Babe Didrikson Zaharias was dead at age 45.
In a world where achievement can be measured by points, speed, distance, and final scores, Babe was considered by many the best there was.
She made her name in a way few had done before: through sheer athletic ability. She won more medals and set more records in more sports than any other athlete, male or female, in the 20th century. She won three Olympic medals for track and field. She was on the All-America basketball team. She won every major women’s golf championship in the world.
She caught the imagination of the American public as an athletic superstar who still managed a down-home manner, becoming a hero at a time that the American public was starved for heroes in the Depression year of 1932.
Refused to Sit on the SidelinesBorn in Port Arthur, Texas, on June 26, 1911, Mildred Ella Didrickson grew up in a working-class neighborhood of Beaumont. She played with the rough neighborhood boys and got used to being “smashed around” in games, as she later put it. She was the only girl in the neighborhood sandlot baseball games. She hit so many home runs that the kids began to call her “Babe” after the national baseball hero of the time, Babe Ruth.
Babe’s father was a carpenter from Norway. Her parents were poor, often struggling to raise a family of seven children. They lived in a cramped two-bedroom house.
Babe’s parents couldn’t afford expensive athletic equipment for their children. Instead, Babe trained on makeshift gymnastic equipment her father built in their backyard. She swung from a trapeze, jumped over bars and lifted weights. She even set up her own “hurdling” course over seven hedges on the block between her house and the corner grocery. Always looking for adventure and challenge, Babe mastered the trapeze and the tightrope with hopes of joining a circus someday.
Babe’s formal entry into the sports world came in 1930, when a Dallas company, Employers Casualty, recruited her to play on its basketball team. Babe, 18 years old, left school for a few months, and then returned to Beaumont to finish her last year of high school. She soon became the best player in the league.
Olympic SuccessOut of five Olympic women’s events, a competitor could enter a maximum of three. So Babe entered three.
Talking in her Texas twang, she became a legendary character, a country charmer. She was refreshing to the millions of newspaper readers who were suffering from hard economic times during the Great Depression.
The city of Dallas threw a gala parade and “welcome home” celebration when Babe returned triumphant from the 1932 Olympics.
After the Olympics, Babe took up golf and won all the major women’s championships. Her successes enabled her to vastly increase opportunities for others and their participation in professional golf.
In November 1934, Babe entered her first golf tournament. Some days, she practiced 12 to 16 hours at a stretch on the golf course. And then she’d practice some more. Sometimes, “I’d hit balls until my hands were bloody and sore,” she recalled. “I’d have tape all over my hands and blood all over the tape.”
Babe’s “celebrity” matches took her to the wealthiest country clubs in the nation. She played with boxing champion Joe Louis and baseball superstar Ted Williams. She even got to play with the great baseball legend Babe Ruth. Later, she became friends with a world-famous golfer who lived in the White House, President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
During one of Babe’s golf tours, she met George Zaharias, a professional wrestler. They married in December 1938, and George began to devote his life to managing Babe’s career.
In 1953, she was diagnosed with colon cancer and faced major surgery. At the hospital, Babe received 20,000 letters of encouragement. She took her golf clubs with her to the hospital as a symbol of her determination to play competitive golf again. Sure enough, in about three and a half months after the cancer surgery, Babe played in a tournament. The following year, Babe won the National Women’s Open and three other major tournaments. Even though she was not winning as consistently as before, Babe refused to retire.