The Wonder Girl
Baseball. Basketball. Track. Golf. She was even a wicked harmonica player.
Once, she was asked what didn’t she play. The legendary female athlete replied, “Dolls.”
Title IX may have opened the door for women entering the sports world in full force, but it was pioneers like Babe Didrikson Zaharias that paved the way for that moment to come.
“What Babe did was show women you can be as good as you want to be and as good as you’re committed to be in anything,” said WL Pate, president of the Babe Didrikson Zaharias Foundation in Beaumont, Texas. “And in her case, she was good at everything.”
Zaharias (1911-1956) has been heralded by Sports Illustrated, ESPN, the Associated Press and many others as one of the greatest athletes of the 20th Century. By the time she passed at the age of 45, she’d become an All-American in basketball, a world record holder in track and a world champion in golf.
“Think about this, when she was born, women couldn’t even vote,” Pate said. “Twenty-one years later, everybody who had a radio or a newspaper knew who she was. She would say ‘The only limits I have are the ones I set – and I don’t have any.’”
A child of Norwegian immigrants, she was born in Texas and spent most of her childhood playing outside.
“Back then there weren’t many things to do,” Pate said. “You entertained yourself with throwing a ball around or jumping hedges. Babe would jump the hedges and that’s how she fine-tuned her hurdling skills.”
She played basketball in high school and immediately got the attention of the American Athletic Union. Pate said before Title IX, if women wanted to play sports after high school it was usually done through the AAU. She was an All-American in basketball playing for the AAU's Golden Cyclones and also ran track and field. In 1932, she became one of the first female athletes to compete in the Olympics.
“1932 was the first year they allowed women to compete in track and field,” Pate said. “1932 it was Babe, and Jesse Owens shows up in 1936.
Two Americans in back-to-back Olympics set the world on a different path on how we look at women and African Americans. The rest is history.”
By the time she reached her early 20s, Zaharias decides to pick up amateur golf and soon becomes one of the greatest players to grace the game. Pate said not only was she good, she was cocky and competitive, all to the delight of massive crowds who had never seen female athletes play with so much swagger.
“Babe would walk into a room and say ‘Babe’s here. Who’s going to come in second?’” Pate said. “Most male athletes understood the importance of psyching their opponents out but many female athletes at the time didn’t do that. They just went out and played.”
Her surging popularity helped establish the LPGA tour as crowds came from all over to watch her play. Her nephew Rhon Didrikson, 70, recalls as a child watching how hard she played.
“I remember seeing her hands bleed during practice because she was hitting balls so many times,” he said. “It was fantastic to see the amount of drive she had. She wanted to be the best and she had the follow-through to make it happen.”
She would end up racking up more than 40 LPGA tournament wins during her career including several she racked up after being diagnosed with colon cancer towards the end of her career.
Babe Didrikson Zaharias might get praise among circles of sports historians, but she’s not heralded in the mainstream public the way other athletes in history have been, like Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali or Babe Ruth. Pate said it’s not necessarily discrimination for the reason why that is.
“When Babe was a star, television hadn’t hit its height,” Pate said. “So everybody didn’t see her in action. They’d only read about her or hear her on the radio. If Babe Zaharias today were Babe Zaharias, she’d probably be worth over $1 billion.”
“The thing that makes someone a good basketball player is good hand-eye coordination and speed,” Pate said. “Because of that, combined with her drive, it naturally made her a good athlete. She wanted to be the best athlete ever because it wasn’t enough for her to be the best female athlete ever.”
Pate said Zaharias received her fair share of scrutiny for being an “untraditional” woman by playing sports.
“There were some sportswriters that didn’t like her at all,” he said. “She could have walked on water and they would write ‘Why can’t she swim?’”
But it was her talents that repeatedly put her critics to rest, Pate added, and her legacy is perhaps one of the best examples in history personifying the merits of Title IX.
“She laid the foundation to show everybody that women could excel in all sports in which they participate if they’re given the opportunity to do it,” he said. “She would say the only thing that can hold you back from achieving things is the person combing their hair in the mirror.”
For more information about Babe Didrikson Zaharias, check out www.babedidriksonzaharias.org