Zaharias, Babe Didrikson
Babe Didrikson Zaharias
Babe Didrikson Zaharias was one of the most versatile and talented athletes of all time; there were few sports she did not play, and she excelled at all those she tried. An Olympic gold medalist and world-record-holder in track and field, Zaharias was also an All-American in basketball, and competed in tennis, baseball, bowling, and most notably golf, ruling over the professional golf circuit in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Zaharias, a tomboy since childhood, also challenged gender stereo-types of her time, refusing to act in traditionally "feminine" modes and proving that women could and should compete widely in sports formerly reserved for men.
Mildred Ella Didrikson, known as "Babe" Didrikson and later as Babe Didrikson Zaharias, was born in 1911 in Port Arthur, Texas, the daughter of Norwegian immigrants Ole Didriksen and Hannah Marie Olsen Didricksen. She was the sixth of seven children. Her mother was a former skier and skater, and her father worked as a ship's carpenter and cabinetmaker.
Port Arthur was largely devastated when a hurricane hit the area in 1914, killing 275 people, and the family moved 17 miles inland to the rough south end of Beaumont, Texas to make a new start when Zaharias was four years old.
The family was not well-off, and Zaharias, who changed the spelling of her family name from Didriksen to Didrikson so that people would know she was Norwegian, not Swedish (the "-sen" suffix is more common among Swedes; Norwegians favor "-son"), worked various part-time jobs while she was still in school; one of her jobs involved sewing gunny sacks, earning a penny per sack.
"To Be the Greatest Athlete That Ever Lived"
The young Mildred, often called "Baby" by her family, was active, strong, and competitive, and was interested in sports from an early age, playing with and usually beating her older brothers and the boys in her neighborhood. She learned to run by racing against streetcars. In
sandlot ball games, she was a powerhouse hitter and a strong pitcher. She wore her hair short and wore boys' clothes. In her autobiography, This Life I've Led, she wrote, "I played with boys rather than girls. I preferred baseball, football, foot-racing and jumping with the boys, to hop-scotch and jacks and dolls, which were about the only things girls did." When she hit five home runs in one baseball game, her brothers renamed her "Babe" after famed slugger Babe Ruth ; she would keep this nickname for the rest of her life. Early on, she wrote, she decided that her ambition was "to be the greatest athlete that ever lived." Zaharias' father encouraged her interest in athletics, and made her a barbell out of a broomstick and two heavy flatirons.
Although she did poorly in school, passing only enough subjects to keep her eligible to play on the sports teams, Zaharias made up for it with her accomplishments on the athletic field. She was the high-scoring forward on the girls' basketball team at Beaumont Senior High School during both her junior and senior years, and during her tenure on the team, they never lost a game. Her obvious talent attracted the attention of Melvorne J. McCombs, who coached the Golden Cyclones, a women's basketball team sponsored by the Employers Casualty Company of Dallas, Texas; in addition to sponsoring teams, the company promoted the idea that athletes were more efficient workers. Zaharias, who in addition to her athletic ability was a skilled typist and stenographer, signed with the company as a secretary in 1930. Because she was paid $75 a month for her secretarial services, she was officially still an "amateur" athlete, an important distinction at that time; athletes who made money from their sport were barred from many competitions, including the Olympics. However, Zaharias' main focus was playing on the company's basketball, baseball, diving, tennis, and track and field teams. She soon became a star athlete. The company's basketball team won the national championship in 1930, 1931, and 1932, and Zaharias was a National Women's Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) All-American forward for the Women's National Basketball League for all three years. She often scored thirty or more points, even though at the time, it was considered respectable for an entire team to score twenty. On the softball team, she was a power-hitter, with a batting average of over .400. In track and field, she often practiced her skills all day long; when she matched the women's high jump record of five feet, three inches, her coach bought her a chocolate soda. In The Life and Legend of Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Susan Cayleff described Zaharias during those years: "We don't see a young athlete striving solely for steady improvement or personal bests. We see a woman with a consuming hunger attacking—and determined to conquer—world records."
In 1931, at the national AAU track meet, which was the qualifying meet for the 1932 Olympics, Zaharias competed in eight of ten events, winning gold medals in five and tying for gold in a sixth. She set world records in the javelin (139 feet, 3 inches), 80-meter hurdles (11.9 seconds), high jump (5 feet, 5 inches, tying for first with Jean Shiley), and baseball throw (272 feet, 2 inches). At the 1932 AAU championships, Zaharias competed as a one-woman team, and singlehandedly won the team championship with 30 points; in contrast, the second-place Illinois Women's Athletic Club, which included 22 athletes, accumulated only 22 points. Zaharias's performance was the most amazing feat by any athlete, male or female, in track and field history.
Sets Records and Wins Gold at 1932 Olympics
Not surprisingly, Zaharias was a favorite to win at the 1932 Olympic Games at Los Angeles, and she did. Although women were only allowed to enter three Olympic events at that time because they were considered too weak to compete in more than that number, she broke four world records. She won the javelin throw with a toss of 143 feet, 4 inches, and won the 80-meter hurdles, breaking the world record twice during the competition; her best time was 11.7 seconds. Zaharias also made a world-record high jump, but because she went over the bar headfirst instead of leading with her feet, the jump was disqualified by two of the three judges for the event. (This rule is no longer used, and current high jumpers all lead with their heads; Zaharias was later given credit for tying for first place in the event and setting a world record in the jump.) In the press reports of the time, she was nicknamed the "Iron Woman," the "Amazing Amazon," and "Whatta Gal Didrikson." Amazingly, during that year, male athletes only set Olympic records, leaving the world records untouched; Zaharias, on the other hand, broke both Olympic and world records in her events.
|1911||Born in Port Arthur, Texas|
|1915||Moves with family to Beaumont, Texas|
|1929||Stars in volleyball, tennis, baseball, basketball, and swimming teams at Beaumont High School|
|1930||Recruited by the Golden Cyclones basketball team in Dallas; drops out of high school in her junior year to play with the team|
|1930||Joins Golden Cyclones track team in Dallas|
|1930||Wins two firsts at National Women's Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) meet, in javelin and baseball throw; wins second place in long jump|
|1930-32||Selected as an All-American women's basketball player; led the Cyclones to the national championship in 1931|
|1931||Wins national AAU meet; enters eight events and wins gold medals in six; sets world records in the high jump, 80-meter hurdles, javelin, and baseball throw|
|1932||Singlehandedly wins Texas AAU meet|
|1935||Wins Texas Women's Amateur Championship in golf|
|1938||Marries professional wrestler George Zaharias|
|1940||Wins Texas and Western Open golf tournaments|
|1946-47||Wins 17 golf tournaments; becomes the first woman to win the British Women's Amateur championship|
|1948||Wins All-American Open, World Championship, and U.S. Women's Open|
|1950||With 12 other women, Zaharias founds the Ladies Professional Golfer's Association|
|1950||Meets companion Betty Dodd at an amateur golf tournament|
|1953||Diagnosed with colon cancer and undergoes surgery to remove the tumor; wins Ben Hogan Comeback of the Year Award|
|1953||Babe Zaharias Open is founded in her honor in Beaumont, Texas; she wins the first event|
|1954||Wins five tournaments, including the U.S. Women's Open|
|1956||Dies in Galveston, Texas|
Although Zaharias's athletic talent could not be denied, she was often resented by other athletes, who felt that she was aggressive, overbearing, and a braggart, and that she would do anything to win. According to Larry Schwartz in ESPN.com, Jackie Joyner-Kersee , a track-and field phenomenon in the 1990s, reflected on these traits, "It wasn't that she was cocky or aggressive. She was actually speaking the truth [that she was the greatest]. And some people probably didn't like it at that time because it was coming from a woman."
A skilled self-promoter, Zaharias often changed her birth date, making herself appear younger than she was. This deception was intended to make her seem even more of a star than she already was—for example, on her application for the 1932 Olympics, she wrote that she was born in 1914. As Susan E. Cayleff noted in Babe: The Life and Legend of Babe Didrikson Zaharias, "If a twenty-year-old excelling at the Olympics in 1932 was heralded, then an eighteen-year-old—or better yet a seventeen-year-old—might be worshipped!" Her gravestone and her baptismal certificate corroborate the earlier 1911 date.
In the early 1930s, Zaharias also began playing golf. By her eleventh game, in 1932, she drove the ball 260 yards from the first tee and played the second set of nine holes with a score of 43. She entered her first tournament in 1934, and won the qualifying round with a score of 77. At the Texas State Women's Championship in April of 1935, she carded a birdie on the par-5 31st hole and won the tournament two-up. In 1935, she was making $15,000 a year from endorsements and golf matches.
Despite her success, or because of it, a backlash against her swelled up in the press and in popular opinion, fueled by her refusal to fit typical stereotypes of womanhood. According to William O. Johnson and Nancy P. Williamson in Whatta Gal: The Babe Didrikson Story, she was "seen by many reporters and members of the public as a freak … an aberration … a living put-down to all things feminine." Zaharias herself expressed scorn for traditionally "feminine" clothing and mannerisms, and according to a writer in Gay and Lesbian Biography, once told a reporter that "she did not wear girdles, bras, and the like because she was no 'sissy.'"
The common male response to her was summed up by Joe Williams, a contemporary reporter for the New York World-Telegram. According to Larry Schwartz in ESPN.com, Williams commented, "It would be much better if she and all her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up and waited for the phone to ring."
Schwartz also noted that contemporary sportswriter Paul Gallico, who lost a golf match to Zaharias and Grantland Rice in 1932, called Zaharias a "muscle moll" in one Vanity Fair article, and commented in another Vanity Fair article that she was neither male nor female, and wrote dismissively that she was a lesbian. And according to Cayleff, it was not unusual for her to be accosted in the locker room by other female athletes who demanded to know whether she was a man or a woman.
In addition to her androgynous personal style, Zaharias defied gender stereotypes of women's need to be financially dependent on men by remaining single, supporting herself, and earning a great deal of money through endorsements, stunts, and appearances. Her Employer's Casualty contract alone paid her three times as much as the average American man of her time made, and six times as much as the average American woman earned.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1930-32||All-American Basketball Player|
|1931||Gold medals in long jump, baseball throw, and 80-meter hurdles, National AAU meet|
|1932||Overall winner, Texas AAU meet|
|1932||Overall winner, national AAU meet in Evanston, Illinois; she enters eight events and wins gold medals in six; sets world records in the high jump, 80-meter hurdles, javelin, and baseball throw|
|1932||Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year|
|1932||Gold medal, javelin throw; gold medal, 80-meter hurdles; silver medal, high jump, 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games|
|1945||U.S. Women's Amateur|
|1945-46||Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year|
|1946||Wins Women's Trans-Mississippi Amateur|
|1947||Wins Women's North and South Amateur|
|1947||Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year|
|1947||Wins British Women's Amateur Championship|
|1948||Wins All-American Open, World Championships, and U.S. Women's Open|
|1948-51||Leading money-winner on the LPGA tour|
|1950||Wins U.S. Women's Open|
|1950||Associated Press Female Athlete of the Half Century|
|1951||Wins All-American Open, World Championship, Ponte Verda Open, Tampa Open, Fresno Open, and Texas Open|
|1951||LPGA Hall of Fame|
|1953||Wins first event of Babe Zaharias Open|
|1954||Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year|
|1954||Wins U.S. Women's Open and Tam O'Shanter All-American|
|1954||Texas Sports Hall of Fame|
|1974||World Golf Hall of Fame|
|1976||National Women's Hall of Fame|
|1980||Women's Sports Foundation Hall of Fame|
|2000||Sports Illustrated Female Athlete of the 20th Century|
|2001||National Women's Baseball Hall of Fame|
In time, Zaharias grew tired of defending her personal style and choices to reporters and curious fans, and made some concessions to conformity, wearing more frilly clothing than she had in the past, telling reporters that she was looking for a husband, and occasionally saying that perhaps women's participation in sports should be limited. According to a writer in Gay and Lesbian Biography, she also made up stories about past boyfriends for the press, and uncharacteristically advised women athletes, "Get toughened up by playing boys' games, but don't get tough." Golf promoter Bertha Bowen encouraged her new "feminine" style, and took her to Neiman-Marcus to buy new clothes, taught her how to put on makeup, and even—but only once, and only under pressure from the Texas Women's Golf Association—got her to play golf while wearing a girdle.
As Cayleff noted, Zaharias did not adopt this false persona without pain: "Babe's successful ascension to femininity is [falsely] hailed as an applaudable accomplishment, not the tumultuous, contrived, and limiting self-molding that it really was … the toll taken on self-esteem, individuality, and difference is ignored."
A few observers were able to dismiss popular notions of femininity and appreciate Zaharias's talent. According to Schwartz, sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote, "She is beyond all belief until you finally see her perform. 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."
Meets George Zaharias
In 1935, Zaharias lost her amateur status in the U.S. Golf Association (USGA) because she had accepted money for an automobile endorsement and had competed professionally in other sports. For the next several years she traveled widely, playing exhibition golf. She also entered the vaudeville circuit with a variety of acts, most notably the Babe Didrikson All-American basketball team (on which she was the only woman), which traveled the country playing against local teams, and the House of David baseball team, which did the same; the House of David players were noted for their long beards, and as with the basketball team, she was the only woman among them. Zaharias could easily throw a baseball from deep center field to home plate; in an exhibition game with the House of David, she struck out famed Yankee hitter Joe DiMaggio with three overhand fastball pitches. Through all these activities, Zaharias was able to earn several thousand dollars a month during the Great Depression, a time when many people had no work at all.
In 1938, she met George Zaharias, a professional wrestler known as "The Crying Greek from Cripple Creek," at the Los Angeles Open. They were married on December 23, 1938, and had no children. According to Cayleff, their marriage was not based on love at first sight, as they claimed, but had a certain element of calculation. Zaharias's exaggerated manliness, she wrote, "contrasted favorably with Babe's attempted womanliness. They were working-class sports entertainers who reflected mainstream sensibilities: individualism, the will to succeed, and materialism. The two performers had found each other. There was more than a little of each in the other."
From 1938 to 1950, Zaharias, with George as her manager, traveled widely on the golf circuit; during World War II, she gave golf exhibitions to raise money for war bonds, and she agreed to stay out of professional athletics for three years in order to reinstate her amateur standing in the USGA.
Related Biography: Golfer Betty Dodd
Betty Dodd, who became Zaharias's companion and nurse in the last years of her life, was a fine golfer in her own right, winning LPGA tournaments and eventually becoming a golf teacher.
Dodd, whose father was an army colonel at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, graduated from Incarnate Word High School in San Antonio, and attended San Antonio College before joining the LPGA Tour. She was the first woman pro golfer to earn an endorsement contract. Dodd won the Lawton Open on October 19-21, 1956, and the Colonial Open in August 16-18, 1957. She came in second in the Sarasota Open in 1956; the Havana Open and Babe Zaharias Open in 1957, and the Titleholders Championship in 1958.
After retiring from the LPGA in 1960, Dodd became a golf teacher at Fort Sam Houston. In 1980, she received the LPGA Teaching Professional of the Year Award.
Dodd's legacy as a teacher was remembered by many of her students, who named her as a major factor in their success in the sport. In 1997, when second-year LPGA Tour player Wendy Ward set an all-time LPGA tournament record of 21 under par for 54 holes, she said the credit belonged to her late teacher, Betty Dodd.
In honor of Dodd's teaching achievements, the San Antonio Junior Golfers Association created the Betty Dodd Award in 1998. The award is given annually to individuals who have made great efforts to help junior golfers improve in their athletic and personal lives.
George Zaharias had encouraged her to try and reinstate her amateur status, and in January of 1943 she succeeded. As a newly restored amateur, she could compete in golf's greatest tournaments, but first she had to practice. She devoted all her considerable energy to golf, driving as many as a thousand balls a day, taking lessons for four or five hours, and playing until her hands bled. This hard work paid off: between 1946 and 1947, she won seventeen of eighteen golf tournaments, and in 1947, Zaharias became the first American woman to win the prestigious British Ladies' Amateur Championship, held at Gullane, Scotland. In August of that year she decided to return to professional status, and entered the professional golf circuit, which she reigned over for the next six years. She played with celebrities, including Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, as well as with noted athletes of the era. She also signed a lifetime contract with Wilson Sporting Goods to represent their equipment.
In 1950, Zaharias and twelve other women, including famed golfers Louise Suggs and Patty Berg, co-founded the Ladies Professional Golf Association. They found corporate sponsors in order to hold more professional tournaments and offer larger cash prizes to winners. Zaharias quickly became the star player of the LPGA, winning more tournaments and taking home more prize money than any other golfer; her success brought publicity and credibility to the young organization.
Meets Her Toughest Competitor
In 1950, Zaharias and her husband bought the Tampa Golf and Country Club and moved into the large converted clubhouse there. However, they seldom saw each other, as he traveled widely and was rarely home. In that same year, Zaharias met youthful golfer Betty Dodd. The two quickly became inseparable, and Dodd moved in with Zaharias and her husband, living with both of them until Zaharias' death. Although neither Zaharias nor Dodd ever openly acknowledged that they had a lesbian relationship, according to a writer in Gay and Lesbian Biography, "it was common knowledge that they were primary partners," and the two had a strong emotional bond. Dodd later told Johnson and Williamson, "I had such admiration for this fabulous person. I never wanted to be away from her even when she was dying of cancer. I loved her. I would've done anything for her."
By the end of the golf season in 1952, Zaharias was feeling extremely fatigued, and eventually went to the doctor to find out why. In April of 1953 she was diagnosed with colon cancer, and although her doctors warned her that she might never compete again, she proved them wrong. In her autobiography, she wrote, "All my life I'd been competing to win. I came to realize that in its way, this cancer was the toughest competition I'd faced yet." She eventually underwent surgery for the colon cancer. By this time Dodd had become her full-time caregiver, and told Johnson and Williamson that George Zaharias "couldn't afford to be [jealous] anymore. Because he wouldn't do anything for Babe… he needed me."
Six months after her surgery, she returned to competition, placing sixth in the United States in 1953. In 1954 she tied as winner of the U.S. Women's Open, despite the fact that she had to play while wearing a colostomy bag. Because of her performance, she won the Ben Hogan Comeback Award for that year. In that same year, she established the Babe Zaharias Fund to benefit cancer treatment centers and clinics.
"I Just Wanted to See a Golf Course One More Time"
In 1955, however, the cancer returned, and the woman who won so many other competitions eventually lost the battle with her toughest foe. Shortly before she died, however, she showed her deep love of golf during a visit to friends in Fort Worth, Texas. One night she asked her friends to drive her to Colonial Country Club. At the club, she walked alone in the dark to one of the greens, where she bent down, ran her hands over the ground, and kissed the grass. "I just wanted to see a golf course one more time," she said, according to an article by Don Wade on the Golf Society Web site.
Zaharias died a few months later, on September 27, 1956, at the age of 45. President Dwight Eisenhower, moved by her death, began his press conference that day with a tribute to her achievements. She is buried in Beaumont, Texas; the epitaph on her gravestone in Forest Lawn Cemetery reads "Babe Didrikson Zaharias, 1911-1956, World's Greatest Woman Athlete."
Zaharias's life was portrayed in a made-for-television movie on the CBS network in 1975. Starring Susan Clark as Zaharias and Alex Karras as George Zaharias, the movie was directed by Buzz Kulik.
Babe Zaharias Dies; Athlete Had Cancer
Mrs. Mildred (Babe) Didrikson Zaharias, famed woman athlete, died of cancer in John Sealy Hospital here this morning. She was 42 years old.
Mrs. Zaharias had been under treatment since 1953, when the malignant condition was discovered after she had won a golf tournament. The tournament was one named for her—the Babe Zaharias Open of Beaumont, Tex., where she was reared.
Mrs. Zaharias had fought valiantly against cancer for the last several months. She remained confident almost to the end that she would get well. Her final weeks were relatively free of pain, although the malignancy was general. Physicians here had performed a cordotomy—a severing of certain nerves—to relieve her of pain.
A funeral service is scheduled for tomorrow afternoon at the Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Beaumont.
Source: New York Times, September 28, 1956.
Zaharias left a lasting legacy in sports, a result of her lifelong challenge to stereotypes about the roles and abilities of women. She had a lucrative career in areas traditionally held open only to men, and refused to conform to ideas about "ladylike" clothing, mannerisms, and speech. At a time when, as Nick Seitz wrote in Golf Digest, "young women were expected to be home minding their manners and the stove," she pursued her own goals and ideals of athletic achievement. As a founding member of the LPGA, she laid the foundation for women's golf to become a respected and rewarding profession. She became a role model for active, athletic woman for decades to come, proving that women could play hard and play to win. As Larry Schwartz noted in ESPN.com, when a reporter asked Zaharias if there was anything she didn't play, she answered dryly, "Yeah. Dolls."
SELECTED WRITINGS BY ZAHARIAS:
Championship Golf, A.S. Barnes, 1948. This Life I've Led: My Autobiography, A.S. Barnes, 1955.
Cayleff, Susan, Babe: The Life and Legend of Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1995.
Gay and Lesbian Biography, Detroit: St. James Press, 1997.
Great Women in Sports, Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1996.
Johnson, William O., and Nancy P. Williamson, "Whatta-Gal": The Babe Didrikson Story, Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1975.
Dure, Jane. "Female Athlete of the Century," Texas Monthly, (December, 1999).
Lemon, Del. "Unsung Heroes of Texas Golf," Texas Monthly, (December, 2000): S28.
Mickey, Lisa D. "In the Beginning: Unfazed by a Failed Attempt to Sustain a Tour in the '40s, Some Brave Women Hit the Road and Pursued a Dream," Golf World, (November 24, 2000): 12.
Seitz, Nick. "The Babe: Golf's Greatest Athlete," Golf Digest, (August, 2000).
Babe Didrikson Zaharias Foundation, http://www.babedidriksonzaharias.org/ (September 23, 2002).
"Babe Didrikson Zaharias," Glass Ceiling Biographies, http://wwwtheglassceiling.com/biographies/bio38.htm (September 25, 2002).
"Betty Dodd Award," San Antonio Junior Golfers'Association, http://www.sajga.net/ (October 1, 2002).
"The First Fabulous Sports Babe," ESPN, http://espn.go.com/ (October 1, 2002).
Ladies' Professional Golf Association, http://www.lpga.com/ (October 1, 2002).
Schwartz, Larry, "Didrikson Was a Woman Ahead of Her Time," ESPN, http://espn.go.com/ (September 25, 2002).
Schwartz, Larry, "The Terrific Tomboy," ESPN, http://www.espn.go.com/ (September 25, 2002).
Wade, Don, "What a Babe!," Golf Society of the U.S., http://www.golfsociety.com/ (October 1, 2002).
Sketch by Kelly Winters