originally published June 1, 2014
“It would be much better if she and her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up and waited for the phone to ring.”
So said sportswriter Joe Williams of the New York Herald-Tribune. He was writing a critical (and overtly misogynistic) piece about Babe Didrikson-Zaharias. Babe’s name is anything but household today, though at the time she was the most important woman in the world of sports.
To claim that Babe was the single greatest female athlete of the 20th century would not be an unmerited hyperbole; she played a myriad of sports and excelled at every one of them. Babe was tough, she was brilliant, and she wasn’t afraid to be an “athlete” instead of a “woman who plays sports”. She hammered out her own identity and handled all her own PR. How her life story remains unknown to so much of the general populace today, I have no idea; we all know Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Arnold Palmer, Red Grange… and those schmucks only mastered one sport apiece.
Babe Didrikson-Zaharias conquered most of the sports section, game by game.
Mildred Didriksen (she’d later change the ‘-en’ to ‘-on’) was born to Norwegian parents in Port Arthur, Texas – also the birthplace of Janis Joplin. She took the nickname ‘Babe’ from her mother’s childhood pet name for her, though she’d later claim she was given the nickname in honor of Babe Ruth after she’d hit five home runs in a childhood baseball game. Her version of the nickname origin was an exaggeration, though I suspect the baseball story is true.
Her first big victory was in a sew-off at the South Texas State Fair in Beaumont. Babe was exceptional when it came to competition, but not so much at school. She dropped out before graduation and moved to Dallas to play basketball. She was hired as a ringer player for the Employers’ Casualty Insurance Company, which had a team (the Golden Cyclones) that played in the Amateur Athletic Union. She led the Cyclones to a championship in 1931, but basketball was not the mighty thump that propelled her heart to beat. For that, she had track and field.
At the 1932 AAU Championships, Babe competed in eight out of the ten scheduled events. She won five and tied for first in a sixth. In doing so, she set world records for 80-meter hurdles, javelin, high jump and baseball throw. Four world records – and it was all accomplished in a single afternoon. I take back what I said a few paragraphs back; Babe might have been the greatest athlete of the century, period. She followed up this triumphant day with a visit to the Los Angeles Olympics that same year, where she won silver in the high jump and gold in the hurdles and javelin throw.
In 1932, the number of American women who were making a living as a professional athlete numbered somewhere between zero and nil. Babe sought to change that. In addition to her expertise at diving, roller skating and bowling, Babe also took up baseball, playing with the all-male House of David team. During an exhibition game she struck out Joe DiMaggio. It was mind-boggling for anyone watching, but there was no financial future in baseball for Babe – the pro leagues would never let her play. Next, it was off to vaudeville.
Babe teamed up with pianist George Libby in the early 1930’s and toured the Chicago area. She sang, danced, ran on a treadmill and played a touching rendition of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” on the harmonica. Sometimes she performed in as many as five shows daily. It was a living, though with travelling stage spectaculars fading from the public’s must-see list, it wasn’t much of one.
Babe landed in the papers again when she was trounced by professional billiards player Ruth McGinnis in a straight pool tournament in New York. She wasn’t good enough to win, but she was good enough to make the tournament. In addition to her theatrical career, she also pulled in some cash touring with the Babe Didrikson’s All-Americans basketball team. When she took up golf in 1935, it seemed like that would be yet another notch of many on her multi-faceted career. No one – not even Babe herself – knew that this would be the game that would truly define her.
In January of 1938, Babe competed in the Los Angeles Open, an official PGA event. Not until Annika Sörenstam would play in the 2003 Bank of America Colonial tournament would another woman even try to make a PGA event. Babe missed the cut, but was teamed up with George Zaharias, a professional wrestler known as the “Crying Greek from Cripple Creek”. The two would be married less than a year later, and it would be with the name ‘Babe Zaharias’ that she would conquer the world of golf.
Babe was the first female golf celebrity, and the sport’s most celebrated woman throughout the 1940’s and 50’s. She won the 1946 US Women’s Amateur and became the first American to win the British Ladies Amateur the following year. She turned pro in 1947 and helped to found the LPGA. Along the way she continued to pop up in the PGA, and remains the only woman ever to have made the cut in a regular PGA Tour event. She qualified for the 1948 US Open, but the United States Golf Association wouldn’t let her play due to her lack of a penis. Such was the backward state of professional sport; this was probably around the time Joe Williams penned that delightful criticism about what Babe ‘should’ do.
Somewhere along the way, Babe found time for a music career. That’s her with Betty Dodd, who was also a competitive player in the brand-new LPGA. Betty and Babe were close… extremely close. At one point Betty moved in with the Zahariases, and I have stumbled upon no less than four sources that claim that Betty and Babe were most definitely lovers. With Betty singing and Babe blowing the harmonica, the two released a handful of songs on Mercury Records in the early 50’s. Because why shouldn’t she conquer the music industry too?
Babe scored the Grand Slam of the LPGA in 1950, winning all three majors: the US Open, Titleholders Championship and the Women’s Western Open. She won ten tournaments in one year and 20 days, a record that still stands. More than two decades since she’d dominated at the Olympics, and the world of athletics was still under Babe’s command. Then along came colon cancer, which sidelined her in 1953.
For about a month.
It was one month out of surgery, a colostomy bag still attached to her leg, when she won the Vare Trophy for the lowest scoring average and took her 30th win at the 1954 Women’s Open. Even when the cancer returned in 1955, she still managed two more wins. She passed away at the top of her game in September, 1956 – only 45 years old.
A handful of athletes have triumphed in multiple sports, but only Babe could have flown from the pinnacle of amateur basketball to the heights of Olympic gold to pioneering the female presence in one of the most popular games in the world. There was a TV movie made about her life in 1975, called Babe. The film starred Susan Clark (and earned her an Emmy) as Babe, as well as former NFL star Alex Karras as George Zaharias. And just as Babe and George fell in love when their professional circumstances had paired them together, Susan and Alex would also become an item. In fact, the two of them launched and starred in the successful sitcom Webster, and remained together up until Alex’s death in 2012.
Even Babe’s legacy created great things. Hers is a name worth knowing.