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The World's Greatest Female Athlete: Babe Didrikson

Updated on March 25, 2016

Babe Didrikson

Babe Didrikson
Babe Didrikson | Source

Unbeatable Babe

World’s Greatest Woman Athlete: Mildred “Babe” Didrikson

Born in Port Arthur, Texas on June 26, 1914 to immigrant Norwegian parents, Mildred Didriksen (later changed to “Didrikson”) fell in love with sports at an early age. In her autobiography, This Life I’ve Led, Babe wrote, “I played with boys rather than girls. I preferred baseball, football, foot-racing and jumping with the boys, to hop-scotch and jacks and dolls, which were about the only things girls did.” When she was a child, she joined her brothers and some other neighborhood kids for a game of baseball. After hitting five home runs in the game, her impressed brothers began to call her “Babe,” after the popular baseball player Babe Ruth. Babe was the star of the girls’ basketball team, and also played on the women’s team for Employers Casualty Insurance company of Dallas, where she worked. She earned a place on the All-American teams in 1930, ’31 and ’32.

At the 1932 Olympic trials in Chicago, Babe showed up for the track and field tryouts. There was a little bit of confusion at first, since the lone Babe showed up as the entire track and field team, but she was allowed to compete in eight events—four of which she set new world records for and single-handedly outscored the entire team of the University of Illinois. Babe qualified and was sent to the Olympics later that year, though she was only allowed to compete in three events. Again, she set new world records for each of the events, but only received two gold medals, receiving a silver medal after a technicality with the long jump.

Babe was so successful in the sports she played that the Associated Press named her “Female Athlete of the Year” six times. In 1950 they had run out of titles to give her, so the AP named Babe, “Best Female Athlete in Half a Century.”

In 1935, Babe tried golfing for the first time and loved it. In 1936 she won the women’s gold championship and over the next four years she won forty tournaments, with seventeen of them in a row. Babe then won the U.S. Women’s Open in 1948, 1950, and 1954. It was during a golf game that Babe met her husband, the wrestler George Zaharias, a.k.a “the Crying Greek from Cripple Creek.”

Babe knew how to put on a show as well. At the British Women’s Amateur Golf Championship in 1947, Babe was dismayed at the somber attitude of the audience and began to play trick shots to break the tension. She put a match between the golf tee and the ball, igniting it with her club when she swung, hit two balls out of the sandtrap at the same time (catching one in her pocket and sinking the other in the hole), and on the 18th Hole she turned around and putted the ball between her legs. The, after touching up her lipstick, she vaulted over a wall of reporters. The British loved it, and Babe became the first American winner of the British Women’s Amateur Golf Championship.

Unfortunately, the more successful Babe became the more backlash she suffered; many people were put off by her athleticism, calling it “unfeminine.” Many reporters dismissed her as being a lesbian, and one, Joe Williams of The New York World-Telegram wrote, “It would be much better if she and all her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up and waited for the phone to ring.” There were also several incidents when other female athletes cornered Babe in the locker room and demanded to know if she was really a woman or not. Babe never revealed whether she was a lesbian or not, but she did have an extremely close relationship with female golfer Betty Dodd that lasted many years.

Over the next forty years, Babe won more medals and tournaments and set more records in sports than any other athlete, female or male, in the 20th century. With twelve other female golfers Babe co-founded the Ladies Professional Golf Association in 1950, and she and George purchased the Tampa Golf and Country Club

In 1953, Babe became ill with colon cancer. She underwent surgery, and though her doctors warned her that she would never play again, Babe was able to recover enough to compete and win the U.S. Open and the All American Open in 1954, all while wearing a colostomy bag. Sadly, the cancer returned, and after her second surgery, Babe Didrikson died in Galveston, TX, September 27, 1956. Her headstone reads, “World’s Greatest Woman Athlete.”

In 1976, she was inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame.

Babe Didrikson works referenced:

Cool Women, by Dawn Chipman et al

The Book of Women’s Firsts, by Phyllis J. Read and Bernard L Witlieb

Babe Didrikson Zaharias

Babe Didrikson

Babe Didrikson

Babe Didrikson Zaharias Museum

Babe Didrikson Zaharias Museum located in Beaumont, Texas, United States.
Babe Didrikson Zaharias Museum located in Beaumont, Texas, United States.

Books You Should Be Reading: Women's History


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    • kschimmel profile image

      Kimberly Schimmel 2 years ago from North Carolina, USA

      She led an amazing life.