By Captain Nancy Aldrich
For those of you who regularly read my articles, this one is a little different. It is still about a young woman whom most have forgotten, but this lady is not a pilot. She is still a great role model, and a heroine!
“Babe,” nee Mildred Ella Didricksen, was born on June 26, 1911, and was an outstanding athlete. She competed in golf, basketball, and track and field. She was named the World’s Greatest Female Athlete of the First Half of the 20th Century by the Associated Press; the 10th Greatest North American Athlete of the 20th Century by ESPN, and the 9th Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century by the Associated Press. She was named the Woman Athlete of the Year in 1931, 1945, 1946, 1947, 1950, and 1954, by the Associated Press. No other athlete, male or female, won this title so many times.
The Didricksen family was not well off. Her father worked as a ship’s carpenter and cabinetmaker. He was a firm believer in good physical conditioning and built weight-lifting apparatus in the basement for the family. Her mother, Hannah Marie Olsen Didricksen had been an outstanding skater and skier in Norway. The family was always interested in their health and conditioning.
Early in her life, Babe had to go to work and had several part time jobs. On one job she sewed gunny sacks at a penny a sack. She took to sewing and remained a good seamstress. She made many of her athletic clothes. When she was sixteen, she won a prize at the Texas State Fair for a dress that she had made.
Her moniker, Babe, started when she was playing baseball as a child. She was always interested in sports and loved playing with her brothers. At the time, Babe Ruth was in his prime, and very popular. She hit five homeruns in one game, and they started calling her, Babe. That stuck with her throughout her life. This young tomboy loved athletics, and was accomplished at just about everything she tried, basketball, track, golf, baseball, tennis, swimming, diving, boxing, volleyball, handball, bowling, billiards, skating and cycling. Once, when asked, “is there anything you don’t play,’ she replied, ‘Yeah, dolls.” Her goal was to be the greatest athlete who ever lived.
In Senior High School, Babe was the high-scoring forward on her team. She caught the eye of Melvin J. McCombs, who coached one of the best girl’s basketball teams in the nation. In February 1930, McCombs was able to get her hired as a secretary with Employers Casualty Company in Dallas. She could type 86 words a minute, but he wanted her for her athletic abilities. He wanted her eligible to play with the Golden Cyclones, the company’s team. They won the national championship the next three years, and she was All-American Forward for two of those years.
She soon turned her attention to track and field. She won First Place in eight events at the National Women’s AAU Track Meet in 1931, and Second Place in another event. She had her eye on the Olympics. At the 1932 Track Meet, she won the championship with thirty points. The Illinois Women’s Athletic Club, which had entered a team of twenty-two women came in behind her with twenty-two points. After that impressive win, she went to the Olympics. Being a woman, she was only able to enter three events, but she managed to break four world’s records. She won the javelin throw with 143 ft, 4 in; won the 80-meter hurdles, twice breaking the previous world record. Her best time was 11.7 seconds. She also made a record breaking high jump, but the jump was disallowed because her head went over the bar first. She was awarded second place. Sports writer, Paul Gallico said, “On every count, accomplishment, temperament, personality, and color, she belongs to the ranks of those story-book champions or our age of innocence.” He also referred to her as “the most talented athlete, male or female, ever developed in our country.”
Babe also became interested in golf in 1933. In her eleventh game, she drove 260 years from the first tee and played the back nine in 43 strokes. She entered her first golf tournament in the fall of 1934. While she did not win that tournament, she captured the qualifying round with a 77. In April 1935, she won the Texas State Women’s championship, two-up. The U.S. Golf Association then ruled that “ for the best interest of the game,” Babe was not an amateur because she had competed professionally in other sports. While she had not wanted to turn professional at that time, she accepted the decision and began traveling around the country giving golf exhibitions. She also appeared with some vaudeville acts.
She was the only woman on the Babe Didrickson All-American basketball team. (She had changed the spelling of her last name by this time). While she was traveling with the vaudeville acts she also pitched an inning for the St. Louis Cardinals in a exhibition game with the Philadelphia Athletics. She could throw a baseball from deep center field to home plate. One throw of hers was measured at over 300 ft. She excelled at everything she tried!
Babe was performing at a time when female athletes were considered ‘freaks.’ She was not a feminist and not militant. She was simply an athlete, and her body was her most valuable possession. She was not about ‘sexual liberation’ or ‘campaigning for rights,’ she just wanted to compete. Some sports writers condemned her for not being more feminine. 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.” Others were exuberant in their praise. Grantland Rice wrote, “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!”
In January of 1938, while playing in the Los Angeles Open Golf Tournament, she was paired with George Zaharias. He was a professional wrestler from Pueblo, Colorado, known as ‘The Weeping Greek from Cripple Creek.’ She found him very attractive. He was someone who could actually drive a ball farther than she could. They fell in love, and married 11 months later. George urged her to apply for reinstatement as an amateur in 1941. She regained her amateur status in January 1943.
Babe said, “My main idea in any kind of competition always has been to go out there and cut loose with everything I’ve got. I’ve never been afraid to go up against anything. I’ve always had the confidence that I was capable of winning out.” Her patience and confidence did win out. She began to take golf seriously, driving as many as 1,000 balls a day. She took lessons for 5 – 6 hours a day, and played until her hands were blistered and bleeding. All her hard work paid off, in 1947, she was the first American woman to win the British Ladies’ Amateur Championship, in Gullane, Scotland. On one hole, she hit the ball so far that a spectator said, “she must be Superman’s sister!” That summer she won 17 of 18 tournaments. Then in August, she turned professional again, and for the next six years she dominated women’s golf. When asked how someone who only weighed 145 lbs could consistently drive the ball over 250 yards, she said, “You’ve got to loosen your girdle and let it rip.”
In 1948, she won her first U.S. Women’s Open, the World Championship, and the All-American Open.
Shortly after winning the inaugural Babe Zaharias Open in Beaumont, Texas, in April 1953, Babe learned that she had cancer. Surgeons were able to remove the tumor, but the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. Fourteen weeks later, she played in another tournament. By the next year she had completed an incredible comeback, winning her 3rd U.S. Women’s Open by 12 strokes, on the way to five titles and her sixth AP Female Athlete of the Year Award.
In 1955, the pain in her spine became unbearable. She died of cancer at in 1956, the age of 45, in Galveston, Texas.
The skinny teenager, who was shy and socially immature, could win at any sport she tried. She frequently antagonized her fellow competitors, but became a poised, well-dressed, graceful, and very popular champion. She was the darling of the galleries, and did much to popularize golf as her drives whistled down the fairways. Paul Gallico said of her, “Much has been made of Babe Didrickson’s natural aptitude for sports, as well as her competitive spirit and indomitable will to win. But not enough has been said about the patience and strength of character expressed in her willingness to practice endlessly, and her recognition that she could reach the top and stay there only be incessant hard work.”
Some believe she did achieve her dream of becoming the greatest athlete who ever lived.
If you ever find yourself driving through Beaumont, Texas, on I-10 take a few minutes and stop in a the Babe Zaharias Museum.
O, Lord, Our Lord, How excellent is your name in all the earth! Psalms 8:9
Captain Nancy Aldrich