Babe (real name Mildred) Didrikson always strove to be the best at any activity she undertook. Insecure, she figured sports was a great way to build up herself and her self-esteem. She got that right! She excelled at every sport she tried: running, jumping, javelin throwing, swimming, basketball, and baseball to name just a few. In her prime, she was so famous that she was known around the world by her first name.
Babe had a supportive home environment for the sporting life; her mother, Hannah Marie Olson, was a figure skater. Babe’s family was loving, but they had a tough time making a living in the hardscrabble Texas town from whence they hailed. As a youngster in the twenties, Babe worked after school packing figs and sewing potato sacks at nearby factories, but somehow she still found time to play. No matter what the game, Babe was always better than the boys.
In high school, Babe tried out for basketball, baseball, golf, tennis, and volleyball; her superior athletic skills created a lot of jealousy among her peers. A Dallas insurance company offered her a place on their basketball team; Babe worked at the firm, finished high school, and played on the team. In her very first game, she smoked the court and outscored the other team all by herself. Fortunately for her, Employers Casualty also had track, diving, and swim teams. Track held a particular lure for Babe; she set records almost immediately in the shot put, high jump, long jump, and javelin throw. In 1932, Babe represented the Lone Star State as a one-woman team, and out of eight competitions she took awards for six. In 1932, Los Angeles was the site of the Summer Olympics; Babe drew the eyes of the world when she set records for the 80-meter hurdles and the javelin throw. She would have won the high jump too, but the judges declared her technique of throwing herself headfirst over the bar as unacceptable. There is no doubt she would have taken home even more gold except for the newly instated rule setting a limit of three events per athlete.
For Babe, making a living was more important than the accolades of the world. Unfortunately the options for women in professional sports were extremely limited in the 1930s. She made the decision to become a professional golfer; although she had little experience, she took the Texas Women’s Amateur Championship three years later. In typical Babe Didrikson style, she went on to win seventeen tournaments in a row and also took part in matches against men, including a memorable match against the “crying Greek from Cripple Creek,” George Zaharias, whom she married in 1938. Babe quickly saw the need for equality in women’s golf and helped found the Ladies Professional Golf Association. Babe died at forty-three, after making a stunning comeback; she won the US Open by twelve strokes less than a year after major surgery for intestinal cancer. She is thought by many to have been the greatest female athlete of all time.
“It’s not enough to swing at the ball. You’ve got to loosen your girdle and really let the ball have it.”
— Babe Didrikson Zaharias