Mildred Ella ("Babe") Didrikson Zaharias (June 26, 1911 – September 27, 1956) was an American athlete named by the Guinness Book of Records, along with Lottie Dod, as the most versatile female competitor of all time. She achieved outstanding success in golf, basketball, and track and field.
Mildred Ella Didrikson was the sixth of seven children born in the coastal oil city
of Port Arthur
in southeastern Texas
. Her mother, Hannah, and her father, Ole, were immigrants from Norway
. Three of her six siblings were born in Norway, and the other three were born in Port Arthur. Her surname was changed from Didriksen to Didrikson. Didrikson moved to Beaumont
when she was four years of age . The family resided at 850 Doucette. She acquired the nickname "Babe" (after Babe Ruth
) after she hit five home runs
in a single baseball
Though best known for her athletic gifts, Didrikson had many talents and was a competitor in even the most domestic of occupations: sewing. An excellent seamstress, she made many of the clothes she wore, including her golfing outfits. She won the sewing championship at the 1931 State Fair of Texas in Dallas. In 1929, Didrikson graduated from Beaumont High School but did not attend college. She was a singer and a harmonica player. She recorded several songs on the Mercury Records label. Her biggest seller was "I Felt a Little Teardrop" with "Detour" on the flip side.
Already famous as Babe Didrikson, she married George Zaharias (1908-1984), a professional wrestler, in St. Louis, Missouri, on December 23, 1938. Thereafter, she was largely known as Babe Zaharias. The couple met while playing golf. George Zaharias, a Greek American, was a native of Pueblo, Colorado. Called the "Crying Greek from Cripple Creek," Zaharias also did some part-time acting. The Zahariases had no children and were rebuffed by authorities when they sought to adopt. He died in Tampa, Florida, having outlived Babe by twenty-eight years. He married one of his nurses several years before his passing.
Didrikson gained world fame in track and field and All-American
status in basketball. She played organized baseball and softball and was an expert diver, roller-skater and bowler. She won two gold medals and one silver medal for track and field in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.
Didrikson's first job after high school was nominally as a secretary, for the Employers Casualty Insurance Company of Dallas. In fact, she was employed as a ruse so that she could play basketball
on one of the "industrial teams", the Golden Cyclones, i competitions organized by the Amateur Athletic Union
(AAU). Despite leading the team to an AAU Basketball Championship in 1931, Didrikson first achieved wider attention as a track and field athlete.
Representing her company in the 1932 AAU Championships, she competed in eight out of ten events, winning five outright, and tying for first for a sixth. In the process, she set five world records in the javelin throw, 80-meter hurdles, high jump and baseball throw. in a single afternoon. Didrikson's performances were enough to win the team championship, despite her being the only member of her team.
Since the AAU Championships were the de facto
US Olympic Trials, Didrikson qualified for the 1932 Summer Olympics
in Los Angeles
. By the rules then in effect, as a female athlete, she was limited to entering up to three events, and she chose the javelin throw
, the 80 meter hurdles
and the high jump
. She nearly won all three events: she won gold medals in the javelin (143 feet, 4 inches) and hurdles (11.7 seconds). She cleared the same height (5foot 5inches) as her teammate Jean Shiley
in the high jump (with whom she had tied in the AAU Championship). The judges, however, disapproved of her jumping style (jumping over headfirst) in the final tie breaker jump, and they declared Shiley the Olympic champion. After the Games, Shiley and Didrikson split their two medals - the gold one and the silver one.
In the following years, she performed on the vaudeville circuit
, travelled with teams like Babe Didrikson's All-Americans basketball team and the bearded House of David baseball team. Didrikson was also a competitive pocket billiards
(pool) player, though not a champion. She was noted in the January 1933 press for playing (and badly losing) a multi-day straight pool
match in New York City
against famed female Ruth McGinnis
By 1935, she picked up the sport of golf, a latecomer to the sport by which she would become the most famous. Shortly thereafter, despite the brevity of her experience, she was denied amateur status, and so in January 1938, she competed in the Los Angeles Open
, a men's PGA
(Professional Golfers' Association) tournament, a feat no other woman would even try until Annika Sörenstam
, Suzy Whaley
, and Michelle Wie
almost six decades later. She shot 81 strokes and 84 strokes, and she missed the cut (scoring too badly to continue in the tournament). In the tournament, she was teamed with George Zaharias. They were married eleven months later lived in Tampa on the premises of a golf course that they purchased in 1951.
Babe went on to become America's first female golf celebrity and the leading player of the 1940s and early 1950s. After gaining back her amateur status in 1942, she won the 1946-47 United States Women's Amateur Golf Championships, as well as the 1947 British Ladies Amateur Golf Championship – the first American to do so – and three Western Open victories. Having formally turned professional in 1947, she dominated the [Women's Professional Golf Association and later the Ladies Professional Golf Association, of which she was a founding member. Serious illness ended her career in the mid-1950s.
Zaharias even won a tournament named after her, the Babe Zaharias Open of Beaumont, Texas. She won the 1947 Titleholders Championship and the 1948 U.S. Women's Open for her fourth and fifth major championships. She won 17 straight women's amateur victories, a feat never equaled by anyone, including Tiger Woods. By 1950, she had won every golf title available. Totaling both her amateur and professional victories, Zaharias won a total of 82 golf tournaments.
Charles McGrath of the New York Times wrote of Zaharias, "Except perhaps for Arnold Palmer, no golfer has ever been more beloved by the gallery."
Against the men
While Zaharias missed the cut in a PGA tour event during her first year of tournament golf, later as she became more experienced she made the cut in every PGA tour event she entered. In 1945, Zaharias played in three PGA tournaments. She shot 76-81 to make the two-day cut at the Los Angeles Open (missed the three-day cut after a 79), making her the first (and currently only) woman in history to make the cut in a regular PGA tour event. She continued her cut streak at the Phoenix Open, where she shot 77-72-75-80 finishing in 33rd place. At the Tucson Open she shot 307 and finished tied for 42nd. Unlike other female golfers competing in men's events, she got into the Phoenix and Tucson opens through 36-hole qualifiers, as opposed to a sponsor's exemption.
Zaharias had her greatest year in 1950 when she completed the Grand Slam
of the three women's majors of the day, the U.S. Open, the Titleholders Championship, and the Western Open, in addition to leading the money list. That year, she became the fastest LPGA golfer to ever reach 10 wins. She was the leading money-winner again in 1951 and in 1952 took another major with a Titleholders victory, but illness prevented her from playing a full schedule in 1952-53.
Babe Didrickson Zaharias was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1953, and even after undergoing cancer surgery, she made a comeback in 1954. She took the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average, her only win of that trophy, and her 10th and final major with a U.S. Women's Open championship, one month after the cancer surgery. With this win, she became the second-oldest woman to ever win a major LPGA championship tournament (behind Fay Crocker). Babe Zaharias now stands third to Crocker and Sherri Steinhauer). She also served as the president of the LPGA from 1952 to 1955.
Her colon cancer recurred in 1955, and that limited her schedule to eight golfing events that season, but she managed two wins, which stand as her final ones in competitive golf. The cancer was a fatal one, and Babe Zaharias died at the John Sealy Hospital in Galveston, Texas. At the time of her death, at age forty-five, she was still in the front ranks of female golfers. She and her husband had established the Babe Zaharias Fund to support cancer clinics.
"The Babe" is buried at the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Beaumont.
Zaharias broke the accepted models of femininity in her time, even the accepted models of female athleticism. Although just 5'5" tall, she was physically strong and socially straightforward about her strength. Although a sports hero to many, she was also derided for her "manliness." She died ten years before the Second Wave of feminism altered the social landscape of the United States and made women athletes, such as Billie Jean King, more acceptable.
Zaharias now has iconic status, with a museum dedicated to her, and a golf course that she owned given landmark status. Despite her long marriage to George Zaharias, there is keen historic interest in her from the modern lesbian community.
The Babe Didrikson Zaharias Park and Museum in Beaumont stands as a memorial to her achievements.
Williams' remark typified the attitude of some toward women who did not fit the traditional ideals of femininity current in the first half of the 20th century. However, in the same time period, the Associated Press chose her as the "Female Athlete of the Year" six times for track & field and for golfing, and, in 1950, overwhelmingly voted for her as the "Greatest Female Athlete of the First Half of the Century". Aside from her impact on the women and girls of her time, she impressed seasoned sportswriters also:
She was inducted into the Hall of Fame of Women's Golf in 1951. In 1957, she was given the Bob Jones Award, the highest honor given by the United States Golf Association in recognition of distinguished sportsmanship in golf. She was one of six initial inductees into the LPGA Hall of Fame at its inception in 1967.
The Associated Press
followed up its 1950 declaration fifty years later by voting Zaharias the Woman Athlete of the 20th Century
in 1999. In 2000, Sports Illustrated
magazine also named her second on its list of the Greatest Female Athletes of All Time, behind the heptathlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee
. She is now also in the World Golf Hall of Fame
. She is also the highest ranked woman, at #10, on ESPN
's list of the 50 top athletes of the 20th century. In 2000, Babe Zaharias was ranked as the 17th greatest golfer of all time, and the second greatest woman player (after Mickey Wright
) by the Golf Digest
magazine. Her exploits were also referenced by the irreverent comedy program Family Guy
, in which her name and deeds were used as part of an "extended" version to the theme of Maude (TV series)
Zaharias penned an autobiography This Life I've led. It is no longer in print but is available in many libraries.
In 1975, the film Babe, based on Zaharias' life, was released, with Susan Clark playing the lead role. Alex Karras played George Zaharias. Clark and Karras met while making the picture and later married.
Babe Zaharias Golf Course
In 1949, Zaharias purchased a golf course in the Forest Hills
area of Tampa and lived nearby. The golf course had a magnificent clubhouse which Zaharias was rumored to live in at one point. After her death, the golf course was sold. It lay dormant as developers attempted to acquire the land for residential housing.
In 1974, the City of Tampa took over the golf course, renovated it, and reopened it, naming it the Babe Zaharias Golf Course. It has now been accorded the status of a Historical Landmark.
In 2007, the lesbian playwright Carolyn Gage began work on a full-chorus, full-orchestra musical about Zaharias (who is thought by some to have been a lesbian or a bisexual) called Babe.
In early 2009, Little, Brown will publish a major biography of Zaharias by the New York Times journalist Don Van Natta, Jr.. The book will be entitled, Wonder Girl.
LPGA Tour wins (41)
- 1940 (1) Women's Western Open (as an amateur)
- 1944 (1) Women's Western Open (as an amateur)
- 1945 (1) Women's Western Open (as an amateur)
- 1947 (2) Tampa Open, Titleholders Championship (as an amateur)
- 1948 (3) All American Open, World Championship, U.S. Women's Open
- 1949 (2) World Championship, Eastern Open
- 1950 (8) Titleholders Championship, Pebble Beach Weathervane, Cleveland Weathervane, Women's Western Open, All-American Open, World Championship, U.S. Women's Open, 144-hole Weathervane
- 1951 (9) Ponte Verde Beach Women's Open, Tampa Women's Open, Lakewood Weathervane, Richmond Women's Open, Valley Open, Meridian Hills Weathervane, All-American Open, World Championship, Texas Women's Open
- 1952 (5) Miami Weathervane, Titleholders Championship, Bakersfield Open (tied with Marlene Hagge, Betty Jameson and Betsy Rawls), Fresno Open, Women's Texas Open
- 1953 (2) Sarasota Open, Babe Zaharias Open
- 1954 (5) Serbin Open, Sarasota Open, Damon Runyan Cancer Fund Tournament, U.S. Women's Open, All-American Open
- 1955 (2) Tampa Open, Peach Blossom Classic
LPGA Majors are shown in bold.
This list is probably incomplete:
Notes and references
- This Life I've Led: My Autobiography, by Babe Didrikson Zaharias, New York, 1955
- Babe: The Life and Legend of Babe Didrikson Zaharias, by Susan Cayleff, 1996.
- Why Michael Couldn't Hit and Other Tales of the Neurology of Sports, by Harold L. Klawans, MD, 1996