Remembering A 'Babe' Sports Fans Shouldn't Forget

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    Embed <iframe src="http://www.npr.org/player/embed/137319975/137434492" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no">
  • Transcript
  • Mildred "Babe" Didrikson, one of the most versatile athletes of all time, first received attention as a star in basketball and track and field. Here, Didrikson (second from right) pulls ahead of teammate Evelyne Hall (far right) to win the women's 80-meter hurdles at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
    Hide caption
    Mildred "Babe" Didrikson, one of the most versatile athletes of all time, first received attention as a star in basketball and track and field. Here, Didrikson (second from right) pulls ahead of teammate Evelyne Hall (far right) to win the women's 80-meter hurdles at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
    AP
  • Didrikson set an Olympic and world record in 1932 with her 11.7-second time in the 80-meter hurdles. Her national record in the same event, set in 1931, stood for 18 years.
    Hide caption
    Didrikson set an Olympic and world record in 1932 with her 11.7-second time in the 80-meter hurdles. Her national record in the same event, set in 1931, stood for 18 years.
    Three Lions/Getty Images
  • A javelin throw of 43.69 meters won Didrikson a second gold medal at the 1932 Summer Games. She and teammate Jean Shiley tied for gold in the high jump, but her medal was demoted to silver after judges questioned her form.
    Hide caption
    A javelin throw of 43.69 meters won Didrikson a second gold medal at the 1932 Summer Games. She and teammate Jean Shiley tied for gold in the high jump, but her medal was demoted to silver after judges questioned her form.
    Getty Images
  • Boosted to stardom, Didrikson became a darling of the press and considered her options for turning pro. Here, she prepares to dive into a pool in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., in December 1932.
    Hide caption
    Boosted to stardom, Didrikson became a darling of the press and considered her options for turning pro. Here, she prepares to dive into a pool in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., in December 1932.
    AP
  • In January 1933, Didrikson played exhibition basketball and a series of billiard matches. She even laced up boxing gloves at Art McGovern's New York gym, where she trained.
    Hide caption
    In January 1933, Didrikson played exhibition basketball and a series of billiard matches. She even laced up boxing gloves at Art McGovern's New York gym, where she trained.
    AP
  • Andy Aitkenhead (left) and Murray Murdock of the New York Rangers pose with Didrikson in Madison Square Garden in January 1933. Her vaudeville act — which showcased her athletic prowess — opened in Chicago a few weeks later.
    Hide caption
    Andy Aitkenhead (left) and Murray Murdock of the New York Rangers pose with Didrikson in Madison Square Garden in January 1933. Her vaudeville act — which showcased her athletic prowess — opened in Chicago a few weeks later.
    AP
  • Didrikson takes the pitching mound in a baseball game in March 1934. She played on various baseball and softball teams throughout her career.
    Hide caption
    Didrikson takes the pitching mound in a baseball game in March 1934. She played on various baseball and softball teams throughout her career.
    AP
  • During the mid-1930s, Didrikson's interests shifted to golf. Though she missed the cut in the 1938 L.A. Open, she found her future husband in George Zaharias, her partner for the tournament. They were married on Dec. 23, 1938, and she became Babe Didrikson Zaharias.
    Hide caption
    During the mid-1930s, Didrikson's interests shifted to golf. Though she missed the cut in the 1938 L.A. Open, she found her future husband in George Zaharias, her partner for the tournament. They were married on Dec. 23, 1938, and she became Babe Didrikson Zaharias.
    AP
  • Zaharias returned to the L.A. Open in January 1945, becoming the first woman in history to make the cut in a regular PGA tournament. She shot a 76 on the first day of competition.
    Hide caption
    Zaharias returned to the L.A. Open in January 1945, becoming the first woman in history to make the cut in a regular PGA tournament. She shot a 76 on the first day of competition.
    AP
  • When asked the secret of her golfing success, she loved to reply, "I just loosen my girdle and take a whack at it." She is pictured here in a 1947 promotional photo.
    Hide caption
    When asked the secret of her golfing success, she loved to reply, "I just loosen my girdle and take a whack at it." She is pictured here in a 1947 promotional photo.
    Hulton Archive/Getty Images
  • Zaharias urges the ball into the cup on the 18th green at the Women's All-American Golf Tournament on Aug. 4, 1950.
    Hide caption
    Zaharias urges the ball into the cup on the 18th green at the Women's All-American Golf Tournament on Aug. 4, 1950.
    Ed Maloney/AP
  • Diagnosed with colon cancer in 1953, Zaharias had surgery that April. Here, she celebrates as she leaves the Hotel Dieu Hospital in Beaumont, Texas, on May 19, 1953.
    Hide caption
    Diagnosed with colon cancer in 1953, Zaharias had surgery that April. Here, she celebrates as she leaves the Hotel Dieu Hospital in Beaumont, Texas, on May 19, 1953.
    AP
  • Zaharias won more than 80 amateur and professional golf tournaments throughout her career and continued to compete after her diagnosis. Her husband, George Zaharias, plants a kiss after the All-American tournament in Chicago in July 1953. She died in 1956 at age 45.
    Hide caption
    Zaharias won more than 80 amateur and professional golf tournaments throughout her career and continued to compete after her diagnosis. Her husband, George Zaharias, plants a kiss after the All-American tournament in Chicago in July 1953. She died in 1956 at age 45.
    AP

1 of 13

View slideshow i

In 2000, Sports Illustrated named its 100 top athletes of the 20th century. There are names you no doubt are familiar with — Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali, and of course Michael Jordan. But there's also a name that might slip by: Babe Didrikson. She is the only woman in the top 10.

In the 1920s and 30s, Babe Didrikson proved a girl could be a phenomenal all-around athlete. After mastering basketball and track and field, she eventually turned to golf — and won three U.S. Women's Open championships before she died of cancer when she was only 45. This weekend, Babe Didrikson would be 100 years old.

Author Don Van Natta Jr. has written a new book about the life of Babe Didrikson called Wonder Girl: The Magnificent Sporting Life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias. He tells NPR's Rachel Martin that Babe "excelled at every sport she tried to play."

Golf, track, basketball ... Babe Didrikson Zaharias could do it all. i

Golf, track, basketball ... Babe Didrikson Zaharias could do it all. Hulton Archive/Getty hide caption

itoggle caption Hulton Archive/Getty
Golf, track, basketball ... Babe Didrikson Zaharias could do it all.

Golf, track, basketball ... Babe Didrikson Zaharias could do it all.

Hulton Archive/Getty

Little Girl, Big Dreams

Babe Didrikson grew up in a poor family in Beaumont, Texas, where she was often seen running around the neighborhood barefoot, causing mischief when she wasn't playing sports with the local boys and girls.

"Around the age of 12 or 13 she became aware of the Olympics and she declared she was going to become the greatest athlete of all time. She didn't say woman athlete, she just said greatest athlete."

Even though Babe wasn't concerned with the gender and class issues of the time, she soon learned that women were not supposed to play sports, and she would have to get a job with a business to play professionally for their team.

So Babe left high school to work for a company called Employers Casualty Insurance and play for their basketball team, the Golden Cyclones.

"Babe went initially and played basketball for the Employers Casualty team, and while at Employers Casualty she took up track and field (...) and within a year and a half Babe was sent by Colonel McCombs, who ran Employers Casualty Insurances' team, to Chicago to compete as a one-woman track team for a spot on the Olympic team."

Wonder Girl
Wonder Girl: The Magnificent Sporting Life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias
By Don Van Natta Jr.
Hardcover, 416 pages
Little, Brown and Co.
List Price: $27.99

Read An Excerpt

Most companies that had these types of women's athletic teams would send over a dozen girls to national competitions, but McCombs knew that sending Babe alone would draw unprecedented publicity — and he truly believed Babe could win the national championship on her own.

He was right.

"Babe Didrikson won five events [broad jump, baseball throw, shot put, javelin, and 80-meter hurdles] within three hours and single-handedly won the national track championship."

In the process, she qualified for three Olympic events: the 80-meter hurdles, high jump and javelin.

An Ego The Size of Texas

Babe Didrikson knew she was good, and she wasn't afraid to brag. Van Natta says her self-confidence sometimes upset her teammates.

"She would show up and say, you know, who's going to come in second today, Babe is here! And that over-confidence — really, she was a pain in the neck — I think intimidated many of her opponents throughout her career and really worked in her favor."

The more championships Babe won the more her confidence grew. But after Babe won two gold medals and one silver medal for track and field in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, the press turned on her and began to question her gender.

"It was all men writing nasty things about her (...) and it really did get under her skin. It bothered her a lot but she dug in and just kept at it."

Babe did eventually fall in love and get married to George Zaharias, who was a professional wrestler known popularly as "The Crying Greek from Cripple Creek."

More On Babe Didrikson Zaharias

A Golf Swing With A Twist

It wasn't until Babe was 21 that she started seriously playing golf — the sport she is best remembered for today. Not long after, she was already winning championships and would go on to win three U.S. Opens.

Babe liked to tell people she was a natural, but that wasn't entirely true.

Van Natta says Babe was a bit of a con artist; "She really knew how to turn on members of the press core with almost a fairy tale story."

"For instance, she would go out and shoot an 80 on the golf course [then] would tell the reporters that she shot a 71 or a 72. And she would justify it by saying well they don't want to hear I shot an 80, they want to hear I shot a 71. And the press bought it."

Don Van Natta Jr. is an investigative correspondent for The New York Times, where he was a member of two Pulitzer Prize-winning teams. i

Don Van Natta Jr. is an investigative correspondent for The New York Times, where he was a member of two Pulitzer Prize-winning teams. Nancy Crampton hide caption

itoggle caption Nancy Crampton
Don Van Natta Jr. is an investigative correspondent for The New York Times, where he was a member of two Pulitzer Prize-winning teams.

Don Van Natta Jr. is an investigative correspondent for The New York Times, where he was a member of two Pulitzer Prize-winning teams.

Nancy Crampton

In 1948 Babe won her first U.S. Women's Open, the World Championship and the All-American Open. Only five years later she learned she had colon cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes.

Despite her disease, Babe would make a golf comeback shortly after her diagnosis and would go on to win her third U.S. Women's Open before passing away in on Sept. 27, 1956 in Galveston, Texas.

Van Natta says she is no doubt "one of the great American forgotten athletic superstars."

Excerpt: 'Wonder Girl'

Wonder Girl, by Don Van Natta Jr.
Wonder Girl: The Magnificent Sporting Life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias
By Don Van Natta Jr.
Hardcover, 416 pages
Little, Brown and Co.
List Price: $27.99

Prologue: Matinee at the Palace

They began lining up for the early matinee at the Palace Theater not long after dawn. Blazing in block letters on the theater's marquee were the names Fifi D'Orsay, a B-movie actress usually cast as a saucy French girl, and a musical group called Bob Murphy and the California Collegians. But no one had scrambled out of bed on a frosty Chicago winter morning for them. No, the people had come to witness the unlikeliest of vaudeville debuts, the invitation glowing high atop the theater's marquee: "babe" Didrikson — in person — world's greatest woman athlete. High above the Palace roof, a single gigantic word — babe — shimmered in golden lights, an electric carnival barker shouting the name into the sky.

It was January 27, 1933, and the people had come to find out the answer to a peculiar question: Is there anything Babe Didrikson cannot do? Practically every sports fan in America could recite the highlights of Babe's all-​sport resume: how she could run fast and far and jump high and long. They knew she could throw a nasty curveball and smash a baseball into the next county. They knew she was an all-American basketball player, outfoxing defenders with quickness and guile, head fakes, and stutter steps. She could swim with speed and endurance, scamper across a gridiron wearing pads and a helmet, and outhit and outwit the sharpest billiards hustlers. They knew Babe had stormed her way into the worldwide sports pantheon at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, winning two gold medals and a silver medal while etching her name in the record books.

But...this?

At the age of twenty-one, just five months after her Olympic triumph, Babe suddenly had the audacity to spin the roulette wheel of her athletic career, letting it ride on a vaudeville stage, of all places. In those pre-television years and earliest days of films with sound, the vaudeville stage was still one of America's leading entertainment tickets. Wedded to its tradition of quick-witted improvisation, vaudeville was renowned for its ruthless and often lethal unpredictability. It had a way of chewing up the ill-​prepared or fainthearted, and the audience relished whatever disastrous moment awaited a jittery performer. Nothing was more intoxicating for a vaudeville crowd than the chance to deliver a harsh comeuppance to some ham-and-egger and then watch him or her slink offstage, leaving behind the footlights for some two-bit career unloading trucks or sweeping floors. Some in the audience no doubt hoped that kind of embarrassment would befall Babe Didrikson. Everyone knew she had earned a place among the biggest names in sports, right up there with Red Grange, Jim Thorpe, Bill Tilden, and Babe Ruth.

But this seemed beyond her reach. Here, in the final somber weeks of the Herbert Hoover Presidency, many Americans took comfort in the thought that Hoover was busy packing and would move out of the White House soon. President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt was assembling his cabinet and preparing for his inauguration just five weeks away. Many Americans doubted that FDR — or anyone else, for that matter — possessed the know-how to lift the country out of a deep ditch. The Depression was going to last forever, and, like a natural disaster, it discriminated against no one, handing out calamities in equal portions to street sweepers and bank executives, stockbrokers and stock buyers, dress designers and seamstresses, theater owners and theatergoers.

The owners of the Palace were especially worried. Built just six years earlier to take advantage of all the shrillness of America's giddiest and gaudiest decade, with embellishments designed to evoke the royal palaces at Versailles and Fontainebleau, this monument to Roaring Twenties excess was now struggling for survival. Formerly the tough-ticket showplace for headliners such as Mae West, Jimmy Durante, Sophie Tucker, and Bob Hope, the Palace had been relegated to featuring also-rans performing before a valley of vacant maroon seats. It seemed that everyone in Chicago was hoarding their nickels and dimes for the city's new movie houses or staying home to listen to Eddie Cantor and Bing Crosby on the radio.

George P. Emerson, a Chicago advertising man with an eye for a good stunt, decided there was one woman who just might pump life into the Palace: Mildred Ella "Babe" Didrikson, a genuine American sports heroine and a vaudeville novice, onstage — for one week only!

Sure enough, around the Palace that wintry day, there was reason for hope. By late morning, hundreds of people had formed a raucous three-block line stretching down Randolph Street. Rainy-day nickels and dimes stashed in coffee cans and beneath mattresses were pushed through the ticket windows. Every ticket was sold for the early matinee.

At noon, the Palace's wide doors swung open, and the boisterous crowd surged into the theater's sumptuous lobby. Ticket holders paused to gape at the glittering designs leaping up the walls in gold leaf and oak. A few women stopped to touch up their hair and makeup in the oversized mirrors framed by sweeps of violet and ivory marble.

After settling into their seats, audience members buzzed with anticipation: Why would Babe agree to do such a preposterous thing? Is she dead broke? Will she bomb? The prognostications were divided almost evenly along gender lines. The men guessed at the number of minutes that would elapse before Babe fell flat on her face. The women just smiled, hoping and half-certain that the men would be counting until kingdom come.

With her eyes squinted into slits, Babe peeled back the maroon velvet curtain just enough to spy on the buzzing crowd filling the two thousand seats. She had always suffered pre-performance jitters, and manic stomach pains often kept her awake the night before a big athletic competition. As she peeked, she felt the usual riot of butterflies. Losing a competition was one thing, but nothing could be worse than facing an orchestra of ridicule from a sold-out vaudeville crowd. Babe inhaled deeply and, not for the first time that day, whispered, "My Lord, I can't go through with this..."

"Two minutes to curtain," the stage manager said. "Quiet, everyone...Babe, go to the lobby." No time for second thoughts. Babe stepped out a side door and sprinted down a long corridor toward the front of the Palace.

The theater lights dimmed, the crowd hushed, and the curtain raced skyward. The audience cheered until they noticed that Babe was not on the stage. A swirling white spotlight landed on a trim, middle-aged man dressed in a sensible gray business suit and sitting behind an ebony baby grand piano. The man introduced himself as George Libbey, a vaudeville veteran from New York City. A restless murmur rippled over the filled seats, and he responded with a be‑patient half smile.

The piano player asked the audience if they were ready to meet Babe Didrikson. The crowd roared yes. Without another word, Libbey started to play a fast-paced tune. The audience began to clap along with the music, and then a woman's voice shot out from the back of the house.

The music stopped, and everyone turned around in their seats to see the purposeful young woman striding down the left-hand aisle toward the stage. It was Babe, chattering in her unmistakable Texas twang about having just arrived in icy Chicago after a glorious Florida vacation.

She wore a long green swagger coat, high-heeled spectator shoes, and a Panama hat. As she approached the footlights of the stage and the crowd got a good look at her, Babe's chatter was drowned out by a lusty cheer. She beamed, waved, and grabbed an oversized microphone.

"As I was saying...," Babe said, and the crowd laughed.

Babe was not glamorous, but her face was striking and intelligent, with impish hazel eyes, a hawk nose, and a slightly crooked, thin-lipped grin — all framed by closely cropped chestnut hair. She stood 5 feet 6 1/2 inches tall, weighed 132 pounds, and walked with a champion athlete's loping gait. Unlike most of the great, blocky male athletes of her era, Babe was lean and smoothly muscled, and she glided with leonine grace. With her head held high, she moved with a striking economy of motion. Something about her steely confidence and her audacious attitude made it impossible to take your eyes off her. Slumped in a third-row seat, George Emerson watched Babe beam at the audience and thought, She's the real thing.

The piano player asked Babe a few questions about her trip north before playing the introduction to a popular tune, "Fit as a Fiddle (and Ready for Love)." Babe raised the microphone to her lips and began to sing, toying with the lyrics:

I'm fit as a fiddle and ready to go.
I could jump over the moon up above.
I'm fit as a fiddle and ready to go.
I haven't a worry and haven't a care.
I feel like a feather just floating on air.
I'm fit as a fiddle and ready to go.

Her voice was smooth, on-key, and remarkably buoyant. She even dropped an improvised "boop-boop-a-dee-dee," in an exaggerated baritone, bringing the crowd to its feet. Babe then kicked off her high heels and quickly slipped on a pair of rubber-soled track shoes. She peeled off her coat, revealing a red, white, and blue Olympic team warm-up jacket emblazoned with the initials U.S.A. and satin shorts. Babe bounded onstage and began running on a treadmill. Behind her was a large, white-faced clock attached to a black velvet backdrop. As she ran, the clock's long arm kept time.

Another woman ran onstage, jumped on a second treadmill, and simulated a race against Babe. The treadmills had been rigged, making it look as if Babe rushed through a white-tape finish as the winner. The crowd cheered as Babe smiled and ran a victory lap onstage, her fists thrust above her head. She then teed up a few plastic golf balls and used a nine-iron to smack them into the crowd, her grin widening as audience members lunged for the souvenirs.

As the crowd pleaded for another trick, Babe craned her neck to look at a large sign on an easel at the foot of the stage. The sign usually carried the name of the current act. Today it featured her name. As she studied it with a puzzled expression on her face, George Libbey asked, "What are you looking at, Babe?"

"Oh, I'm just looking to see who the hell's on," she said, and the audience laughed.

Someone offstage tossed Babe a harmonica for the show's grand finale. She played "Jackass Blues," "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling," and "Begin the Beguine," her harmonica swinging and singing.

She was onstage for just eighteen minutes, but it was long enough to establish her as vaudeville's brightest new star. The next day, in the Chicago Daily Tribune, a stage critic named Clark Rodenbach wrote, "Friday afternoon was the 'Babe's' first time behind footlights, and the girl from the Lone Star state took the hurdle as gallantly as she ever did on the track."

Babe was paid $1,000 for a single week of shows — four or five performances each day. It was a preposterous sum of money at a time when some women were making 6 cents an hour for muscle-wearying work.

Just a few months earlier, Babe was earning $75 a month from the Employers Casualty Insurance Company of Dallas, where she worked as a clerk.

Within several days, Babe's show had become the most sought-after ticket in Chicago and the talk of the vaudeville circuit across the nation.

Jack Dempsey, the former heavyweight boxing champion, sat in the VIP section for a performance. Babe was so popular that George Emerson scheduled vaudeville appearances for her in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Performing onstage was "beginning to get in my blood," Babe recalled.

In New York, Babe's pay would increase to $1,200 a week. (She later claimed that her salary was going to be $2,500 a week.) But the money could not make up for the fact that the vaudeville stage was not the place for an athlete to make a living. Despite the show's glowing reviews, the fit wasn't quite right.

Before long, Babe's routine had become routine. Chicago audiences came to her show knowing the outcome, applause was all but guaranteed, and there was no longer even the threat of embarrassment. Babe began to complain about being forced to apply "that grease paint" before each show. Worst of all, she had to spend all her time indoors, either at the theater or in her hotel room.

She missed the joy of competition, a longing that was underscored each time she ran a fixed race on a rigged treadmill against a stagehand.

Babe wanted to win again for real.

Excerpted from Wonder Girl: The Magnificent Sporting Life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias by Don Van Natta Jr. Copyright 2011 by Don Van Natta Jr. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Co.

Books Featured In This Story

Wonder Girl

The Magnificent Sporting Life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias

by Don Van Natta

Hardcover, 403 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Wonder Girl
Subtitle
The Magnificent Sporting Life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias
Author
Don Van Natta

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.