BABE-Mildred Ella Didrikson Zaharias
World’s Greatest Female Athlete – A brief history by Babe Didrikson Zaharias Foundation
It has been said that she got the name “Babe” from her family, as well as a reference to “Babe” Ruth, after she played a good baseball game. Her last name was originally spelled Didriksen, but was changed at some point. There have been many discrepancies in her story, mostly because of her affinity for exaggeration and a good show. The records presented here are believed to be complete and true.
Babe was born in Port Arthur, Texas on June 11, 1911 (not 1914 as she claimed in her auto-biography) and died on September 27, 1956, at 45. She is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Beaumont, Texas. She played every sport offered for girls at Beaumont High School, and her record stands at the top for athletic versatility. She set records in track and field, was an All-American in basketball, mastered tennis, played organized baseball with the House of David, and was an expert diver, roller-skater and bowler. She also spent a short time in 1933 performing on Vaudeville. She was called “Wonder Girl” by Grantland Rice after her performance in the 1932 Olympics, and he did a short film of her talent that can be seen at the museum. She eventually focused on golf, at his suggestion, and went on to be declared by Bobby Jones as one of the 10 best golfers of all time. While she was playing golf, she was paired with George Zaharias, and they were married a short time later on December 23, 1938. They lived in Denver and Tampa, but traveled all over the world so Babe could play golf.
Babe was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1953 and had surgery involving a colostomy on April 17, 1953, in Beaumont. She became one of the first public figures to openly discuss her cancer in an attempt to spread awareness about the disease. In 1955, had back surgery and by 1956, the cancer has spread. She died at John Sealy Hospital in Galveston. Since her death (and some while alive) there are books, plays, and even a movie made about her. The Babe Didrikson Zaharias Foundation, along with George Zaharias raised money for a museum which was completed in 1976. The most recent book is Wonder Girl by Don Van Natta Jr. It is probably the most accurate, complete and well written story of her life and is available at the museum and online.
Employer’s Casualty Company (ECC) and American Athletic Union (AAU)
Women’s sports in the 1920s & 30s were often company and AAU sponsored events. Babe played for ECC’s basketball team the “Golden Cyclones” and was named All-American in 1930, 1931, & 1932. When she wasn’t playing basketball, she was on their track and field team. In 1930, in the national AAU in Dallas, she won the javelin and baseball throw. In 1931, in the national AAU in Jersey City, Babe was the leading scorer with three wins – long jump, baseball throw (world record at 296’) and 80m hurdles (national AAU record of 12 seconds). In 1932, Babe won the national women’s AAU/ Olympic tryouts by herself, with 30 points. It has been declared to be the greatest single achievement in a series of events in the history of athletics. The Illinois Women’s Athletic Club finished 2nd, with 22 contestants. She entered eight of the 10 events, excluding only the 50 & 220yd dashes. She won the 8 lb. shot put with 39’6 ¼”; baseball throw (for the third year in a row) with 272’2”; javelin with 139’3”; 80m hurdles in 12.1 sec. She tied Jean Shiley in the high jump with 5’3½”, and each were given a half gold/half silver medal. In the 80m hurdles she won one heat with 11.9, which was 0.1 seconds better than her previous world record. She finished fourth in the discus.
In earning her place on the 1932 Olympic team, the 5’7”, 115 pound girl qualified for five events, but was only allowed to enter three. She won two gold medals for javelin (143’4”) and 80m hurdles (11.7 sec.) She tied Jean Shiley for the high jump with an Olympic record of 5’5¼” (sometimes recorded as 5’5”), but because of her “western roll” style jump, which had never been questioned before, she was awarded the silver medal
Track and Field
80 METER HURDLES –1931 AAU record of 12 sec, not broken for 18 years. 1932 Olympic/world record of 11.7 sec until the 1936 games.
JAVELIN – 1932 AAU record 139’3” and Olympic record throw of 143’4”, which stood until the 1936 games.
HIGH JUMP – 1932 Olympic/world record 5’5¼” held with Shiley for 6 years worldwide, 16 years as an Olympic record, and 23 years as a U.S. record.
LONG JUMP – 1930 unofficial world record of 18’8” because in the same AAU meet, Stella Walsh jumped ½” farther.
BASEBALL THROW – 1931 AAU/world record of 296’ still stands today, since the event was discontinued in 1957.
- American to win the British Women’s Amateur
- Woman to win both the British and U.S. Women’s Amateur (1947)
- Woman to win the Western Women’s Open three times (as an amateur and professional)
- And only woman to qualify (so far) for the Los Angeles Open, a men’s tournament (1938)
She was voted the World’s Greatest Woman Athlete of the First Half of the 20th Century, in a poll conducted by the Associated Press (AP), and the only athlete to be named Woman Athlete of the Year by the AP six times, in 1931, 1945, 1946, 1947, 1950, and 1954. She was awarded the Sports Illustrated “Female Athlete of the 20th Century – Individual Sports.” She has been inducted into too many halls of fame to note here.
Golf is the Game
She reached great heights in golf and is known as the player who did more than any other to popularize women’s golf. Babe is a member of the Ladies Golf Hall of Fame and Helms Athletic Foundations Golf Hall of Fame. In her career, Babe won 82 golf tournaments, including amateur and professional. A pioneer of the LPGA tour, playing in the days when tournaments were few, she won 31 events before she died and was the leading money-winner on the tour for four years in a row – 1948 through 1951. In 1948, she won the All-American Open, World Championship and the U.S. Women’s Open. In 1950, she won the All-American Open, World Championship, U.S. Women’s Open, Titleholders, 144-hole Weathervane and Women’s Western Open. In 1951, she won the All-American Open, World Championship, Ponte Vedra Open, Tampa Open, Fresno Open, and Texas Open. She had to win the World Championship 3 times in order to keep the “Dead Head” Trophy, but she actually won it four times in 1948, 1949, 1950, and 1951. It is now on display in the museum. She is one of two players (Louise Suggs) to win both the U.S. Women’s Amateur and U.S. Women’s Open. In the 1954 Women’s Open-Salem – set a record of 12 shots as the biggest victory margin that has been tied, but not broken. She won the Vare Trophy in 1954 with a 75.48 average. The Babe Zaharias Open was started in her honor in Beaumont in 1953-1955. Babe won the first event and played in all three.
Babe claimed to win 17 tournaments in a row
She actually won these 3 in 1946:
- Trans-Mississippi-Denver, beat Polly Riley in finals, 6 & 5.
- Broadmoor Invitational-Colorado Springs, beat Dot Kielty 6 & 4.
- All-American Championship at Tam O’Shanter, 310 (medal play).
She had one loss, then her 14 amateur victories in a row from 1946-47 are:
- U.S. Women’s Amateur-Tulsa, beat Clara Callender Sherman 11 & 9 for the biggest margin in the history of the tournament.
- Texas Women’s Open, beat Betty Hicks 5 & 3.
- Tampa Women’s Open, won by five strokes.
- Helen Lee Doherty Women’s Amateur-Miami, beat Margaret Gunther 12 & 10. Qualified eight below women’s par with 68 and four under men’s par. Babe was only one stroke off the men’s record for the course.
- Florida Mixed Two-Ball, Partnership with Gerald Walker, won on 31st hole.
- Palm Beach Women’s Amateur, beat Jean Hopkins, 1 up.
- Women’s International Four-Ball-Hollywood, FL, with Peggy Kirk, beat Louis Suggs and Jean Hopkins in 18 hole playoff, 4 & 2.
- South Atlantic Women’s Championship-Ormond Beach, FL beat Peggy Kirk 5 & 4.
- Florida East Coast Women’s Championship-San Augustine, beat Mary Agnes Wall 2 & 1.
- Women’s Titleholder-Augusta, overcame 10 stroke lead by Dorothy Kirby to win with 304, by five strokes.
- North and South Women’s Amateur- Pinehurst, beat Louise Suggs on 2nd extra hole.
- National Celebrities in Washington, DC
- British Women’s Amateur-Gullane, Scotland, beat Jacqueline Gordon.
- Broadmoor Match Play, beat Dot Kielty 10 & 9.
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