Babe Didrikson Zaharias: Excellence in Many Forms
Part 1: Early Life and Success
One of the best female athletes most people have never heard of was Babe Didrikson Zaharias. Her success in multiple sports astounded male sports-watchers and inspired women to take up sports in droves.
She was born Mildred Ella Didrikson on June 26, 1911, in Port Arthur, Texas. She was the sixth of seven children of Norwegian immigrants Ole and Hannah Didriksen. Ole was a sailor and a carpenter. Hannah was a skater.
When Mildred was 4, the family moved to Beaumont, Texas. As Mildred and her siblings were growing up, they enjoyed some unique benefits of their parents' backgrounds and skills. In the back yard of their new house, Ole built gym equipment that all of the children used. They also played baseball with the neighborhood boys. Mildred was strong, and she could really swing a baseball bat well. When she hit the ball, it went a long way. The neighborhood boys were so impressed with how far she could hit the ball that they nicknamed her "Babe," after Babe Ruth, a pro baseball player who lots of long home runs. The nickname stuck, and Mildred was Babe thereafter.
Babe was good at every sport she tried. She played on her high school basketball team and on a women's semiprofessional team called the Golden Cyclones. She was also very good at track and field.
In 1932, she won five events at the Amateur Athletic Union Championships and placed in two others. She also entered in the team competition, all by herself. Her point total for all seven events was more than the entire second-place team. She qualified for the Olympics that year and went on to win gold medals in the javelin and hurdles and a silver medal in the high jump.
To help raise money for her family, she began to do athletic things to raise money. She pitched in some spring training games with major league baseball teams and played on a touring team called the House of David. She played billiards in a touring exhibition. And, she took up golf.
At first, she was recognized as Babe all over again, for the long drives that she hit with golf clubs, just like the long hits she used to have with baseballs all those years ago, that gave her her nickname. Then, she ran into trouble with the national golf association over questions about her status as an amateur athlete. Didrikson decided to become a professional again, this time in golf. She would travel around the country, impressing crowds with how far she could hit the golf ball. She was also very good at the game. In 1938, she met George Zaharias, who would soon after become her husband. Together, they made Babe into a world-class golfer.