‘Babe’ Didrikson Zaharias was one of the greatest female sports stars in history and her achievements are so extraordinary I was amazed not to have heard of her.
Babe was born into a poor Norwegian immigrant family in Texas. Christened Mildred, she was given the nickname Babe after the baseball player Babe Ruth. She was a tough, foul-mouthed girl who described women as ‘sissies who wore girdles, bras and that junk’ and spent her youth playing baseball and basketball with boys as they proved better competition than girls. At school she was the star of the basketball, baseball, volleyball, tennis, golf and swimming teams.
At age 18, the Employers Casualty Insurance Company, persuaded her to leave school and play for its women’s basketball team in the Amateur Athletic Union. In 1932, she was the sole member of their team, competing with other company teams of up to 20 women, often finishing one heat and then immediately rushing to the starting line of another. She won five events and took the championship. She went on to participate in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, Here she made the first of what became her famous audacious declarations: ‘I am out to beat everybody in sight and that’s just what I’m going to do.’ She almost succeeded, winning gold in the a javelin and 80 metres and silver in the high jump after the judges ruled that her jumping style was illegal, a rule that no longer exists. She became instantly famous but after the Olympics found few places to compete and had to endure prejudice and ridicule, accused of being a man in disguise and having taken up sport to compensate for her inability to catch a man
In need of a job, she became a vaudeville performer, touring Chicago and New York with a show that included stunts such as hitting plastic golf balls into the crowd. The performances became hugely popular and made her rich. In 1932, she began playing golf and in only her 11th game produced a 260-yard shot from the first tee. She entered the all-male Los Angeles Open, an achievement that would not be repeated until 2003. Golfing legend Bobby Jones described her as one of the 10 best golfers of all time, male or female. Wherever she played, she attracted crowds. As a journalist explained: ‘Babe stalks the fairway with a conscious sense of theater. She flips king-size cigarettes into the air and catches them nonchalantly in her mouth, then lights her match with her fingernail. Her hawkish, sun-toughened face is frozen for the most part in a thin-lipped mask, but she knows when to let go a wisecrack. When one of her tremendous drives sails out of bounds, she turns to the crowd and explains, “I hit it straight but it went crooked”… She operates like a woman whose life is a constant campaign to astound people.’ Babe wasn’t popular among her fellow golfers, probably because of her habit of telling them that they were all playing for second place, but this was the truth. She dominated women’s golf in the late 1940s and her 14-tournament winning streak remains the longest in history. In 1950 the AP acclaimed her the “Woman Athlete of the Half Century.”
In 1938, she met George Zaharias, a 235-pound professional wrestler who impressed her by being able to drive a gold ball further that she could. By December they were married. It was a successful and happy marriage; George became Babe’s business manager and trainer.
In 1953, Babe was diagnosed with colon cancer and underwent a colostomy. Despite reports that she would never play again, she won the 1954 U.S. Women’s Open by a record 12 strokes. Sadly, her cancer worsened and she died on September 1956, at the age of 45.