Mildred Ella “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias was arguably one of the greatest athletes of all time; she mainly focused on track and field, basketball and golf throughout her career but was also an outstanding player in softball, baseball, billiards, tennis and was even a great diver and bowler.
Born on the 26th of June, 1911 in Port Arthur Texas to Norwegian immigrant parents, she was the sixth of seven children. Her mother worked in laundry while her father worked as a seaman and furniture maker. Coming from a humble background, Didrikson and her family moved to Beaumont, Texas in 1915, where she began her amateur sports career playing neighborhood baseball with the boys. She got the nickname “Babe” after Babe Ruth because of the consistent home runs that she got while playing. Didrikson excelled in nearly every sport she participated in all throughout middle and high school. While playing for Beaumont High School, she was offered $75 a month to work for the Employers Casualty Insurance Company in Dallas and play on the Golden Cyclones, the company basketball team. Didrikson’s parents were initially hesitant as she had not graduated high school yet, but she was ultimately allowed to play. She played for the team from 1929 to 1932. Didrikson had to have a job as a secretary at the company because she would have lost her amateur status has she been paid to play.
Throughout her lifetime, Didrikson earned multiple athletic achievements across different sports at a time in which it was rare to see women compete. Arguably her most notable, and spectacular, athletic achievement occurred during the amateur track and field championships in Evanston, Illinois in 1932. Didrikson was the only athlete sent to represent the Employers Casualty Insurance Company, competing against other company teams of 12, 15, and as high as 22. The crowd was shocked and gasped at the audacity of Didrikson as a “one-woman track team.” Over three hours she competed in multiple events, tying for first for the high jump and finishing first in the long jump, javelin, shot put, baseball throw, and 80-meter hurdles. Didrikson collected 30 team points, placing first in the event. The Illinois Women’s Athletic Club placed second with 22 points, despite having 22 athletes to represent them. Didrikson also managed to qualify for five Olympic events but was only able to pick three due to a ruling a the time which only allowed women to participate in a maximum of three Olympic events.
Didrikson put on a spectacular performance during the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles as well. She won gold and broke her own record of 11.7 seconds in the 80-meter hurdle, won gold again for javelin and set a new world record, and tied first for the high jump. Despite all these achievements in track and field, she is most known for her career in Golf after winning 82 tournaments throughout her career, 13 of which she won in a row. She competed in both the US Women’s Amateur and British Ladies Amateur which made her the first American woman to ever win the British competition. She was one of the thirteen founding members of the L.P.G.A, establishing the professional women’s game while also winning 10 L.P.G.A. Championships, making her arguably one of the greatest female athletes across the board.
Didrikson’s athletic achievement did not come without scrutiny from both the public and the media, having to deal with sexist reporters, classist golfers, and misogynistic sports fans. She received criticism for the way that she looked and dressed as it was “unladylike.” The media became even more critical after the 1932 Olympics, with people openly speculating her sexuality. Critics called her a lesbian simply because she did not fit into the expectations of women. Instead, she broke these expectations to show that women can be athletes in a time when people thought it was unhealthy for women to even play sports.
Unfortunately, in 1954 Didrikson was diagnosed with colon cancer. Despite this, she returned to golf in 1954 winning the US Women’s Open in Massachusetts by a dozen strokes while having a colostomy bag strapped to her. The media and public perception of her changed after this win, as she had gone public with her illness and spent a large amount of time working with the American Cancer Society. She passed away in 1956 at the age of 45. Despite having such a short life she accomplished a lot and is made great strides in sports both as a woman and an athlete.
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