The Incredible Babe Didrikson-Zaharias Part 2: You Can’t Win Them All

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Jean Shiley and her scissor-kick style

She was a bolt out of the blue in 1932. Mildred Didrikson, nicknamed “Babe” because she could wallop a baseball, was suddenly a track and field phenomenon. She had single handedly dominated the US Women’s track and field championships that year. At the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, she had won gold in the 80-meter hurdles and the javelin throw. So as she prepared for the high jump competition, the press, the crowd in the stadium, and people all over America were expecting to see Babe Didrikson win her third gold medal.

But another American, Jean Shiley, was not going to just let Babe take it. Shiley from Pennsylvania was actually known at the time as the world’s best high jumper, but at the Los Angeles Olympics, she was playing second fiddle to the Babe. The masses wanted Babe to win her third gold medal. But athletes who knew Didrikson….not necessarily. Here’s how Shiley described her predicament in the book, Tales of Gold:

The women’s track and field events ran for a week, and at the Games Babe was the Sun King. On Sunday she won the javelin. Then on Wednesday she won a controversial decision in the hurdles. By that time the crowds were all behind her. They have their heroes and heroines. And the newspapers got into it, too. The following Sunday was the high jump, and the night before all the girls were in my room telling me, “You’ve got to do it. You’ve got to do it.” Oh, boy, they were really putting the pressure on me.

In the end, the crowd got to see Didrikson and Shiley face off for gold. The world record holder in the high jump, Lien Gisolf of the Netherlands, could not clear 1.6 meters. Then Canada’s Eva Dawes succumbed to the height of 1.62 meters, her efforts winning her the bronze medal. Both Didrikson and Shiley would go on to clear 1.62 meters, and set a world record at 1.65 meters, only for both to fail three times to clear 1.67 meters (5 ft 5 inches).

The rules of the time required a jump-off, a sudden death competition to clear a height incrementally higher than 5 ft 5 in . First the bar was raised another inch to 5 ft 6 in (1.676 meters). Shiley knocked the bar off its supports. Didikson barely cleared the bar with her body only to have her leg tap the bar and knock it off in her descent. So the bar was lowered to 5 feet 51/4 inches. Shiley soared higher in competition than she ever soared before, and lept over the bar. It was now up to the Babe, who lept and made it safely across. A tie…again.

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Babe Didrikson and her Western roll style

But then something strange happened. According to the book, Babe Didrikson Zaharias: The Making of a Champion, Didrikson was said to have made an illegal jump.

Then Babe ran toward the crossbar and leaped off the ground, kicking up her feet and rolling in midair as she went over the bar. It was another tie – or was it? The judges huddled. According to Olympic rules then in effect, a high jumper had to clear the bar feet first. If the jumper went over the bar head first in a “dive,” the jump was disqualified. The judges ruled that Babe had dived. The first-place gold medal went to Jean Shiley, the silver to Babe Didrikson.

The rules at the time stated that the jumper’s feet must cross the bar first, which is why most athletes, including Shiley, employed a scissor-kick style. But Babe’s style is what was called the Western roll, a popular style where one’s arm and head, face down, are essentially the first parts of the body over the bar. Why was this ruling strange? Because Didrikson, as the press pointed out, had been jumping that way the entire competition. If the judges were going to rule her jumps illegal, they should have done so from the first jump.

The ruling stood, and according to Shiley, Babe was seen in the public as a victim, cheated out of her third gold, while Shiley was the villain. In the end, Shiley said she understood, knowing that Didrikson inspired great emotion in others. She in fact considered Babe to be the Muhammad Ali of her time in her egocentric confidence. She also considered Didrikson to be a fun person to be with, and a friend.

Babe Didrikson inspired either great enthusiasm or great dislike. At that time, even though they competed in sports, girls were to be young ladies, and I think a lot of girls found her behavior a little beyond how they thought a young lady should act. The Babe was very brash, and she bragged a lot, but she was also very humorous, especially when she wasn’t getting all the attention. She’d pull a harmonica out of her pocket and start to play it just to get attention. And nobody did anything better than she did. I don’t care if it was swallowing goldfish; she would have to swallow more fish than anybody else. It wasn’t Muhammad Ali who started this “I’m number one” stuff. Babe started it.

She was just so different from all the rest of the girls that it grated on their nerves. It could have been jealousy. That’s the way Babe was, and it bothered some of the girls, but it didn’t bother me. I was captain of the 1932 team, and I had to represent all of the girls. I had been on the 1928 team, and I learned that there are a lot of people in the world, and they are very different and very interesting. So Babe didn’t bother me; in fact, she and I became friends and remained so even though we’re two entirely different people.