One of the World’s Greatest Athletes

“Babe” Didrikson Zaharias succeeded at every sport she tried, especially during a time when the country needed her.
One of the World’s Greatest Athletes
Babe won every major women’s golf championship in the world by 1950. (Allsport/Getty Images)
12/2/2023
Updated:
12/2/2023
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On the morning of Sept. 27, 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower opened his White House press conference by saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, I should like to take one minute to pay a tribute to Mrs. Zaharias, Babe Didrikson. She was a woman who, in her athletic career, certainly won the admiration of every person in the United States, all sports people all over the world. ... I think that every one of us feels sad that finally she had to lose this last one of all her battles.”

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.

She was called “Wonder Girl,” “The Texas Tornado,” and “The Terrific Tomboy,” among many other nicknames. No matter what one called her, Zaharias, a Norwegian immigrant’s daughter from Beaumont, Texas, owned one of the most recognizable faces in the world.

Refused to Sit on the Sidelines

Born 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.

The Didriksons were also an athletic family. Babe’s mother, Hannah, had been an excellent skier and skater in Norway. Babe’s older brothers competed in football, baseball, and boxing.

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.

While she worked for Employers Casualty and played on their team, Babe broke three national track and field records and helped win 17 loving cups and 92 medals. She held the Southern Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) record in every track and field event she entered from 1930 to 1932. In 1932, the AAU national championship track meet in Chicago also served as the Olympic trials. Her one-person team beat out the second place team 30 points to 22. Remarkably, the second place team fielded 22 members! Two weeks later, the 1932 Summer Olympics commenced in Los Angeles.

Olympic Success

Out of five Olympic women’s events, a competitor could enter a maximum of three. So Babe entered three.
Babe Didrikson winning the gold medal at the 1932 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles for the Women's Track and Field javelin event. (Getty Images)
Babe Didrikson winning the gold medal at the 1932 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles for the Women's Track and Field javelin event. (Getty Images)
She won the javelin throw with a new world’s record, breaking the old record with an astounding 143 feet, 4 inches. She broke her own world record in the 80-meter hurdles with a time of 11.7 seconds. She tied for first place in the high jump, but was awarded second place when the officials ruled she had dived forward, rather than jumped. The result: two gold medals and one silver. In this, Babe was the darling of the sportswriters. One writer called her, “without any question, the athletic phenomenon of all time, man or woman.”

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.

Golf champion Babe Zaharias in action, 1951. (Allsport/Getty Images)
Golf champion Babe Zaharias in action, 1951. (Allsport/Getty Images)

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.”

She became an ambassador for the sport, demonstrating her golf talents in “celebrity” golf matches with some of the best golfers and entertainers in the United States. After playing with Babe, comedian Bob Hope once told reporters, “There’s only one thing wrong about Babe and myself. I hit the ball like a girl and she hits it like a man.”

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.

MGM Television press photo of Babe and George Zaharias, circa 1955. (Public Domain)
MGM Television press photo of Babe and George Zaharias, circa 1955. (Public Domain)
Babe tore up the courses in the 1940s, and was winning every golf tournament in sight—even the British Women’s Amateur Championship in 1947. By 1950, she had won the Western Open, the U.S. Women’s Open, the All-American and World championships—every title there was to win.

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.

But in June 1955, doctors found another trace of cancer and hospitalized her again. This time it was hopeless. She died on Sept. 27, 1956.

Remembered for Determination, Versatility

Over the years, Babe had tried nearly every sport and mastered all of them. She could swim. She played a mean game of billiards. She was an excellent tennis player. In Dallas, she gave fancy diving exhibitions. She once socked in 13 home runs in a double-header softball game.
In her lifetime, she was honored in at least 10 halls of fame. In 1981, a commemorative U.S. postage stamp was issued featuring a photo of Babe caught in the exhilaration of another victory. There is a “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias Museum in Beaumont, Texas, filled with her medals and trophies.
Cover for the book "This Life I've Led: My Autobiography" by Babe Didrikson, as told to Harry Paxton, 1956. (Robert Hale)
Cover for the book "This Life I've Led: My Autobiography" by Babe Didrikson, as told to Harry Paxton, 1956. (Robert Hale)
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