Babe Didrikson Zaharias, the mostly forgotten groundbreaking sportswoman
July 15, 2014 9:01 AM   Subscribe

Mildred Ella "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias has, in many ways, become America's all-but-forgotten sports superstar. You might have seen the round brick museum built in her tribute as you zip along Interstate 10 in Beaumont, Texas (Google maps), or remember she ranked #10 on the ESPN SportsCentury top 50 athletes of the 20th century, but that was back in 1999. So if this is all news to you, here's a bit more about Babe.

From Muscle Moll to Queen of the Greens: The Effects of American Society and the Sports Media on Babe Didrikson Zaharias during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s Anne Marie Pippin
Babe's ascent to the pinnacle of the sports world was preceded by the decade of the "Golden Age of Sports" in which sports solidified into an integral part of American consumer society, becoming an indispensable part of the daily newspaper. This helped to set the stage for Babe's emergence as a prominent woman athlete during the 1930s and her complex relationship with the media. Critical research regarding women athletes and the media has been minimal to this point, making this examination significant to the understanding and education of an overlooked aspect in the history of women's participation in sports.
Didrikson was a woman ahead of her time by Larry Schwartz, special to
The first to prove a girl could be a stud athlete, Babe Didrikson began as a muscular phenom who mastered many sports and ended as a brilliant golfer. An exuberant tomboy whose life was athletics, she was accomplished in just about every sport - basketball, track, golf, baseball, tennis, swimming, diving, boxing, volleyball, handball, bowling, billiards, skating and cycling. When asked if there was anything she didn't play, she said, "Yeah, dolls."

As a teenager she knew her life's ambition. "My goal was to be the greatest athlete who ever lived," she said.
Sports Records/Olympic Sports: Babe Didrikson
Her track career was brief but brilliant and her performance at the 1932 AAU [Amateur Athletic Union] meet remains among the greatest in sporting history. In the space of 2½ hours she competed in eight events, winning four of them outright and finishing equal first in another. As the only representative of her club, Employers Casualty AA of Dallas, she won the national team championship with the powerful Illinois Women's AC, who fielded more than 20 athletes, in second place. At the end of the day the score was Didrikson - 30 points, Illinois - 22 points. At the 1932 Olympics, Babe opened her Olympic campaign by winning the javelin on her first throw with a new Olympic record, she then equalled the world record (11.8) in the heats of the 80 meter hurdles and the following day brought the record down to 11.7 as she took her second gold medal. Finally she placed second in the high jump after a controversial jump-off with Jean Shiley.
The first fabulous sports Babe from ESPN's Classic Sports
Following the 1932 Olympics, there were no outlets for a woman with Didrikson Zaharias' abilities. The world's best female athlete had no place to play.

Didrikson's gender forced her to become a spectacle, but by showing off her skills in a variety of sports exhibitions, her legend only grew.

"Joe DiMaggio said that he hit against Babe Didrikson Zaharias when she was pitching for the House of David," said Bert Sugar. "Struck him out on three pitches -- overhand fastball."
National Women's History Museum: Mildred Ella "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias (1911-1956)
Didrikson is probably best known for her achievements in golf. She won 82 tournaments over her golfing career. She took up golf in 1933 and was considered a professional because she gave advertising endorsements. At the 1938 Los Angeles Open Babe met her future husband George Zaharias, a wrestler and part-time actor from Colorado. The couple had a speedy courtship: they announced their engagement on July 22, 1938 and were married on December 23 of the same year. Zaharias eventually became his wife's manager. Four months after they married, George surprised her by whisking her away to Australia by way of Hawaii. The vacation was well-deserved, but typical of the power couple, he lined up an exhibition for her to play golf in Australia. Babe's sparkling reputation was international.
Babe Didkrikson Zaharias and the Cold War Politics of Gender Geoff Smith
But Babe Zaharias was also in important ways an anti-hero, unable and unwilling to embrace proprieties deemed necessary for athletic role models. Certainly in her long, subterranean relationship with sister golfer Betty Dodd, which developed after her marriage soured, she anticipated the alternative sexual lifestyles of tennis stars Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova and many other bisexual, lesbian, and gay athletes who faced censure from defenders of the predominantly masculine national security culture. Because of this relationship, which Babe neither avowed nor admitted, she lived a public life at odds with private reality.
Enough writing, let's get to some action! Sadly, there isn't a ton of footage of Babe online, and the longest video that is online seems to be this copy of a VHS recording of the Babe Didrikson Zahaias episode SportsCentury (part 1 of 3 - stop watching at the 10 minute mark, because the rest is ads and a repeat of a portion of this segment; and 3 of 3, which is a very short ending clip).

Here's a newsreel that opens with a 3 minute biographical piece, covering the life of Babe Didkrikson Zaharias, through her battle and death due to cancer.

Then there's this mostly silent 3 minute video that collects clips from throughout Babe's career.
posted by filthy light thief (13 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Fantastic post! She's also one of the seven in the great book Letter to the World: Seven Women who Shaped the American Century.
posted by Melismata at 9:10 AM on July 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

"All but forgotten" seems like an overblown claim--and, indeed, a claim largely disproven by the wealth of commentary that this very FPP links to.
posted by yoink at 9:12 AM on July 15, 2014

For what it's worth, I only knew of her after seeing her museum while stuck on I-10, then looking for more information.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:18 AM on July 15, 2014

"All but forgotten" seems like an overblown claim...

I was going to say the same thing. If anything, Didrikson is the go-to personality whenever anyone needs to include a woman athlete in some sports-related list/event/commercial/event.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:24 AM on July 15, 2014

Sorry, flt, that came across as more GRAR-y than I meant it to. I don't like to think of anyone calling Babe "all but forgotten" because I think she's pretty fantastic and I've always thought of her as one of the C20th great sports icons. But it's probably fair to say that she's nowhere near as famous as she ought to be. One of the problems for her, of course, is that she was ahead of her time; she wasn't working in a framework where there were many clearly defined benchmarks for female sporting prowess. If she'd come along a few decades later she'd be LPGA champion for X-many years or she'd have been on Wheaties boxes for her Olympic gold medals etc.
posted by yoink at 9:28 AM on July 15, 2014

Beaumont, woot!
posted by resurrexit at 9:29 AM on July 15, 2014

What I know of her came from this TV movie, Babe, from 1975.
posted by Xoc at 9:30 AM on July 15, 2014

I lived in Beaumont as a kid, and only really knew her because we played soccer in the fields behind the museum. Now that I think about it, makes sense that a large portion of the property near her museum would be dedicated to sports.
posted by Badgermann at 9:33 AM on July 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I read more than one biography of her as a kid -- she was definitely a personal hero. I haven't read any articles about her in ages, though, so I'm looking forward to going through the links! (Much like Babe did in later life.)
posted by asperity at 9:48 AM on July 15, 2014

I wouldn't say forgotten, but I do think she's drifted way out of the zeitgeist. I don't know how many 20 year olds would know her name, for example.
posted by tavella at 1:30 PM on July 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

From wikipedia: "The Zahariases had no children and were rebuffed by authorities when they sought to adopt." What's that all about? They were just too unconventional for the times?
posted by lagomorphius at 1:38 PM on July 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

lagomorphius, I'm not seeing adoption mentioned in any of the books available to search on Google preview, and most articles have copied the line about being "rebuffed by authorities" with that exact language. This is the only page I've seen with a different bit of text, which says "They did not have any children, but tried to adopt a child. However, they were unable to do so, because the rules were too strict during that time period."

Though this doesn't mention adoption, here's a write-up (Google books preview) that mentions a miscarriage and mixed stories on if Babe ever really wanted kids of her own.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:40 AM on July 16, 2014

Excellent post. I first discovered Babe's existence from her appearance in the Hepburn/Tracy movie Pat and Mike, where she appears to be more or less playing herself.
posted by McCoy Pauley at 7:13 AM on July 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

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