"Before I was even out of grade school, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. My goal was to be the greatest athlete that ever lived."
Born Mildred Ella Didriksen on June 26, 1913 (some sources say 1911, 1912, or 1914), in the gritty Texas oil town of Port Arthur, Babe Didrikson Zaharias was the daughter of Hannah Marie Olson and Ole Didriksen, a carpenter and furniture refinisher who immigrated to the United States from Norway in 1905 and was joined three years later by his wife and three oldest children. Four other Didriksen offspring, including Babe, followed in quick succession. (Babe later changed the spelling of her surname from Didriksen to Didrikson.) Providing for such a large family was difficult, and all the Didriksen kids were expected to find jobs as soon as they were old enough. As a seventh grader, Babe spent her after-school hours working in a fig-packing plant. Later, she landed a better-paying job sewing potato sacks.
Despite their hardscrabble life, the Didriksens always made time for athletics. Hannah had been known as a fine skier and ice skater in her native Norway, and Ole placed a great value on exercise and physical fitness. While nearly all of their children showed a natural athleticism, it was Babe who very early on was "the best at everything." So powerful was her baseball swing that playmates in her hometown of Beaumont, Texas, shortened her childhood nickname "Baby" to "Babe" in honor of the great Babe Ruth.
Starts professional career
She first went out for organized sports in high school, taking up basketball, baseball, golf, swimming, tennis, and volleyball. (She was barred from trying out for the football team.) Her highly competitive nature and determination to excel alienated many of the other students, and as a result Babe had few friends. But her talent on the basketball court quickly gained her statewide recognition, and in 1930, during her last semester in high school, she accepted an offer to join a team sponsored by the Dallas-based Employers Casualty Company. At that time, many large businesses throughout the South and Midwest financed sports teams made up of outstanding women athletes who spent part of their time doing office work—usually at a fairly good salary—and the rest of their time involved in a variety of professional sports. Babe played her first game with the Employers Casualty team the very night she arrived in Dallas and thrilled spectators by singlehandedly outscoring the entire opposing team.
In the off-season, Babe was a member of Employers Casualty teams in swimming, diving, and track. The latter sport in particular fascinated her; although she had never even been to a track meet before moving to Dallas, she practiced to the point of exhaustion in an effort to master the necessary skills, establishing a pattern she would follow for the rest of her life. Within just a few months she had set new national records in the javelin (spear) and baseball throws and regional records in the shot put (a contest where participants see who can throw certain objects the farthest), the high jump, and long jump. At the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) women's track and field championship in 1932, Babe competed as a one-woman team and took six of the eight events she entered, accumulating by herself nearly twice as many points as all twenty-two members of the second-place team and thus securing a spot in the upcoming Olympics. Awed by the lopsided victory of this swaggering, tough-kid athlete who seemed determined to show up everyone, the media showered Babe with attention and dubbed her "the wonder girl."
Gains fame as Olympic athlete
It was at the Olympics, however, that Babe Didrikson truly became a national sensation. Competing in three events, she set world records in the javelin throw and the eighty-meter hurdles and was bumped from first to second place in the high jump only after judges objected to the fact that her head crossed the bar before her feet. (This style of jump was later legalized.) In recognition of her performance in the AAU championships and at the Olympics, the Associated Press (AP) named her 1932's Woman Athlete of the Year.
While she was still in Los Angeles after the Olympics, Babe picked up a golf club for the first time. Although her overall game was rough and uneven, she amazed the men she was with by outdriving them on virtually every hole. Convinced that she had found yet another sport at which she could excel, Babe decided then and there to become a golfer. Before she could afford to take the time to master the game, however, she had to put aside enough money to support herself and her elderly parents. To that end, she spent several years during the early to mid-1930s on the promotional circuit, making personal appearances, playing in exhibition games (she once suited up with the New York Rangers hockey team and also pitched for a few major league baseball teams during spring training), and even doing a vaudeville act. At one point, she briefly went back to work for Employers Casualty, then left to play on a traveling basketball team known as Babe Didrikson's All-Americans. Later, she joined the House of David baseball team, a traveling group of long-haired, bearded men who belonged to a cult-like Christian brotherhood. Since most of these activities were purely for show and had little to do with real competition, Babe was criticized by people who thought they reflected poorly on her achievements as an amateur athlete.
Marries the wrestler Zaharias
In 1934 Babe quit most of her touring and returned to Texas, where she once again took a job with Employers Casualty. The company paid for her golf lessons at a local country club, and by November of that year, she felt ready to enter her first tournament. Eliminated in first-round play, she buckled down and started working on her game six days a week and, six months later, won the Texas Women's Amateur Championship. Her success caused quite a stir in the world of ladies' golf, a refined sport of wealthy women who resented the aggressive, rough-edged outsider. Because of Babe's past involvement in professional sports, they also complained about her amateur status and eventually persuaded the United States Golf Association (USGA) to disqualify her. Since there was only one professional ladies' golf tournament in existence at the time, Babe returned to promotional work—this time strictly as a golfer—and ended up sharpening her own game by playing in exhibition matches with some of the best male golfers in the world. At one such match in early 1938, she was teamed up with wrestler George Zaharias, nicknamed the "Crying Greek from Cripple Creek." The two immediately hit it off and were married on December 23 of that year. Zaharias subsequently quit wrestling (which had already made him a wealthy man) and from then on skillfully managed his wife's career.
Determined to compete again in the amateur ranks, Babe reapplied to the USGA in 1940 and was finally reinstated after a three-year waiting period during which she could not accept money for playing golf or for commercial endorsements. To pass the time, she continued to take golf lessons and also took up tennis, which she dropped when she was ruled ineligible to play in amateur matches. She then turned to bowling and quickly excelled at that, too.
Cofounds the LPGA
In 1943 Babe reentered golf as an amateur, thus launching what was to become the most spectacular winning streak in the history of the sport. By late 1947, she had won seventeen straight tournaments, including the Western Women's Open in 1944 and 1945 (an event she had also won in 1940 as a professional, making her the first three-time winner), the National Women's Amateur, and the British Women's Amateur, considered the premier women's match in the world. (A victory there had always eluded American players until Babe came along.) Acknowledging her total domination of the sport, AP named her Woman Athlete of the Year in 1945, 1946, and again in 1947. Her fame led to dozens of new promotional offers, so in late 1947 Babe decided to give up her amateur status.
Two years later, determined to make tournament play more profitable for professional women golfers, she cofounded the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA). By lining up corporate sponsors, the LPGA was able to set up more tournaments and provide larger cash prizes. Babe herself became the star of the tour during its first few years of existence, winning more tournaments and taking home more prize money than anyone else. Her involvement lent credibility to the young organization, to professional women's golf, and to women's athletics in general. In 1950 AP named her the Outstanding Woman Athlete of the Half Century.
Diagnosed with cancer
Late in 1952, Babe began to feel exhausted all of the time and even lost several tournaments. She finally went to the doctor the following spring, was diagnosed with rectal cancer, and successfully underwent surgery. Returning to tournament play just a few months later, she did poorly at first but kept at it and started to win again in early 1954, taking top honors at five competitions. Her unexpected comeback earned her AP's Outstanding Woman Athlete of the Year award for the sixth time. Fulfilling a promise she had made to herself in the hospital, Babe also began doing promotional work for the American Cancer Society, making radio and television spots, appearing at local events in towns where she was playing golf, and establishing a fund for research.
Babe continued golfing into early 1955 but grew steadily weaker and eventually ruptured a disk in her back. She played in terrible pain through several tournaments before submitting to another operation, at which time doctors discovered that the cancer had invaded her spine. She retired from the tour in mid-year and died a little more than a year later, on September 27, 1956, in Galveston, Texas.
In a Sports Illustrated article published shortly after her death, longtime friend and admirer Paul Gallico paid tribute to the woman he called "a champion of champions" as much for her athletic prowess as for the bravery she displayed during her fight against cancer. "It may be another 50 or 75 years before such a performer as Mildred Didrikson Zaharias again enters the lists," he declared. "For even if some yet unborn games queen matches her talent, versatility, skill, patience and will to practice, along with her flaming competitive spirit, ... there still remains the little matter of courage and character, and in these departments the Babe must be listed with the champions of all times."
- Cayleff, Susan E., Babe: The Life and Legend of Babe Didrikson Zaharias, University of Illinois Press, 1995.
- Lynn, Elizabeth A., Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Chelsea House, 1989.
- New York Times, September 28, 1956; September 29, 1956, p. 19; September 30, 1956, p. 86.
- Reader's Digest, October 1954, pp. 50-55.
- Sanford, William R., and Carl R. Green, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Crestwood House, 1993.
- Saturday Evening Post, September 20, 1947; June 25, July 2, July 9, July 16, July 23, 1955.
- Sports Illustrated, October 8, 1956, pp. 66-68.
- Time, October 8, 1956, p. 92.
- Zaharias, Mildred Didrikson, This Life I've Led, Barnes, 1955.