Babe Didrikson Zaharias

On July 31, 1932, Babe Didrikson won a gold medal in the javelin throw. On August 3rd and 4th, she ran in the 80-meter hurdles heats and then finals, winning her second gold medal. And on August 7, she battled Jean Shiley to the very end, losing the gold to Shiley on a rule violation.

Somewhere in that week, between July 31 and August 7, Didrikson found time to join three sportswriters for a game of golf at the Brentwood country Club. Famed writer, Grantland Rice, was one of the party of four that played the links with Didrikson, who had never played golf before. According to Rice, Didrikson carded a 91, and hit drives of 250 yards.

After the Olympics, Didrikson’s star shining brightly, Babe showed off her various skills in the vaudeville circuit, barnstormed with a basketball team, and generally played to adoring crowds. In 1935, she began to play golf more seriously, even competing in the all-male Los Angeles Open in 1938. It was at a golf tournament that year when Didrikson met a wrestler named George Zaharias, whom she married later that year.

In the 1940s, Babe Didrikson dominated women’s golf. In one stretch in 1946 and 1947, Didrikson won 14 golf tournaments in a row, including the first time an American had ever won the British Women’s Amateur Championship. To this day, Babe’s streak stands as the greatest in golf history.

In 1950, at the peak of her career, there were only about six tournaments a year for women. Using her influence to round up corporate sponsors, Didrikson formed a new pro tour called the Ladies Professional Golf Association, or the LGPA.

George Zaharias and Babe Didrikson

In 1953, Didrikson was diagnosed with cancer and had surgery, which had a positive effect. She would go on to win the 1954 Women’s United States Open by twelve strokes, and became an inspiration to millions. But the cancer would return, as would operations and more golf, until finally, on September 27, 1956, the world’s greatest female athlete passed away.

As mentioned by her fellow Olympic teammate, Jean Shiley, Babe was the boyish, brash, I’m-number-one-preaching-Muhammad-Ali of her time. The New York Times noted in her obituary that as her golf career took off, she began to dress in more feminine wear, embraced her marriage with Zaharias, and even became accustomed to mentoring younger golfers.

But as a top player and drawing power in golf, her attitude and demeanor changed. The once lonely tomboy became a social success. She developed into a graceful ballroom dancer and became the life of many a social gathering. She was too skillful at gin rummy for most and at times, to change the pace at a party, she would take out a harmonica and give a rendition of hillbilly tunes she had learned as a youngster.

This change was the cause of a more convivial feeling toward her by rivals. In her younger days her desire to win had served to toughen her as far as any opponent was concerned. But in her later days, instead of goading her rivals with, “Yep, I’m gonna beat you,” she began encouraging the younger girls on the golf circuit.

Mildred “Babe” Didrikson at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics

Role models are essential, particularly to groups under-represented.

In the first half of the 20th century, women around the industrialized world were told that exerting themselves too much in sports would not only be unlady-like, it might be bad for their health.

In America, one woman refuted those assumptions, brashly.

Babe Didrikson was the female version of Jim Thorpe. Whatever sport she took up, she did very well, often better than most others, female or male. She was an exceptional diver, bowler, baseball player and roller skater. Out of high school, she was the star on the Employers’ Casualty Insurance Company of Dallas women’s basketball team.

At the national track and field championships in 1932, the one that would determine participation in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, Didrikson won an amazing six events – the broad jump, the shot put, the javelin, the 80-meter hurdles, the baseball throw, as well as tying for first in the high jump – all in a three-hour period. Her individual total points of 30 was greater than the next best team score of 22 points, accumulated by 22 athletes.


At the 1932 Olympics, Didrikson would win two gold medals and a silver and become one of the sensations of the Los Angeles Games.

And she was just getting started.

Packing star power, Didrikson was able to get paid in ways that other female athletes could only dream of: singing and playing the harmonica on vaudeville, doing so while hitting plastic golf balls into the delirious audience…making thousands of dollars per month, a king’s ransom in those days.

In 1934, Didrikson began to play golf seriously, and went on to become the best female golfer in the world, wining 82 golf tournaments as an amateur and a professional. For one stretch in 1946 and 1947, she won 14 straight gold tournaments. Her influence was so great that she co-founded the LPGA – the Ladies Professional Golf Association.

But she was a pioneer, so she had to do so under challenging conditions. People around her and the press in particular would call her gender in to question, openly telling her to stay home. “It would be much better if she and her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up and waited for the phone to ring,” one sports columnist wrote in the New York World-Telegram.

What is surprising, according to this New York Times article, is that the great Mildred “Babe” Didrikson, who was named “Woman Athlete of the Half Century” in 1950, is little known today, her museum in Beaumont, Texas, rarely visited.

While girls who like sports today have a growing number of female role models in the 21st century, one of the greatest took the world by storm some 70 to 80 years ago. And this Babe is worth a look.