It would be typical braggadocio for a gifted Beaumont teen to say today his aim is to to become “the greatest athlete who ever lived.” When that teen was Babe Didrikson and the time was 1920s Southeast Texas, it seems pretty gutsy.
But that’s just about how we remember Babe Didrikson Zaharias — voted the 10th greatest North American Athlete of the 20th Century by ESPN and the Woman Athlete of the Century by the Associated Press.
Babe — she claims teen boys in awe of her home runs gave her the nickname, admittedly a little more imposing than her given name of Mildred — was born on June 26, 1911. In honor of one of Texas’ greatest athletes, no qualification needed, on what would be her 105th birthday, here are 10 things you should know about her …
1. Though she excelled at many sports as a child, her path to fame began with basketball at Beaumont High School. Before she even graduated, she was recruited in 1930 to be a “secretary” for Employers Casualty Company of Dallas — so she could play on its amateur basketball team. The Golden Cyclones won the next three national championships.
2. Also in 1930, Babe began to compete in track. Only 2 years later, she won the 1932 Amateur Athletic Union championships (which served as Olympic qualifying) … competing solo against experienced teams. Larry Schwarz described it for ESPN.com: “The sole representative of Employers Casualty, she scored 30 points, eight more than the runner-up team, which had 22 athletes. In a span of three hours, she competed in eight of 10 events, winning five outright and tying for first in the high jump. She set world records in the javelin, 80-meter hurdles, high jump and baseball throw.”
3. Babe qualified for five events in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, but women at that time were allowed to compete in only three events. She earned gold in the javelin and gold in the 80-meter hurdles, but earned silver in the high jump in what has been described as a dubious disqualification on her final jump. (Three years in track, three events, three medals … no problem.)
4. Probably thinking that Olympic track wouldn’t be much of a challenge with four years of practice, she took up golf in 1933. There was some difficulty with her amateur status — she didn’t earn it back until 1942, but once she did, she won 17 straight women’s amateur victories. She turned professional in 1947 and by 1950 had won every golf title available to her. Wikipedia says “Totaling both her amateur and professional victories, Zaharias won a total of 82 golf tournaments.”
5. As you might expect from the era, many seemed to be offended by her lack of femininity and often arrogant excellence. Joe Williams of the New York World-Telegram wrote “It would be much better if she and her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up and waited for the phone to ring,” Still, there were exceptions. Schwarz’s ESPN.com story quotes sportswriter Grantland Rice: “She is beyond all belief until you see her perform. Then you finally understand that you are looking at the most flawless section of muscle harmony, of complete mental and physical coordination, the world of sport has ever seen.”
6. She was said to have little interest in men until she met George Zaharias in 1938. She married the professional wrestler a year later, but their marriage eventually faltered and she struck up a relationship with young golfer Betty Dodd in 1950.
7. Babe was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1953. After surgery, she made a comeback in 1954, winning with such frequency and certainty that the Associated Press named her the Female Athlete of the Year for the sixth time. But the cancer made a comeback of its own. In 1956 she died at the age of 45 in a hospital in Galveston.
8. From her New York Times obituary: “The athlete from Texas was a constant source of colorful stories for newspaper men. She once pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals in an exhibition baseball game. She toured the United States giving billiard exhibitions and showed her true versatility with a demonstration of needlework and typing. She could type eighty-six words a minute.”
9. The Times obit also noted that her father was a “Norwegian ship carpenter who had sailed nineteen times around Cape Horn before settling down at Port Arthur.” That doesn’t really have anything to do with Babe, but, wow, that’s kinda out of the blue.
10. Though she is said to have softened toward the end of her career — to the point of encouraging younger golfers — she would often begin a tournament by saying “The Babe is here. Who’s coming in second?”