and most women's golf consisted of amateur events, but Didrikson got around them in typical aggressive style. In 1949, she helped found the Ladies Professional Golfers Association to put women's golf on more even footing with men's by giving professional women golfers a venue.

Didrikson remained the cocky, streetwise, tough kid from south Texas. Her style was both confrontational and comic, sometimes charming her audiences with silly trick golf shots, sometimes shocking them with her directness. Many of her opponents hated her, perhaps because she was an egotistical and graceless winner. The press nicknamed her "muscle moll," and college physical education departments warned women against emulating her. Didrikson was unabashed. She continued to start her golf matches with a grin and the quip, "Well, I'm just gonna have to loosen my girdle and let 'er fly!" She also continued to play almost every sport available. She played exhibition games in baseball and football, shot exhibition pool, and even sang and played harmonica on the vaudeville stage. When asked if there was anything she didn't play, Didrikson answered dryly, "Yeah. Dolls."

Didrikson married professional wrestler George Zaharias in 1938. They had met when they were partnered in the Los Angeles Open golf tourney. In 1941, Didrikson underwent surgery for colon cancer, and doctors told her that her athletic career was over. With typical unconcern for the opinions of naysayers, she continued to play, and in 1954, she won five golf tournaments, playing with pain, fatigue, and a colostomy bag. Two years later, she died. The epitaph on her tombstone in Galveston, Texas, reads "Babe Didrikson Zaharias—1911-1956—World's Greatest Woman Athlete."

—Tina Gianoulis

Further Reading:

Cayleff, Susan E. Babe: The Life and Legend of Babe Didrikson Zaharias. Urbana, Illinois, University of Illinois Press, 1995.

Knudson, R. Rozanne. Babe Didrikson: Athlete of the Century. New York, Viking Kestrel, 1985.

Lynn, Elizabeth A. Babe Didrikson Zaharias. New York, Chelsea House, 1989.