Babe Didrikson: Breaking the sports barrier
Babe Didrikson was one of the greatest all-around athletes of all time, no mean feat given that she was a woman competing when gender discrimination was quite normal.
Named as the “Woman Athlete of the Half Century” in 1950 by the Associated Press after their constant selection of her as their “Woman of the Year,” Didrikson was known for her skills in basketball, track & field, and golf.
She also had an intimate yet secret relationship with fellow golfer Elizabeth “Betty” Dodd despite being married to wrestler George Zaharias.
Babe Didrikson: Born unstoppable
Mildred Ella Didrikson was born on June 26, 1911 in Port Arthur, Texas to parents Ole Didrikson and Hannah Marie Olsen, both hailing from Norway.
She lived an active life as a child– whether by helping the family through part-time jobs or by being competitive in sports with her brothers.
“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,” she said.
After attracting a coach’s attention while playing girls’ basketball at her senior high school, she quit school and got a job at the Employers Casualty Company in Dallas so she could play with their team, the Golden Cyclones.
She led them to the national championship for the next three years and was selected as All-American within that same period.
Babe Didrikson: A champion every time
Moving on to track and field, she captured first place in eight events and second in a ninth during the National Women’s AAU Track Meet in 1932 as the lone member of the Employers Casualty team.
“Implausible is the adjective that best befits the Babe. As far as sports are concerned, she had the golden touch of Midas,” wrote the New York Times about her exploit.
She went on to the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics where she broke four world records and made a world record high jump (though it was later disallowed and she got second place).
She started playing in 1931 and joined her first golf tournament in 1934. She didn’t win, but got into the qualifying round. In 1935, she won the Texas State Women’s Championship golf tournament .
She even pitched an inning for the St. Louis Cardinals playing against the Philadelphia Athletics during an exhibition game.
Babe Didrikson: Love & legacy
She married a professional wrestler named George Zaharias in 1938 but they couldn’t have children.
With the support of her husband as her business manager, trainer and promoter, Babe focused on golf such that she became the first American woman to win the British Ladies’ Amateur Championship in Gullane, Scotland.
Within that same year, she turned professional and dominated women’s golf for the next six years. In total, she won 17 tournaments from 1946 to 47 and 82 tournaments from 1933 to 1953.
In 1938, she was the first woman to enter the all-male Los Angeles Open but missed the 36-hole cut. She was a founding member of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA).
In 1950, she met Betty Dodd, who first became her close friend and then her lover. Eventually, Betty moved in with Babe and George.
In 1953, Babe had a operation for colon cancer but was still able to compete after, winning the United States Women’s Open in 1954.
She died in 1956, but not before establishing the Babe Didrikson Zaharias Fund for cancer clinics and treatment centers.
Then-President Dwight Eisenhower paid tribute to her, saying that Babe had “put up one of the kind of fights that inspired us all.”