Babe Zaharias: a Trailblazer in Women’s Sports

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Babe Zaharias is a larger-than-life figure whenever she stepped on the tee.

“The formula for success is simple: practice and concentration, then more practice and more concentration.” – Babe Zaharias

The story of Babe Zaharias is an often-told narrative of a woman who, at the age of 43, defied a grim colon cancer diagnosis to win her third U.S. Women’s Open Championship and 10th major title – by a 12-stroke margin, no less. 

She still holds the record as the oldest woman to win the Women’s Open. Beating her initial prognosis and returning to the course was never an issue for the tenacious Zaharias, who didn’t mind her doubters. 

That determination and relentless drive she showcased, even as a kid, helped make Babe a larger-than-life figure whenever she stepped on the tee. 

Awards and Accomplishments

World Golf Hall of Fame 1951
LPGA Tour Money Winner1950, 1951
LPGA Vare Trophy1954
AP Female Athlete of the Year 1932, 1945, 1946, 1947, 1950, 1954
Bob Jones Award1957 
Presidential Medal of Freedom2021

Early Life 

Babe Zaharias was born Mildred Ella Didrikson on June 26, 1911, in Port Arthur, Texas, to Ole Didrikson and Hannah Marie Olsen. Her father and mother were from Norway, where her mother had excelled as a skier and skater. Her father worked as a ship’s carpenter and cabinetmaker. Mildred, the sixth among seven siblings, and her family relocated to Beaumont, Texas, when she was three years old.

Times were often tough for the large Didrikson household that Mildred had to work various part-time jobs as an adolescent, including sewing burlap bags for a penny a sack. Her father, a fervent believer in physical training, fashioned a weight-lifting device out of a broomstick and some old flat irons. 

Nicknamed “Baby” in her early years, Mildred has always been competitive and already aspired to become “the greatest athlete to ever live.” She has shown interest in athletics early on and was eager to play boys’ games with her siblings. After hitting five home runs in one baseball game, “Baby” became “Babe” (Babe Ruth was in his prime at the time), a moniker that stuck with her for the rest of her life.

Multi-Sport Athlete 

Zaharias was a high-scoring forward on the girls’ basketball team at Beaumont Senior High School when she was 15 years old. At this time, Melvin J. McCombs, coach of one of the top girls’ basketball teams in the country, took notice of her. McCombs landed Zaharias a job with the Employers Casualty Company of Dallas in February 1930, and she quickly became a top player for the team’s Golden Cyclones. In June, she returned to Beaumont to graduate with her high school class. For three consecutive years after that, the Golden Cyclones won the national championship, and she was an All-American forward in two of those years.

Zaharias quickly shifted her focus to track and field. She finished first in eight events and second in ninth at the National Women’s AAU Track Meet in 1931. The following year, with much more interest in the track meet due to the upcoming Olympics, she won the championship after accumulating 30 points; the Illinois Women’s Athletic Club, which entered a team of 22 women, finished in second place with 22 points. After gaining much success, Babe was ready to participate in the Olympics.

Record-breaking Performance at the 1932 Olympics

Women were only permitted to compete in three events, but Zaharias set four new world records in her Olympic debut. She won the javelin throw after achieving a distance of 143 feet, 4 inches, and the 80-meter hurdles twice, breaking the previous world record (her best time was 11.7 seconds). She also set a world record in the high jump, but the jump was disqualified (after using the unorthodox Western roll to achieve the highest jump), and she ended up finishing second.

Acclaimed sportswriter Paul Gallico remarked, “On every count, accomplishment, temperament, personality, and color, she belongs to the ranks of the story-book champions of our age of innocence.” Zaharias’ record-breaking performance at the Olympic games was so remarkable that Gallico dubbed her “the most talented athlete, male or female, that our country has ever produced.”

Anti-thesis of Feminity 

Babe played in an era when female athletes were regarded as deviant at best and unacceptable at worst. For the majority of her life, the public saw her as the polar opposite of femininity; it wasn’t until the latter years of her career that she began to dress and act less masculine. “She was neither a feminist, a militant, or a strategist organizing anti-sexual liberation movements,” wrote William Johnson and Nancy Williamson in Whatta-Gal!: The Babe Didrikson Story. “She was an athlete, and her most precious possession was her body.”

Some writers chastised her for being unfeminine. “It would be much better if she and her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up, and waited for the phone to ring,” Joe Williams infamously wrote in the New York World-Telegram.

Others were drawn to the 5-foot-5 Babe, who was muscular but never bulky. “She is beyond belief until you see her perform,” noted sportswriter Grantland Rice. “Then you realize you’re staring at the most flawless specimen of muscle harmony, of complete mental and physical coordination, that the world of sports has ever seen.”

While she excelled in competition, she alienated colleagues and opponents on more than one occasion. She frequently acted like a self-centered prima donna, a braggart who was always seeking attention. Although she got less arrogant over time, Babe remained colorful and brash – and frequently overbearing.

She didn’t seem interested in men until teaming up with George Zaharias in the 1938 Los Angeles Open. Zaharias was a jovial man, a 235-pound wrestler making a fortune as the stock villain known as the Weeping Greek from Cripple Creek. Babe will eventually change her name to Babe Didrikson Zaharias after their wedding 11 months later.

“Professional” Golf Career 

Despite her accolades in the Olympics and other sports, Babe became famous for her accomplishments in golf. She won a total of 82 tournaments throughout her career.

She began playing golf in 1933, despite facing discrimination and opposition for being a female golfer. That changed when she began to record consecutive wins. As early as 1935, she was already playing as a professional because of an unauthorized advertising endorsement. She spent the next few years participating in golf exhibitions while traveling the country. 

Zaharias also performed with various artists on the vaudeville circuit. She was the only female player on the Babe Didrikson All-American basketball team and appeared in a few games for the House of David baseball team.

It was during these years that she pitched an inning in an exhibition game against the Philadelphia Athletics for the St. Louis Cardinals. She was a natural at practically everything she tried.

After getting married in December 1938, her husband became her manager. A few months after their wedding, she performed in a golf exhibition while they were on vacation in Australia.

She applied for reinstatement as an amateur golfer in 1941 and was granted the status once again in January 1943. She began to take up golf more seriously, utilizing her incredible level of concentration, almost limitless self-confidence, and patience. She’d drive up to a thousand balls per day, take five or six hours of lessons, and play until her hands were chapped and bleeding.

A Golf Champion 

Zaharias didn’t disappoint. After getting back her amateur status, she won the U.S. Women’s Amateur Tournament in 1946. She won 17 consecutive golf championships the following year, including the British Ladies Amateur, as its first American title-holder.

She went back to play as a professional, and in 1948, she won the U.S. Women’s Open, which she again captured two years later. 

Her swaggering attitude and athleticism earned her 41 professional victories. Ten of those wins came prior to the LPGA Tour’s inception in 1950 and 36 professional titles on the LPGA Tour, including ten major championships. She still holds the LPGA record as the fastest golfer to reach her 10th, 20th, and 30th wins. 

She also participated on the PGA Tour in 1945, making two cuts in three tournament appearances. Zaharias became the first and only female PGA Tour player to make the cut in a regular-season event. She qualified for two of those events by competing in a 36-hole qualifier.

An LPGA Pioneer 

Since there were limited options for female golfers in the 1940s, Zaharias partnered with co-golfer Patty Berg. Together, they co-founded the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) in 1949. Berg became its president in the first year, while Zaharias succeeded her the following year and served in that capacity for the rest of her life.

Not only did she attract strong interest in the women’s game, but she also revolutionized golf as a sport.   

A Generational Talent 

Babe Zaharias was recognized as the Woman Athlete of the Half-Century by the Associated Press in 1950. She reportedly earned $100,000 annually from tournaments and endorsements in her final years as a professional athlete (equivalent to $1 million in today’s valuation). 

Bout with Cancer and Death

In 1953, Babe was diagnosed with cancer and underwent surgery, including a colostomy.

The following year, in one of the sports’ greatest comebacks, Babe won her third U.S. Open. She captured the title after winning by 12 strokes, despite wearing a colostomy bag. She won four more tournaments in 1954 and two more titles the following year,  which turned out to be the last of her career. 

Zaharias underwent a second cancer operation in 1955, ultimately succumbing to the illness in September of that year, at 45. She died in Galveston, Texas.

Zaharias and her husband founded the Babe Didrikson Zaharias Fund to aid cancer clinics and treatment centers in the final months of her life. The legendary champion was awarded the Bobby Jones Award posthumously in 1957.

A Lasting Legacy

 

Zaharias is widely regarded as the greatest female golfer of all time. She won seventeen consecutive tournaments between 1946 and 1947 and 82 tournaments between 1933 and 1953. She bagged the “Woman of the Year” title by the Associated Press in 1936, 1945, 1947, 1950, and 1954. In 1950, AP also named her  the “Woman Athlete of the Half-Century.” 

The skinny, shingle-headed teen, a shy and socially immature girl who could win at sports but frequently antagonized her fellow competitors, blossomed into a poised, well-dressed, graceful, and famous champion. She became the darling of the galleries, whose drives resounded throughout the fairways and whose remarks won the hearts of every audience she played in front of. 

Widely regarded as the finest tribute pertaining to Zaharias, Gallico said: 

“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.” 

Babe Zaharias: Summary of Career Victories, Awards, Etc. 

Professional Victories (36)

1948 All American Open, World Championship, U.S. Women’s Open. 1949 World Championship, Eastern Open. 1950 Titleholders Championship, Pebble Beach Weathervane, Cleveland Weathervane, Women’s Western Open, All-American Open, World Championship, U.S. Women’s Open, 144-hole Weathervane. 1951 Ponte Verde Beach Women’s Open, Tampa Women’s Open, Lakewood Weathervane, Richmond Women’s Open, Valley Open, Meridian Hills Weathervane, All-American Open, World Championship, Texas Women’s Open. 1952 Miami Weathervane, Titleholders Championship, Bakersfield Open (shared with Marlene Hagge, Betty Jameson, and Betsy Rawls), Fresno Open, Women’s Texas Open. 1953 Sarasota Open, Babe Zaharias Open. 1954 Serbin Open, Sarasota Open, Damon Runyan Cancer Fund Tournament, U.S. Women’s Open, All-American Open. 1955 Tampa Open, Peach Blossom Classic. 

Professional Victories as an Amateur (5)

  • 1940 Western Open. 
  • 1944 Western Open. 
  • 1945 Western Open. 
  • 1947 Tampa Open, Titleholders Championship. 

LPGA Awards (2)

  • 1954 Vare Trophy. 
  • 2000 Commissioner’s Award (LPGA Founders) 

Babe Zaharias was inducted into the Hall of Fame of Women’s Golf in 1951.

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