What a babe
Fifty years ago last week an American woman died of cancer in Texas. She was arguably the best sportswoman ever, anywhere in the world. This is the amazing life of Babe Didrikson, who could run, jump, throw, hit, swim - and sew - better than anyone
Sunday October 1, 2006
You cannot help but feel just a little sorry for George Zaharias, even if he was a 20-stone wrestler with cauliflower ears. This is how Time magazine reported his wedding in 1939: 'Married. Mildred ("Babe") Didrikson, famed woman athlete, 1932 Olympic Games track & field star, expert basketball player, golfer, javelin thrower, hurdler, high jumper, swimmer, baseball pitcher, football halfback, billiardist, tumbler, boxer, wrestler, fencer, weight lifter, adagio dancer; and George Zaharias, heavyweight wrestler; in St. Louis.'
The marriage notice might have added that Didrikson was also expert at cooking, sewing - she won first prize at the 1931 Texas State Fair for her box-pleated dress - and harmonica playing. She once banked $3,500 for taking the harmonica on a seven-day stage tour before quitting because she 'had to get out and see the sky again'. Asked if there was anything she did not play, Didrikson shot back: 'Yeah, dolls.' At least Time spared Zaharias mention of his fighting name, 'The Weeping Greek from Cripple Creek'.
In fact it proved a successful, although childless marriage, with Zaharias managing Didrikson's extraordinary sporting life. His devotion was hinted at in a report of Didrikson's victory in the Women's Western Open golf event in Chicago in 1944. It said that he trailed his wife around the course, blew smoke from his cigar to show her the wind direction 'and rewarded her on the winning green with a mighty hug and a bouncing buss [kiss]'. Their partnership lasted right up until her early death from colon cancer on 27 September 1956. She was 45.
So varied were Didrikson's achievements and so long and colourful the list of wisecracks attributed to her, that it is possible to imagine that she was more vaudeville than serious sportswoman. Not a bit of it. Hers was an unprecedented mix of talent, commitment and showmanship. When she decided to devote herself to golf, she drove as many as 1,000 golf balls a day and kept going until her hands were so blistered they had to be bandaged. Golfing legend Bobby Jones said she was one of the 10 best golfers of all time, male or female. She won 17 tournaments in a row, including the British Amateur, US Amateur and All-American titles. This was after she won two Olympic titles at the 1932 Games in Los Angeles and was three times an All-American basketball player from 1930-32. She also pitched an inning during an exhibition baseball game for the St Louis Cardinals against the Philadelphia Athletics.
Didrikson, who was christened Mildred and became Babe because of Babe Ruth-like feats at baseball, was the sixth of seven children born to Ole, a Norwegian ship's carpenter, and his wife, Hannah. The first three Didrikson children were born in Norway; Babe and the other three arrived when the family settled in Port Arthur, Texas.
A scrap of a thing as a child - she grew to be 5ft 7in - she rebelled against femininity, calling women 'sissies who wore girdles, bras and that junk'. She exercised in the backyard on rudimentary gym equipment and using a weightlifting machine made from broomsticks and her mother's flatirons.
At the 1932 Amateur Athletic Union track-and-field championships, Didrikson was the sole representative of the Employers Casualty Insurance Co of Dallas and, on her own, won the team award by finishing first in six events, setting five world records (although not all of them in Olympic events). She was disgusted to be allowed to compete in only three events at the Olympics that followed. It was at these Games that the 21-year-old announced to a world audience her phenomenal ability and audacious line in patter. 'I am out to beat everybody in sight and that's just what I'm going to do,' she said when she stepped off the train in California.
Nearly as good as her word, she won the javelin comfortably, throwing 143ft 4in despite, she said, the spear slipping out of her hand; took the 80 metres hurdles by a whisker in a world record 11.7sec; and finished equal first in the high jump, clearing the same height of 5ft 5¼in, another world record, as compatriot Jean Shiley, but lost the title on a technicality. Her highly individual style - a cross between the western roll and the much later Fosbury flop - meant she went over the bar head first and so, the judges said, constituted an illegal dive. She was, though, allowed to keep the world record, awarded the silver medal and her jumping style was legalised soon afterwards.
Golf was what eventually claimed her, more or less, undivided attention. She was soon reeling off titles. One golf writer said of her play: 'She developed an aggressive, dramatic style, hitting down sharply and crisply on her iron shots like a man and averaging 240 yards off the tee. If a woman rival uses a six iron for a shot, Babe will likely as not use an eight out of sheer vanity. Once, when a man chivalrously offered her the honour in teeing off, she withered him with, "Naw, you better hit first 'cause it'll be the last time you get the honour - and you'd better bust a good one if you don't want to be outdrove 20 yards by a gal."'
Scottish fans had the opportunity to admire her mixture of awesome power and eccentric behaviour when she competed in the 1947 British women's amateur championship at Gullane, Lothian. She consistently outdrove her opponents by 50 to 100 yards and between rounds entertained the galleries with trick shots and her impressions of the Highland fling.
In the final, Didrikson wore a sweater and culottes, was wild on her long game and allowed Londoner Jacqueline Gordon to open a two-shot lead. At this point, Didrikson announced: 'I should have kept my lucky pants on.' She duly changed into her old blue corduroy slacks during lunch and won the championship on the 32nd green. As she went into a victory jig, a bystander asked her the secret of her success. Didrikson replied: 'I just loosen my girdle and let the ball have it.'
When she turned professional, she was chiefly responsible for establishing the women's pro game as part of the sporting scene in the US. An American sportswriter described why the galleries paid to watch her: 'Babe stalks the fairway with a conscious sense of theater. She flips king-size cigarettes into the air and catches them nonchalantly in her mouth, then lights her match with her fingernail. Her hawkish, sun-toughened face is frozen for the most part in a thin-lipped mask, but she knows when to let go a wisecrack. When one of her tremendous drives sails out of bounds, she turns to the crowd and explains, "I hit it straight but it went crooked"... She operates like a woman whose life is a constant campaign to astound people.'
The other pros understood her importance to the tour and admired rather than resented her success. One of them, Patty Berg, said: 'When I come in second to her I feel as though I have won. It's kind of like the Yankees. They're the champs and you want them to win.'
At the height of her golfing career, she played for 10 months of the year, earning more than $100,000 from playing, exhibitions, endorsements and TV and movie shorts. She and Zaharias set up home on a course, which they bought, near Tampa, Florida. A sign saying 'Home of Babe and George Zaharias' advertised its whereabouts.
Didrikson was said to take her housewifely duties as seriously as her golf, having first designed the house's interior. This included a modern, push-button kitchen, which, like the dining room, was painted a screaming yellow. 'Kinda loud,' she said, 'but you get used to it.' The only door in the house was to the bedroom where Zaharias slept in a double bed and Didrikson in a single. 'They clutter up the place,' she said, explaining the lack of doors.
Didrikson underwent a three-hour operation for cancer in the early summer of 1953, but was back playing competitively by August. On the practice tee, watched by hundreds of photographers, sportswriters and well-wishers, she walloped a drive 250 yards. 'Man, if I hit it any better it would kill me,' she said.
Three years later the cancer returned and she died shortly afterwards. Time printed the following: 'Died. Mildred Ella ("Babe") Didrikson Zaharias, sinewy, square-jawed Texas tomboy who played baseball with a House of David team, barnstormed nationally in basketball, boasted "Ah'm gonna lick you!" and did in 632 out of 634 women's athletic events in her teens, set records (later broken) in the 80-meter hurdles and javelin throw in the 1932 Olympics, discovered golf in 1931 and was soon outdriving men, won 56 major tournaments; after a three-year fight with cancer; in Galveston, Texas. Ranked by many the world's greatest woman athlete, Babe Didrikson dabbled expertly in most sports she did not star in (including boxing, football, swimming, pool, tennis), matured from a pugnacious girl into a talented housewife who could design her own clothes, won several golf tournaments (1954 Women's Open, Tarn O'Shanter) after being stricken with cancer in 1953.'