Updated: Feb 5, 2021
A Tribute to One of the Greatest Athletes the U.S. has ever produced, Male or Female
I’m inspired by those who perform incredible feats, but what really impresses me resides in their character. Babe Didrikson Zaharias presents not only an incredible athlete of diverse accomplishments (basketball, baseball, track & field, golf), but a study in fierce character. She was named “Woman Athlete of the Half Century” by AP in 1950. She once homered five times in a childhood game of baseball in her hometown of Beaumont, TX.
Born Mildred Ella Didrikson on June 26, 1911 she approached life with courage and an incredible work ethic. Although her childhood nickname was baby, it morphed into Babe after the five-homerun game – when “baby” became “Babe” -- named after the greatest baseball player alive, Babe Ruth. She was so good at baseball that she once pitched in an exhibition game for the Major League St. Louis Cardinals against the Philadelphia Athletics.
When she turned her full attention to track and field in the 1930’s, with her eyes on the Olympics, the results were nothing short of epic. At the National Women's AAU Track Meet in 1931, she won first place in eight events and was second in a ninth. In 1932, as the focus intensified ahead of the Olympics, she captured the championship, scoring 30 points. Amazingly, the Illinois Women's Athletic Club, which included a team of 22 women, placed second with 22 points. Superwoman indeed!
At the 1932 Olympics, she broke four world records (Javelin, 80-meter hurdles (twice), and the high jump.) The latter record-breaking performance was disallowed and awarded the Silver Medal. Sportswriter Paul Gallico commented at the time, "the most talented athlete, male or female, ever developed in our country."
Not content with her achievements, Babe took up golf and became the greatest female golfer of her age. Anyone who has taken up golf seriously later in life can attest to its innate difficulty. Not so for Babe Didrikson Zaharias! After her Olympic career ended and she took up golf full time, her characteristic work ethic created incredible performance. Famously, she would strike 1,000 balls a day, take lessons for 5-6 hours at a time, train until her hands blistered and bled. Golf rewards emotional resilience: patience and mental strength play an equal part in success.
Her phenomenal focus, concentration and athletic ability propelled her to new athletic heights. She won 18 consecutive tournaments from 1946-47, won a total of 82 from 1933 to 1953. She was the first American woman to win the Ladies British Open in 1947. On one hole of the event, she drove the ball so far that a spectator intoned under her breath that “She must be Superman’s sister.”
After an incredible health scare in 1953 that seemed sure to end her career (cancer operation), she returned to competition the next year and captured the Women’s U.S. Open by twelve strokes! That level of domination is reminiscent of another storied U.S. Open Champion: Tiger Woods at Pebble Beach in 2000.
And the timeframe is important as well. Contrast Babe’s courageous feat with the equally impressive character displayed in the same time frame as Ben Hogan’s famous return to golf after his near fatal car crash in 1949. You may remember that he returned to golf a short eleven months later and captured the U.S. Open at Merion in Ardmore, PA in June 1950.
On September 27, 1956, she finally succumbed to cancer at the age of 45 in Galveston, Texas. One of the greatest tributes paid her comes, once again, from the Sportswriter Paul Gallico who wrote, "Much has been made of Babe Didrikson's natural aptitude for sports, as well as her competitive spirit and indomitable will to win. But not enough has been said about the patience and strength of character expressed in her willingness to practice endlessly, and her recognition that she could reach the top and stay there only by incessant hard work."
In this series of posts themed, A History of Inspiration, I highlight the characteristics of incomparable statesmen, stateswomen, athletes, musicians, artists, writers, activists. Babe truly sticks out for me given her incredible work ethic, patience, energy and flare for attacking her goals with energy.
Larry Schwartz, writing for ESPN once opened a tribute to Babe by stating “The first to prove a girl could be a stud athlete…” I love the hard tact reference, although I hardly think Babe Didrikson was the first stud female athlete, the spirit of his description is dead on. Babe was a stud! And I love that quote: “she must be Superman’s Sister.” Or, perhaps more apt: She must be Superwoman!