Babe Zaharias Was Bigger Than Game
Olympian. Golfer. Entertainer. Braggart. Fierce competitor. Jokester.
Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias, considered by many the nation’s greatest female athlete, fit all those descriptions in her lifetime.
The one thing she wasn’t: boring.
Zaharias’ name has come up often lately because she’s the last woman to tee it up with the men at a PGA event. In January 1945, she played in PGA tournaments in Los Angeles, Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz., qualifying and making the 36-hole cut for all three of them.
Annika Sorenstam is set to follow that path Thursday when she plays in the Colonial, having gotten in on a sponsor’s exemption.
If Sorenstam really wanted to follow in Babe’s footsteps, she’d tell the guys she was going to beat ‘em all.
“Babe was a unique character. I’m glad I was able to be around her,” said Betsy Rawls, who played with her on the LPGA tour, which Zaharias helped start.
“Some people were turned off by her brashness. But people learned to accept her. She was the real reason the LPGA survived back then. She brought people out to the tournaments. She entertained people so well, joked with the gallery, and the spectators loved that.”
Humility was not something Zaharias practiced. While she had the talent of Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, she also possessed the ostentatiousness of Charles Barkley and the cockiness of Joe Namath. There was also a bit of P.T. Barnum in her.
She was known for telling other players before the start of tournaments, “OK, Babe’s here! Now who’s gonna finish second?” or trying to psyche out competitors by asking them, “You always hold your putter like that?”
“She was a singularly self-confident woman, and I think she truly believed she was the best athlete. She wasn’t just an athlete. She was an entertainer. Her goal was the front page,” said Susan Cayleff, author of “The Life and Legend of Babe Didrikson Zaharias.”
Cayleff, chair of the Department of Women’s Studies at San Diego State University, said competing with men -- whether in a PGA event, with a baseball team or in an exhibition boxing match -- was something Zaharias did partly for publicity, but also to challenge herself. It also was the only way she could chase the same prize money that men were receiving.
“I think it’s important that Americans be reminded of how singular (her talents) were,” she said.
She earned the nickname “Babe” because neighborhood boys who played sandlot games with her thought she hit like Babe Ruth, but Zaharias also excelled in track and field, basketball and softball. She also mastered tennis and was an expert diver, roller-skater and bowler.
She qualified for the 1932 Olympics by placing in seven track and field events at the Amateur Athletic Union Championships, either winning or tying for first place in six of them and breaking four world records. Her 30 points earned her the team title, beating the 22-member Illinois Women’s Athletic Club. At the Olympics, she won two gold medals and one silver.
Golf, though, is how she’s best remembered. And she didn’t start playing the sport seriously until she was 21.
She ended up winning 82 golf tournaments, including 10 major championships, before her death from cancer in 1956 at age 45.
The 1945 Los Angeles Open wasn’t her first time playing on the men’s tour. She also did so at the same event in 1938, getting in simply by filling out an application.
Although she didn’t make the cut, the tournament was a life-changing experience. Among her playing partners was George Zaharias, a professional wrestler. Both missed the cut but spent plenty of time together that weekend. They married months later.
She tried to return in 1944, but had to qualify. She didn’t. She did the following year, although her husband, who playing in the same group with her, didn’t qualify.
“I think she was the greatest woman athlete and the greatest athlete of the century,” said Peggy Kirk Bell, who became good friends with Zaharias when they played on the LPGA tour.
Zaharias’ list of accomplishments is unparalleled.
She was The Associated Press’ Female Athlete of the Year six times, an honor no other athlete, male or female, has won more often. In 1949, she also was voted Woman Athlete of the First Half of the 20th Century in a poll conducted by the AP.
Between 1946 and 1947, she won 17 amateur golf tournaments in a row, including the British Women’s Amateur Championship. She was the first American to capture that title since 1893.
In 1954, a year after undergoing surgery to remove cancerous tissue, she returned to the LPGA tour and won five tournaments, including the U.S. Women’s Open.
Her exploits made her a media darling. She was called everything from “the Texas Tomboy” to “the wonder girl athlete from Texas.”
Her act wore thin on some.
“Babe and I were contemporaries. We got along but we were not friends. She was arrogant and she was cocky,” said Louise Suggs, 79, another LPGA founding member. “Our personalities were different. I didn’t appreciate the way she acted sometimes.”
Rhonel Didrikson, one of Zaharias’ nephews, said his aunt simply told people what she thought.
“She did what she wanted to do and other people had to get in line,” said Didrikson, who lives in Lufkin and works as an engineer. “She was always a fun person to be around.”
While Zaharias’ name might not be as well known today, she is still beloved in her southeastern Texas hometown of Beaumont.
There is a museum dedicated to her, which houses many of her trophies, her Olympic medals, photographs and golf clubs. A golf tournament and a foundation, which raise money for scholarships and the American Cancer Society, are still a vital part of the community.
“People are not as aware of Babe Zaharias as I wish they were,” said W.L. Pate Jr., president of the Babe Zaharias Foundation. “But when you see what she’s done and reflect upon the timeframe and the time period, then you realize the magnitude of the impact she had on sports, not just women’s sports but the sports world.”