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Babe Zaharias

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Mildred Ella Didrikson Zaharias
(Babe)

[edit] Biographical Information

Babe Didrikson Zaharias is considered the greatest female athlete of the first half of the 20th century. She was successful in just about every sport she tried, including baseball, although it was well down on her list of accomplishments.

She was born Mildred Ella Didrikson (sometimes spelled "Didrickson" and originally "Didriksen") in Port Arthur, TX in 1911 in a family of immigrants from Norway. The family moved to Beaumont, TX when she was five years old after a hurricane devastated Port Arthur, leaving behind a trail of death and destruction. She dropped out of high school because of poor grades, but she had a talent for sports that could not be denied. She moved to Dallas, TX to work for an insurance company as a secretary, having in fact been hired to play basketball for the company team, leading it to the Amateur Athletic Union national championship in 1931. She also practiced track and field and in 1932 set world records in 8 events, including the javelin throw, 80-meter hurdles and high jump. In that year's US amateur championship, she single-handedly won the team competition against a runner-up team numbering 22 athletes. In the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, CA, she won two gold medals, for the hurdles and javelin, and a silver in the high jump competition. She only lost that third gold medal because her last - winning - jump was discounted on a technicality in the rules. She had in fact qualified for five events, but women were limited to competing in a maximum of three that year.

She was famous, but there were few opportunities for female athletes to earn a living at the time, so she sought all sorts of different options. These included playing professional pocket billiards (a form of pool), playing on a touring basketball team which she led, and also a stint playing baseball for the House of David team. Other sports she practiced (and mastered) include tennis, bowling, swimming and diving. She also tried her hand at vaudeville.

On March 20, 1934, she got to pitch one inning for the Philadelphia Athletics in a spring training exhibition game against the Brooklyn Dodgers. She gave up a walk and no hits. Two days later, she pitched another inning, for the St. Louis Cardinals, facing the Boston Red Sox, but was less successful, giving up 3 runs on 4 hits before being relieved by Bill Hallahan. On March 25th, she played for the New Orleans Pelicans against the Cleveland Indians, throwing two scoreless innings and lining out in her only plate appearance. Even facing the highest level of competition in men's baseball, she held her own.

In 1935, she settled on golf as her main sporting event and quickly became a legend on the links. Outclassing female competition by leaps and bounds, she was able to qualify for the 1938 men's Los Angeles Open. That is where she met her husband, golfer and pro wrestler, George Zaharias, whom she married later that year. She was the leading woman golfer in the United States (and by default in the world) through the 1940s and the early 1950s and would continue to play male PGA events over the years. As an amateur, she won the 1946 US women's amateur championship and 1947 women's British Championship, and won 13 consecutive tournaments at one point. She then turned professional and dominated the WPGA and its successor, the LPGA, which she helped found, for years. She became ill in the mid-1950s, being diagnosed with colon cancer in 1953. After undergoing an operation, she made a comeback in 1954, but the disease returned in 1955 and she passed away the following year, at age 45.

In 1999, the Associated Press named Babe the greatest female athlete of the 20th century and Sports Illustrated ranked her second on its list of the greatest female athletes of all time the following year, behind Jackie Joyner-Kersee. She had been named the Associated Press's female Athlete of the Year six times.

[edit] Further Reading

  • Babe Didrikson Zaharias: The Life I've Led: My Autobiography, A.S. Barns & Co, New York, NY, 1955.
  • Don Van Natta, Jr.: Wonder Girl: The Magnificent Sporting Life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias , Little, Brown & Company, New York, NY, 2011.

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