Thursday, June 13, 2024

Running for Gold: The “Babe” who made a great comeback

As the summer Olympics approach this year, it’s appropriate to remember “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias, who won 3 medals, the maximum for women, in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. She later went on to co-found the Ladies Professional Golf Association, and she never shied away from controversy.

Mildred Ella Didriksen was born in Port Arthur, Texas, in 1911. She later changed the ending of the family name to “son” and she embraced the nickname of “Babe” after she was compared to the great Babe Ruth.

Why is she considered such a great athlete?

Even as a young girl, Babe excelled in sports. The family had moved to Beaumont, Texas, where she played basketball, tennis, and golf while in high school. Her ability caught the attention of a Dallas insurance company’s basketball coach. In those days, businesses often fielded various semi-professional sports teams.

With five children, the family struggled financially and, since Babe struggled with math and was an average student, she left school early to do clerical work for the Employers Casualty Insurance Company. She competed on the company’s basketball, baseball, and track and field teams, which dominated the other 48 Texas company teams.

Photo: Colorado Women's Hall of Fame

Babe won five events and set several world records during the U.S. qualifying competition for the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. At that time, women could compete in no more than three Olympic events. She received a gold medal for her world-record javelin throw. The next day, she broke her own world record in the 80-meter hurdle, winning another gold medal. She tied for first in the high-jump, but the judges disqualified her technique and awarded her the silver medal instead.

Following the Olympics, Babe sought to earn a living as an athlete, and even pitched four innings for three different major league baseball teams during spring training of 1934.

But opportunities were limited for women in sports at that time. She decided on golf and began to play in men’s tournaments. She became popular for her long, powerful drives and off-color banter with the fans. Socialites, and sometimes even the media, frowned on her unorthodox behavior on the golf course. One biographer said, “She was criticized for her look; she was criticized for not being ladylike enough. There were comments made in the press, that she should be home sitting by the phone, waiting for a suitor to call her as opposed to being out competing. It was very harsh, negative, critical things. And they hurt her deeply.”

Photo: Associated Press

However, her friends said Babe cared more about winning than what people thought of her. She was known for arriving at the golf course and announcing, “The Babe is here! Who is going to finish second?”

She met George Zaharias, a professional wrestler, during the 1938 Los Angeles Open, and they married in December that year. He gave up wrestling and became Babe’s manager.

In 1949, she joined with several other women golfers to form the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA). While Patty Berg served as president the first year, Zaharias became president the next year and held the position for the remainder of her life.

During her career, she won 82 tournaments, including 17 of 18 she entered in 1946-47. In 1950, the Associated Press voted her the Woman Athlete of the Half-Century. By that time, she reportedly was earning $100,000 (about $1 million in today’s dollars) annually from tournaments and endorsements.

Photos: Associated Press

She excelled in other sports, too, including swimming, football (at halfback), billiards, tumbling, boxing, wrestling, fencing, weight lifting, and adagio dancing, according to Time magazine, as well as tennis, diving, roller-skating, and bowling, according to other sources.

Undoubtedly, Zaharias played a major role in the acceptance and rise of women’s golf. But perhaps her greatest achievement was winning her third U.S. Women’s Open championship in Salem, Massachusetts in 1954, about 18 months after colon cancer surgery. She played 36 holes on the last day of the tournament while wearing a colostomy bag strapped to her leg, and won by 12 strokes. A Telenews announcer called it “one of the most inspiring comebacks in all of sports history.”

The cancer had already spread to her lymph nodes, though Babe did not know it at that time. She died less than 3 years later, on September 26, 1957. The following day, then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower opened a press conference by paying respects to “Mrs. Zaharias, Babe Didrikson. She was a woman who, in her athletic career, certainly won the admiration of every person in the United States, all sports people over the world, and in her gallant fight against cancer she put up the kind of fight that inspired us all. I think that every one of us feels sad that finally she had to lose this last one of all her battles.”

At the turn of the century, Associated Press and Sports Illustrated named Babe Zaharias the top female athlete of the entire 20th Century. Because she was so proficient in so many sports, some have called her the “greatest athlete, male or female, who ever lived.”

Her legacy lives on through the LPGA, through every woman who challenges accepted norms in sports or other pursuits, and through every person who faces cancer with courage and refuses to give up.


The Triumph Of Her Life (
Babe Didrikson Zaharias: The ‘greatest all-sport athlete’ who helped revolutionize women’s golf | CNN

Multi-award-winning author Marie Wells Coutu finds beauty in surprising places, like undiscovered treasures, old houses, and gnarly trees. After a career writing for newspapers, magazines, state and local governments, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, she returned to her first love—writing fiction—in her fifties. All three books in her Mended Vessels series, contemporary stories based on the lives of biblical women, have won awards in multiple contests. She is currently working on historical romances set in her native western Kentucky in the 1930s and ‘40s. Her historical short story, “All That Glitters,” was included in the 2023 Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction collection.

Another historical short story tells of a cafe waitress who waits for the love of her life to come back to her after the war. “A Song for Annie” is available free when you sign up for Marie's newsletter here. In her newsletter, she shares about her writing, historical tidbits, recommended books, and sometimes recipes.

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