Monday, June 26, 2006


"It may be another 50 or 75 years before such a performer as Mildred Didrikson Zaharias again enters the lists. For even if some yet unborn games queen matches her talent, versatility, skill, patience and will to practice, along with her flaming competitive spirit . . . there still remains the little matter of courage and character, and in these departments the Babe must be listed with the champions of all times." -- Paul Gallico.

Babe Didrikson Zaharias was born Mildred Ella Didrikson on this date in 1913 in Port Arthur, Texas. Widely considered to be the greatest female athlete of the first half of the 20th century, Didrikson excelled at running, throwing the javelin, high-jumping, basketball, swimming, diving, figure skating, golf, tennis -- and she even played a mean harmonica.

While still in high school, the Employers Casualty Insurance Company of Dallas hired her as a typist (85 wpm) and as a basketball player for the Company team. While men's teams typically scored 25 points per game during those days, Didrikson averaged 42 points per game by herself, leading the Company to the 1930 Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) women's championship.

Then the Company started a track team -- with Didrikson as the only member -- and despite her lack of experience, Didrikson was acknowledged as the best woman track athlete in the country by 1932, her annus mirabilis. At the AAU National track meet in 1932, the one-woman Didrikson team scored 30 points to win the championship, taking first place in the 80-meter hurdles, the baseball throw, long jump, shot put and javelin; the next best team, the Illinois Women's Athletic Club, scored only 22 points.

At the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, Didrikson showed herself to be the best in the world, winning gold medals and setting world records in the 80-meter hurdles (11.7 seconds) and javelin throw (143"-4'). She would have tied for a third gold in the high jump, but settled for a silver for the fact that her head preceded her torso in the jump, an illegal technique then but commonplace today; U.S. teammate Jean Shiley took the gold.

Without a commercial outlet for her talents, Didrikson hit the vaudeville stage, telling jokes, tumbling, throwing the shot put and, yes, playing the harmonica, and picked up extra money barnstorming with the men's "House of David" baseball team. She married wrestler/sports promoter George Zaharias in 1938, and attempted to reinstate her amateur status so she could compete in women's golf and tennis tournaments.

In 1946, she was permitted to play in amateur golf competitions; and during 1946 and 1947 she won 17 consecutive golf tournaments, including the U.S. Amateur and the British Amateur (becoming the first American woman to do so). In 1948, the Lady's Professional Golf Association (LPGA) virtually formed around Didrikson's drawing power, and she won the U.S. Women's Open in 1948, 1950 and, against all odds while fighting colon cancer, in 1954. She died of cancer on September 27, 1956 in Galveston, Texas.

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