But Babe Didrikson was much more than a good sandlot baseball player. In fact, when it came to athletics, there was little she couldn’t do. More on her career in a moment.
Mildred “Babe” Didrikson is shown at right on a 1933 Sports Kings chewing gum trading card, one of the few artistic renderings of her in action, in this case, jumping over a high hurdle.
The rendering is taken from a 1932 Associated Press photo shown later below. Unfortunately, her name is incorrectly spelled on the trading card, using a “c” in her family name where none is needed.
Still, the Sports Kings card is quite rare and desirable among collectors. The Sport Kings series of trading cards was released by the Goudey Gum Co. of Boston, Massachusetts in 1933 and 1934. This particular series featured 48 athletes from a cross-section of sport, among them: swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, football star Red Grange, boxer Max Baer, hockey icon Howie Morenz, and baseball immortal Babe Ruth. Highly prized by modern sports card collectors, the original Sport Kings cards today are among the most popular sets of sports trading cards.
Babe Didrikson was born in June 1914, at Port Authur, Texas. She was the sixth of seven children born to Ole and Hanna Marie Didrikson. Ole Didrikson was a ship’s carpenter who had sailed the world’s oceans many times before settling down. He encouraged his young daughter to partake in sports. As a child, among other things, she spent time jumping hedges, a skill that would later come in handy in her track and field endeavors.In Texas as a teenager, Babe excelled in all kinds of sports. Bea Lytle, a phys ed teacher in the local high school who taught there for 50 years, remarked to Sports Illustrated some years later that Babe was unique. “I can still remember how her muscles flowed when she walked.” Lytle explained. “She had a neuromuscular coordination that is very, very rare—not one of the 12,000 girls I coached after that possessed it….” Babe led her high school basketball team, and also began to play golf around that time. But she first came to national attention when she played for a Dallas-based, industrial league basketball team that won the national Amateur Athletic Union championship. In 1929, she was named an All-American basketball player. But then came track and field.
Between 1930 and 1932, at 16-to-18 years old, Didrikson compiled records in five different track and field events. In one remarkable display of her athletic abilities, she won a 1932 national amateur track meet for women, a team event, all by herself. On July 16, 1932, at the AAU track and field championships in Evanston, Illinois., Babe was the lone representative of Employers Casualty Insurance Company of Dallas, where she worked as a typist. At the Illinois meet, which was also the tryout for the Olympic games, she was competing against company teams of 12, 15, and 20 or more women.
According to one account, when Didrikson was introduced in Evanston, she ran onto the field by herself waving her arms wildly as the crowd gasped at the audacity of this “one-woman track team.” Still, Babe won five of the eight events she entered – shot put, baseball throw, long jump, javelin, and 80-meter hurdles. She tied for first in a sixth event, the high jump. In qualifying for three Olympic events, she amassed a total of 30 team points for Employers Casualty. In a single afternoon Didrikson had set four world records, taking first place overall in the meet and scoring more points than the next best finisher – an entire women’s athletic club – the Illinois Women’s Athletic Club, scored 22 points, with 22 athletes.
At the 1932 Olympic games in Los Angeles – which ran from July 30 to August 14th at the L.A. Coliseum – she qualified for five Olympic events, but women were then only allowed to compete in three. She won gold in the javelin, the first ever for a female in that event, making a throw of 143 feet 4 inches and setting a world record. She also took gold in in the 80-meter hurdles with a time of 11.7 seconds.
In the high jump, she won the silver medal behind Jean Smiley, though they each broke the world record. Babe, in fact, cleared the high-jump bar at a world-record height, and would have won that event too, except for her technique – clearing the bar headfirst– ruled ineligible (later known as the “Fosbury flop” and legal).
Newspapers of the day recognized Babe’s prodigious Olympic feats. One headline read: “Babe Gets Praise on Coast; Is Called the Greatest Woman Athlete of the World.” Sportswriter Grantland Rice, after her Olympic Games performance, was quite the admirer: “She is an incredible human being. She is beyond all belief until you see her perform…” Rice believed she was in a category all her own, with few rivals. Associated Press would name her Woman Athlete of the Year in 1932 – a distinction she would win five more times. In the press she was also called “Wonder Girl” and “super athlete.”
Yet in 1932, the participation of women in the Olympics was a hotly debated topic. In fact, many then believed that competitive athletics was strictly for men only. Still, in the summer and fall of 1932, following the Olympics, Babe Didrikson became famous throughout the land.
On August 11, 1932, at her return home from the Olympics, she arrived on the mail plane. Coming into Dallas, a crowd of thousands awaited to greet her. At her reception in the city she was introduced by a local official as “the Jim Thorpe of modern women athletes.” The crowd cheered. One of her hometown newspapers in Beaumont, Texas, The Enterprise, marked the occasion with these headlines: “World-Famous Babe Is Given Tumultuous Dallas Welcome Amid Ticker Tape Showers—She Tells of Having Picture Taken With Clark Gable.”
At one point, Babe met Amelia Earhart, who was then doing some of her less known long-distance flights and wanted Babe to join her believing that Didrikson’s name might bring notice to those attempts. Didrikson remained earth-bond, however, and after the Olympics hysteria wore off, Babe faced a harder reality. She found there was little money in her athletic fame, especially for those in amateur athletics – and doubly so for women. And the country at the time was also mired in the Great Depression.Within five months of her Olympic success, Didrikson, needing a job to maintain her amateur athlete status, continued working for Casualty Employers Co. of Dallas Texas, also her sponsor. But Babe was told that with her fame she could make good money – if she became a professional. Though skeptical, by December 1932 she decided to become a professional, but not exactly a professional athlete.
Not long thereafter, she helped the Chrysler Corporation promote its Dodge cars. Welcomed in Detroit by Mayor Murphy, Babe appeared at the Detroit Auto show and worked at the Chrysler display booth chatting with visitors and signing autographs. Chrysler also lined up an advertising man to organize bookings for her. He arranged some stage appearance for Babe on the RKO vaudeville circuit, one of which was at the Palace Theater in Chicago, where “Babe Didrikson” had top billing on the marquee and was given the top star’s dressing room.
On stage, Babe traded opening jokes with a companion comedian, did a track-star type skit, and played a few tunes on a harmonica. Audiences loved her act, and fans lined up for blocks to see her, not only in Chicago, but later in Brooklyn and Manhattan in New York.
Although making good money on stage – as much as $2,500 a week in New York, then a small fortune – Babe wanted to be outdoors. After a week or so on the Vaudeville circuit, she cancelled her remaining bookings and decided to look for some way to use her athletic skills.
She then turned to performing at various competitive exhibitions – from billiards to a few appearances with a professional women’s basketball team. She would also master tennis, and became an accomplished diver, a good swimmer, and a graceful ballroom dancer. She also excelled at sewing, and reportedly made some of her own clothes. But in the press, after her athletic fame emerged, she began to be criticized for her manly ways. A 1932 Vanity Fair article, had called her a “muscle moll” and other accounts cut even deeper.
By March 1933, however, she decided to take up golf, a sport she had dabbled in a few times and had played some in high school. But now she thought about golf more seriously, and went to California to take lessons from a young golf pro named Stan Kertes. She worked on developing her golf game for six months until she ran out of savings, then went back to her old $300-a month job at Employer’s Casualty in Dallas.In Dallas, she also played on a traveling basketball team called “Babe Didrikson’s All Americans.” The team included mostly men and one or two other women, and played some 90 games all around the country. Babe earned about $1,000 a month on the tour, which in those times was good money.
By spring of 1934, it was on to baseball in Florida during spring training – where Babe would pitch an exhibition inning or two working with professional teams such as the Brooklyn Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Athletics, and other teams. In these contests, Babe was paid a certain amount of money per inning, as the teams were using her as a publicity stunt. But in these outings, Babe also met the famous players of that day, including Jimmie Fox, Dizzy Dean, and Babe Ruth — with whom she struck up a long standing friendship.She also pitched for a touring Christian baseball team called the House of David, again in exhibition, and pitching an inning or two, but making decent money in the process – $1,500 a month or more. During this time, she also kept up her golf practice and returned when necessary to her job at Casualty Employers Co. The president of that company also bought her a membership in the Dallas Country Club and paid for her golf lessons there.
In 1934, Babe also made the next move in her athletic career: she entered the Texas Invitational Women’s Golf Tournament at Forth Worth. Babe didn’t win that tournament. But the following year, in the spring of 1935, she entered the Women’s Texas Amateur at the River Oaks Country Club in Houston, one of the state’s finer clubs. And it was here that she began to confront country club elitism. As Sports Illustrated writers William Oscar Johnson and Nancy Williamson would observe in 1975:
…Babe had to crack…Texas golf society. She had no pedigree, coming as she did from a dead-end neighborhood in Beaumont, no money and not much social grace. Her gold medals from the 1932 Olympics counted for little among the country-club set, and her fame had already faded. There was only her golf game, at that point strong but scarcely smooth. When she entered the Texas event, a member of the Texas Women’s Golf Association named Peggy Chandler declared, “We really don’t need any truck drivers’ daughters in our tournament.”But Babe prevailed to win the tournament. Although Chandler had taken the lead in that outing, Babe mounted a fierce comeback, including a blistering a 250-yard drive, some impressive chip shots, and hitting out of a rain-soaked rut to eagle on the 17th to win the match. Peggy Chandler, however, had her revenge, successfuly petitioning the U.S. Golf Association to revoke Babe’s amatuer status since she had particpated in professional sport exhibitions. Still, there was a lot more exciting golf to come at the hand of Babe Didrikson.
By 1937 she was getting the attention of male golfers for the drives she was making during an exhibition tour of the Southeast. And at the Pinehurst Golf Course in New York where she was practicing for an exhibition match in November 1937, one reporter noted that she “astounded the critical Pinehurst Galleries by hitting the ball 260 yards off the tee on the championship courses.”
In January 1938, she decided to make a try for men’s competitive golf, aiming for the Los Angeles Open, a men’s Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) tournament. This was a feat no other woman would attempt until Annika Sörenstam, Suzy Whaley, and Michelle Wie took up the challenge some 60 years later. In the 1938 L.A. tournament, Babe was teamed up with George Zaharias, a former professional wrestler who she would later marry. In the PGA tournament, meanwhile, she shot 81 and 84, and missed the cut.In December that year, Babe Didrikson, then 25 years old, married George Zaharias, 29, who became her biggest supporter. Thereafter she was known as Babe Didrikson Zaharias or Babe Zaharias. George abandoned his own lucrative wresting career in order to manage and promote Babe’s career.
Babe won the Women’s Western Open in 1940, and after gaining back her amateur status in 1942, she won the 1946 U.S. Women’s Amateur and the 1947 British Ladies Amateur – the first American to do so. She also won the Women’s Western Open in 1944 and 1945.
In July 1944, Time magazine wrote that Babe had “popped back into the sports pages by winning a major golf tournament,” trouncing a 20-year-old college girl in the finals of the Women’s Western Open at Chicago. “As usual,” wrote Time, “Babe’s booming drives were seldom in the fairway, but her recoveries were so phenomenal that she had 14 one-putt greens in 31 holes.” By then, her husband, George Zaharias, who often accompanied her to her golf matches, was running a custom tailoring establishment in Beverly Hills, California next door to Babe’s women’s sport clothing store.In 1947, Babe won the Tampa Open and Titleholders Championship and became the first American to win the prestigious British Women’s Amateur Championship. In the previous year — from April 1946 to August 1947 – she won an unprecedented 17 consecutive tournament titles, a record that still stands?? By this time, 1947, she had once hit a golf ball over 400 yards and was averaging 240 yards on her drives. Asked how in the world a woman could possibly drive a golf ball 250 yards down the fairway, Babe explained, “You’ve got to loosen your girdle and let it rip.” In addition to her power off the tee, she was also known for having soft touch around the greens. She was also a favorite among fans in the gallery, gaining cheers for her play and laughter for her jokes and banter.
In 1948 and 1950s, she won the Women’s Open. In 1950, along with Patty Berg, she founded the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA). Few professional tournaments then existed for women, so Babe and several other women golfers set about establishing the LPGA to introduce more paying tournaments. Gradually, with sponsorship monies from sporting goods companies, the women’s tour increased its purses and credibility, with a growing number of women able to eke out a living in golf.In 1950, Babe had one of her best years when she completed the Grand Slam of the three women’s majors: the U.S. Open, the Titleholders Championship, and the Women’s Western Open. She also lead the money list that year and became the fastest LPGA golfer to reach 10 wins, doing so in one year and 20 days, a record that still stands as of 2013.
Later, in 1950, she was named AP’s Woman Athlete of the First Half of the Twentieth Century. In 1951, she won the Tampa Open and was also the leading money-winner that year. In 1952 she took another major with a Titleholders victory, but illness prevented her from playing a full schedule in 1952-53. Then in 1953, still at the top of her game, she was diagnosed with cancer, and for a time it was thought she might give up the game. She had surgery in April 1953.Yet just three and a half months after an excruciating colostomy operation, she was back on a golf course again, competing in Chicago’s Tam O’Shanter All-American championship. She didn’t win, but it was a miracle she was even out there. Still, she kept on. Ten months after her operation, in early 1954, she won the Serbin Tournament in Florida, and that same year she won the U.S. Women’s Open at Salem Country Club in Peabody, Massachusetts by an amazing 12 strokes.
Babe was on a mission by this time to give encouragement to others who were battling cancer. She used her celebrity to get the message out. She appeared as a guest on ABC’s TV show, The Comeback Story, explaining her attempts to battle colon cancer. But Babe had not been told the full extent of her own cancer, as she had believed she would beat the disease. Still, she became a spokesperson for fighting the disease, helping the American Cancer Society. In late 1955, however, her cancer reappeared and she was hospitalized again. With her, in the corner of the room, were her golf clubs, as they had been during her previous hospital stays.By June 1955, her autobiography, titled This Life I’ve Led, as told to Harry Paxton, was published by A.S. Barnes & Co.,. That summer, the Saturday Evening Post began running parts of the book in installments. “The warmly human story of a valiant American woman,” said the Post in a top corner cover inset for its June 25, 1955 issue, featuring the book’s title along with a small photo of Babe with a golf club raised above her head.
Didrikson continued to crusade against cancer, and spoke openly about her illness in an era when most public figures preferred to keep their medical troubles private. She battled her cancer to the end, but succumbed to the disease in September 1956. She was 45 years old.
Eisenhower’s Praise. On the morning she died in a Galveston, Texas hospital, President Dwight D. Eisenhower began his news conference in Washington with this salute: “She was a woman who, in her athletic career, certainly won the admiration of every person in the United States, all sports people all over the world, and in her gallant fight against cancer, she put up one of the kind of fights that inspire us all.”The sportswriter Grantland Rice once said of her, “The Babe is without any question the athletic phenomenon of all time, man or woman.” Charles McGrath, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, wrote in 1996: “She broke the mold of what a lady golfer was supposed to be. The ideal in the 20s and 30s was Joyce Wethered, a willowy Englishwoman with a picture-book swing that produced elegant shots but not especially long ones. [Didrikson] developed a grooved athletic swing reminiscent of Lee Trevino’s, and she was so strong off the tee that a fellow Texan, the great golfer Byron Nelson, once said that he knew of only eight men who could outdrive her.”
Mildred Babe Didrikson Zaharias, in any case, had an impressive athletic career, stretching from her All-American basketball designation in the early 1930s and her record-setting Olympic achievements of 1932, to a prolific amateur and professional golf career that ran into the mid-1950s. Totaling both her amateur and professional golf victories, Babe won some 82 tournaments. Associated Press named her “Female Athlete of the Year” in 1932, 1945, 1946, 1947, 1950, and 1954.
“Babe, The Money Machine”
As Babe Didrikson rose to fame – both following her 1932 Olympics’ performance and during her golf career through the mid-1950s – she became something of a hot property for business and product endorsements. For some of the promotions, exhibitions, and advertising in which she engaged, Babe appears to have been a willing participant. But in other respects, those around her and those profiting from her – including her husband, George Zaharias; her business manager, Fred Corcoran; and the emerging professional women’s golf circuit – all commanded her attention, and in her later years, drove her into quite a frenetic pace of activity.Early in her career, following her 1932 Olympics fame, Babe Dirdrikson did a few product endorsements and her image was also used in some advertising as well, as in the 1935 Wheaties ad at right. She had also done product endorsements for Chrysler automobiles in the 1930s, as noted earlier. In fact, Didrikson may well have been the first traditional female athlete sought out for product endorsements. Later in her career, as she became famous in golf, her endorsements appeared on a number of products and her name and/or image appeared in print ads for Wilson Sporting Goods, Timex watches, and other products. Even after her death, her image was used in a mid-1960s magazine ad for New England Life Insurance. With Wilson Sporting Goods, Babe received an annual fee of $8,000 to advise the company and help promote their products. She also had a contract with the Serbin dress company, which made golf clothes for women, and another to promote the Weathervane line of women’s clothes produced by Alvin Handmacher, for a $10,000-a-year fee. Babe, who had made some of her own clothes as a young woman, pushed for comfortable sporting attire, helping design or co-design golf dresses, shirts, and shoes. Her clothing sponsorships also helped put her in a more feminine light.
During the latter stages of her golf career it was estimated she was earning more than $100,000 a year for exhibitions, endorsements, and other activities connected with sports. Sometimes, Babe would hype the amount of money she was getting paid for various events or contracts, as she did once for a movie deal for a series of instructional golf films, saying she would be paid $300,000, which was untrue, but widely reported nonetheless, helping to inflate her value. She also authored instructional golf articles occasionally and at least one book, Championship Gold. And in 1952, she also had a bit part in the Spencer Tracy / Katharine Hepburn film, Pat and Mike.One of her earliest golf equipment business relationships came in the 1930s with the P. Goldsmith & Sons sporting goods company of Cincinnati, Ohio. Advertising and sales promotion copy from this company to sporting goods retailers and others, touted a giant new American business that could flow from the fame and name of Babe Didrikson. One Goldsmith pitch to its customers announcing a new line of “Babe Didrikson Coordinated Golf equipment,” claimed the new line was “your oppprtunity for increased sales.” The promo explained that 70% of the 280,000 women golfers then in the market were using hand-me down, cast-off clubs. “Why not cash in on this potential market?,” asked the sales pitch. Babe Didrikson, the promo explained, “will sell this unsold 70% for you.” The piece continued to elabroate on its coordinated line of products: “Babe Didrikson Irons… Babe Didrikson Woods … Babe Didrikson Colf Balls.” The Goldsmith piece also inlcuded a sample print ad promising their customers “real advertising support” built around Babe’s image and fame. When Babe turned pro in 1947, there were few golf tournaments for women, and even when there were tournaments, the prize money was minimal. Her business manager, Fred Corcoran, booked her for golfing exhibitions at baseball parks in Boston, New York, Detroit, and elsewhere. Pre-game, Babe would put on a golfing clinic for the baseball crowds, where, according to one account, “she would drive balls out of sight.” And the fans loved it. She also participated in golf driving contests against celebrity male athletes, including one, for example, against Boston Red Sox star, Ted Williams in Sarasota, Florida. However, in her later years, between her work for sporting goods sponsors and attending events and exhibitions that her manager and husband booked for her, she was sometimes run ragged, even while playing a full golf schedule. Babe’s star power has also been credited with keeping the fledgling LPGA tour alive. She and Patty Berg were the founders of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) , but from the beginning the LPGA consisted of only a handful of members. Babe became the drawing card that enabled the money to flow to the LPGA, helping the organization and its tournaments to flourish. It became the richest women’s sports organization of its day. Babe’s golfing peers, however, were not always keen on Babe’s manner, her boasting, and her sometimes poor sportsmanship. But they recognized they needed her to keep things going. She was elected twice as LPGA president. And behind the scenes, Babe did work hard to line up sponsors, sometimes pushing relentlessly on business CEOs to become key supporters or tournament sponsors.
In 1975, a TV biography about her life and times titled Babe, starred Susan Clark as Babe and Alex Karras as George Zaharias. A number of books have also been written about her life and athletic career, a few of which are mentioned or pictured below in “Sources.”Later accounts examining her life found a somewhat more complex person than earlier reports had rendered. Toward the end of her career, Babe became quite close to a younger golfer also from Texas named Betty Dodd, nearly 20 years her junior. Dodd, in fact, came to live in the Zaharias household and tended to Babe, along with George, in her final days battling cancer. Babe was also, according to various profiles, more of a self-promoter than was generally known, prone to boasting and exaggerating her feats – although some say this could be confused with her sense of humor taken the wrong way. Still, she could be an “in your face” competitor, sometimes compared in her boasting to a later practitioner of that art, Muhammad Ali. Sports Illustrated writers William O. Johnson and Nancy Williamson noted her braggadocio at the 1932 Olympics using that comparison:
…She was producing her own myth in Los Angeles. The remarkable thing about Babe was that, like Ali, her body was able to accomplish the fantastic tasks her big mouth set for it. She put incredible pressure on herself by bragging. She was a wing walker, a daredevil who risked humiliation every time she went into an event in that Olympics. Her own teammates wanted her to be beaten, as the just reward for her bullying…
On the golf circuit too, especially in her younger years, she is reported to have shown up at the clubhouse exclaiming to competitors: “The Babe’s here! Who is going to finish second?” But more often than not, Babe found a way to win. Yet her considerable talents were augmented by lots of practice, to which she would readily admit. The formula for success is simple, she would say: “practice and concentration, then more practice and concentration.” Dutiful practice was the key, as she advised – “in any case, practice more than you play.” In her early days, she was known to hit golf balls for hours on end, until her hands bled or had to be taped.
But Babe Didrikson above all, was a determined soul; a person who persevered through tough times as a female athlete. Following her phenomenal Olympic rise, she rode something of a “fame-to-bust” roller coaster, also confronted by judgmental societal attitudes and personal digs from the press. She managed, however, to keep herself afloat economically during a Great Depression using her athletic skills in a variety of exhibitions until she found her golf calling. And once there, after dealing with some country club elitism and prejudice, she proceeded to change and enliven the game for the better, while in later years, opening doors for and encouraging younger female golfers who followed. And all the while, among her most steadfast supporters, was her hometown of Beaumont, Texas, where today the Babe Didrikson Zaharais Museum is found alongside the Babe Didrikson Zaharais Park.
For other sports stories at this website, please visit the Annals of Sport category page or go to the Home Page for additional story choices. Thanks for visiting — and please consider supporting this website. Thank you. - Jack Doyle
Date Posted: 17 April 2013
Last Update: 23 April 2013
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Jack Doyle, “The Texas Tomboy, Babe Didrikson,”
PopHistoryDig.com, April 17, 2013.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
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Associated Press, “Five First Places to Miss Didrikson; Dallas Girl Scores 30 Points to Win A.A.U. Championship for Her Team at Evanston,” New York Times, Sunday, July 17, 1932, Sports, p. S-1.
“Babe Didrikson Is Honor Guest at Luncheon,” Beaumont Enterprise, August 17, 1932.
“Sport: Golfer Didrikson,” Time, Monday, May 6, 1935.
“Babe at 30,” Time, Monday, July 3, 1944.
“Mrs. Zaharias Ousts Miss Casey In Denver Golf Tourney,” New York Times, Friday, July 12, 1946, Sports, p. 23.
“Whatta Woman,” Time, Monday, March 10, 1947.
Gene Farmer, “What A Babe!, Texas Tomboy is First U.S. Woman To Win British Golf Championship,” Life, Jun 23, 1947, pp. 87-90.
“Mrs. Zaharias Advances; Defeats Mrs. Reidel in Texas Open – Gets 6 under Par 69,” New York Times, Wednesday, October 13, 1948, Sports, p. 34.
Associated Press, “Mrs. Zaharias’ Course-Record 70 Leads Field at Tam O’Shanter; Star 2 Strokes Under Men’s Par in First Round…,” New York Times, Friday, August 4, 1950, Sports, p. 16.
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