Many years ago I was preparing a number of original wire photos of a certain female athlete for auction.
In one photo she was bouncing a basketball, in another she was in a track suit. In still another she was in a baseball uniform, and then another swinging a golf club.
I wondered as to which sport this woman actually played. I learned that they didn’t make the game or sport that she couldn’t play, and play well.
Mildred Ella “Babe” Didrikson was born in 1911, the sixth of seven children of Norwegian immigrants who settled in Beaumont, Texas.
Her mother Hannah called her “Bebe”, which became “Babe”, and almost from the very start she could run faster, jump higher, and hit harder than any girl who ever lived.
She wasn’t much for school, and she went to work for a Dallas, Texas insurance company in order to play on the company sponsored basketball team, the Golden Cyclones, and she led them to the AAU Championship in 1931. The company sent her back east to compete in a track meet, which she won all by herself, finishing first in six events.
She was still relatively unknown when she went to the 1932 Olympics. She wanted to enter six events, but they only allowed her to enter three and she won them all. Despite having some torn cartilage in her right shoulder, she set an Olympic record in the javelin throw, and broke the world record in the 80m hurdles.
She finished tied for first in the high jump, but they cheated her out of a gold medal saying her “western roll “ technique was illegal. They gave her a silver medal, and her style was ruled legal before the next Olympics.
If that bothered the Babe, she didn’t show it.
She always had a big smile to go with her “girl next door” quality. She would have been a media superstar today. If she ever said anything negative, no one heard it.
What else was on her sports resume?
Well, she toured for two summers with the House of David baseball team, and pitched in exhibition games against major leaguers, striking out Joe DiMaggio. She threw a baseball 296 feet on the fly, and won a tennis tournament two weeks after she first picked up a racket.
She was an accomplished diver, roller skater, and bowler; and if that isn’t enough, she sang, played the harmonica, and once won a sewing championship at the South Texas State Fair.
In 1932, sportswriter Grantland Rice convinced Didrikson to give golf a try. He put together a group to play with her which included a club pro, Olin Dutra, a former United States Open winner. The pro watched Babe play her baptismal round, and commented on the novice hitting a two iron 200 yards onto a green. “I saw it, but I still don’t believe it.”
Didrikson was no Amazon, about 5’ 7”, and 135 lbs., but she realized quickly that golf could be her best sport to compete on the national level. In just a few years she became the dominant female player in the world. She would win 82 tournaments, including ten majors, and became the first woman to compete on the men’s PGA tour.
While playing in a men’s event, she was met golfer George Zaharias, a former wrestler. An intelligent, gentle giant, he was known as the “Crying Greek from Cripple Creek.” They married 11 months later in 1938.
In 1953, Babe Didrikson was diagnosed with colon cancer, a grim prognosis. You would have thought she would retire from competition, but in 1954 she made a remarkable comeback, winning the US Open by 12 strokes. She did it while wearing a colostomy bag.
How do you measure a great athlete? Speed, strength, versatility, determination. The Babe had them all, plus the heart, and a sense of urgency. She never stopped moving, as if when she was jumping hedges as a little girl in Texas, she knew she had only so much time to get it all done.
She died in 1956, at age 45, from her illness. She was still trying to compete.
She fought until the end, and cancer was the only competition she couldn’t beat.