Harvey Frommer / Players / Yankees
[Editors Note: Article written June 26,2000]
Happy Birthday, Babe!
by Harvey Frommer
Times have changed - and in most cases in the world of sports - for the better. Racism and sexism in the main have gone into the good riddance category. And the world of athletics is now the most democratic of places.
But it wasn't always this way. It took the effort of many pioneers who paid the price to make things better.
One of the greatest of them all was Babe Didrikson, child of Norwegian immigrants. She was born June 26, 1914 - 86 years ago today in Port Arthur, Texas. Her given name was Mildred Ella Didriksen; she later changed the spelling of her name.
Reared in poverty in South Texas, she never met a sport or game she didn't like or couldn't excel at. As a teenager, the young Didrikson declared her life's ambition: "to become the greatest athlete who ever lived". She wound up not far from that goal. Basketball, track, golf, baseball, tennis, swimming diving, boxing, handball, bowling, billiards, skating and cycling were all sports she competed and excelled at.
Someone asked her if there was anything she didn't play, and her quick quip was "Yeah, dolls".
There are those who claim that Babe Didrikson once put in 99 points in a high school basketball game. There are those who claim that she shot 91 the first day she swung a golf club. There are those who claim that she bowled a 193 after just five minutes of instruction.
All of those claims are, of course, untrue. But they underscore the mystique and legend of this incredibly gifted athlete who shunned convention and was as tough a competitor as American sport has ever produced.
One major truism about her was that she fought hard to make her mark in a male-dominated world of sports. As a young woman, she didn't wear jewelry or makeup, and didn't own a pair of stockings.
The sexism that was always part of the package for her is reflected in comments by sports writers of her time: "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 wrote in the New York World-Telegram. Paul Gallico mused: "Should the Babe be addressed as Miss, Mrs., Mr., or It."
But Grantland Rice, another writing legend of the time, had a far different take on her: "She is beyond all belief until you see her perform. Then you finally understand that you are looking at the most flawless section of muscle harmony (and) of complete mental and physical coordination the world of sport has ever seen."
They called her the "the Texas Tornado". And she had a way of stirring things up. Arriving at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, she announced that she would beat everyone in sight. For good measure, she added, "I can do anything".
A strange ruling by the Olympic Committee restricted competition by women to three events. She won a gold medal in the javelin, setting an Olympic record. She won a gold medal in the 80-meter hurdles, shattering the world record. In the high jump competition, she jumped higher than everyone else but had to settle for a silver medal. The judges, in their wisdom, decided that her head-first, Western roll style did not quite conform to tradition.
Attempting afterwards to capitalize on her Olympic fame, she took part in a bizarre vaudeville act, all decked out in a red, white and blue track suit. She ran a treadmill, smacked plastic golf balls out into the audience, and played the harmonica.
Looking for another challenge, in 1933 she turned to golf, which she had played in high school. She became a champion golfer and it was through that sport that she met her future husband. She was paired with George Zaharias, a 235-pound wrestler, at the 1938 Los Angeles Open. They married soon afterwards.
In April 1953, Mildred "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias learned she had cancer. Surgeons removed the tumor but discovered the cancer had spread. On Sept. 27, 1956, the Babe died. She just was 45 years old.
The Associated Press selected her along with George Herman "Babe" Ruth as the top female and male athlete of the century. Some may question the choice of Ruth, but there is no argument over the other "Babe".