Mildred Ella "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias (1911-1956)

babe didrikson zaharias

Mildred Ella “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias was one of America’s foremost female athletes and is particularly well-known for breaking ground in women’s golf. She was born Mildred Ella Didrecksen on June 26, 1911 in Port Arthur, Texas. She was the sixth of seven children born to a pair of Norwegian immigrants. (It should be noted however that in Didrikson’s autobiography she says she was born in 1914; all other sources, including her tombstone, cite the year as 1911. She also changed the spelling of her last name to Didrikson.) In 1915 her family moved to Beaumont and young Mildred began her amateur career in sports. Once she started playing baseball with the neighborhood boys and hitting home runs, she picked up the nickname “Babe,” after Babe Ruth. She was an athletic prodigy from childhood; there wasn’t a sport Babe wouldn’t try and excel in. She was especially good at basketball; however, Beaumont High School thought she was too small to play and only let her join the team starting her junior year. Babe’s moves on the court caught the eye of Colonel Melvin J. McCombs, the manager of the athletic program at Employers Casualty Company in Dallas. She joined the company team in 1929 and played until 1932. She won the honor of ‘All American’ every year.

Ever since Babe read about the 1928 Olympics in her father’s newspapers, she decided that she would one day compete in the Olympics in track and field. Every day she would train with her sister, jumping hedges in the neighborhood. During the qualifying trials she made the cut in five events, but women were only allowed to participate in three. At the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, 21 year-old Babe Didrikson won two gold medals and one silver. She received a gold medal for the javelin throw, setting a new world record at 143 feet. The next day she set a new world record (breaking her own) of 11.7 seconds in the 80-meter hurdles to win another gold medal. After a much-debated tie for first in the high-jump (at 5’5”), the judges ruled that her technique was illegal and disqualified her; Didrikson ended up with the silver medal.

Didrikson is probably best known for her achievements in golf. She won 82 tournaments over her golfing career. She took up golf in 1933 and was considered a professional because she gave advertising endorsements. At the 1938 Los Angeles Open Babe met her future husband George Zaharias, a wrestler and part-time actor from Colorado. The couple had a speedy courtship: they announced their engagement on July 22, 1938 and were married on December 23 of the same year. Zaharias eventually became his wife’s manager. Four months after they married, George surprised her by whisking her away to Australia by way of Hawaii. The vacation was well-deserved, but typical of the power couple, he lined up an exhibition for her to play golf in Australia. Babe’s sparkling reputation was international.

In 1943 Didrikson was awarded amateur status as a golfer, which enabled her to play in a wider range of tournaments. Between 1943 and 1947 (when she turned professional again) she won 17 amateur tournaments in a row. It was during this time that she became the first woman to win the British Women’s Amateur Golf Tournament. In the 1940s women’s professional involvement in golf was relatively limited. George Zaharias suggested that they create a professional women’s tournament circuit. Ever the dynamic team, George worked to find financial backers while Babe worked with fellow golfer Patty Berg to co-found the Ladies Professional Golf Association in 1949. Berg was the president the first year, after which Didrikson held the position for the rest of her life. In 1950 the Associated Press voted Babe Didrikson Woman Athlete of the Half-Century.

In 1953 Didrikson was diagnosed with cancer and underwent a colostomy. With characteristic resilience, she returned to enter the Tam O’Shanter “All-American” golf tournament a mere three months after the surgery. This was an important tournament for her because it was a chance to prove to spectators (and to herself) that she still had what it took to play professional golf. She rejoined the tour in the following January but it wasn’t until the Serbin Women’s Open in February that she started winning tournaments again. She won her last tournament, the 1955 Peach Blossom Open, but was forced to pack up her clubs because of crippling pain. Didrikson did not yet know that the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. After battling her disease for over three years, Mildred Ella “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias passed away on September 27, 1956 at John Sealy Hospital in Galveston, Texas.

 

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Books:

  • Babe Didrikson Zaharias tells her own story: This Life I’ve Led. As told to Harry Paxton. New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1955.
  • Freedman, Russell. Babe Didrikson Zaharias: The Making of a Champion. New York: Clarion Books, 1999.

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