About "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias

World’s Greatest Female Athlete – A brief history by Babe Didrikson Zaharias Foundation

It has been said that she got the name “Babe” from her family, as well as a reference to “Babe” Ruth, after she played a good baseball game.  Her last name was originally spelled Didriksen, but was changed at some point.  There have been many discrepancies in her story, mostly because of her affinity for exaggeration and a good show.  The records presented here are believed to be complete and true.

Babe’s Life
Babe was born in Port Arthur, Texas on June 26, 1911 (not 1914 as she claimed in her auto-biography) and died on September 27, 1956, at 45. She is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Beaumont, Texas. She played every sport offered for girls at Beaumont High School, and her record stands at the top for athletic versatility. She set records in track and field, was an All-American in basketball, mastered tennis, played organized baseball with the House of David, and was an expert diver, roller-skater and bowler. She also spent a short time in 1933 performing on Vaudeville. She was called “Wonder Girl” by Grantland Rice after her performance in the 1932 Olympics, and he did a short film of her talent that can be seen at the museum. She eventually focused on golf, at his suggestion, and went on to be declared by Bobby Jones as one of the 10 best golfers of all time. While she was playing golf, she was paired with George Zaharias, and they were married a short time later on December 23, 1938. They lived in Denver and Tampa, but traveled all over the world so Babe could play golf.

Babe was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1953 and had surgery involving a colostomy on April 17, 1953, in Beaumont. She became one of the first public figures to openly discuss her cancer in an attempt to spread awareness about the disease. In 1955, had back surgery and by 1956, the cancer has spread. She died at John Sealy Hospital in Galveston. Since her death (and some while alive) there are books, plays, and even a movie made about her. The Babe Didrikson Zaharias Foundation, along with George Zaharias raised money for a museum which was completed in 1976. The most recent book is Wonder Girl by Don Van Natta Jr. It is probably the most accurate, complete and well written story of her life and is available at the museum and online.

An Exuberant Tomboy
The first to prove a girl could be a stud athlete, Babe Didrikson began as a muscular phenom who mastered many sports and ended as a brilliant golfer. An exuberant tomboy whose life was athletics, she was accomplished in just about every sport – basketball, track, golf, baseball, tennis, swimming, diving, boxing, volleyball, handball, bowling, billiards, skating and cycling. When asked if there was anything she didn’t play, she said, “Yeah, dolls.”
Named All-American
At the age of 15, Babe was the high-scoring forward on the girls’ basketball team at Beaumont Senior High School. She attracted the attention of Melvin J. McCombs, coach of one of the best girls’ basketball teams in the nation. In February 1930, McCombs secured a job for her with the Employers Casualty Company of Dallas, and she was soon a star player on its Golden Cyclones. She returned to Beaumont in June to graduate with her high school class. The Golden Cyclones won the national championship the next three years, and she was All-American forward for two of those years.
Track and Field

Employer’s Casualty Company and American Athletic Union

Women’s sports in the 1920s & 30s were often company and AAU sponsored events.  Babe played for ECC’s basketball team the “Golden Cyclones” and was named All-American in 1930, 1931, & 1932.  When she wasn’t playing basketball, she was on their track and field team. In 1930, in the national AAU in Dallas, she won the javelin and baseball throw. In 1931, in the national AAU in Jersey City, Babe was the leading scorer with three wins – long jump, baseball throw (world record at 296’) and 80m hurdles (national AAU record of 12 seconds). In 1932, Babe won the national women’s AAU/ Olympic tryouts by herself, with 30 points. It has been declared to be the greatest single achievement in a series of events in the history of athletics.  The Illinois Women’s Athletic Club finished 2nd, with 22 contestants.  She entered eight of the 10 events, excluding only the 50 & 220yd dashes.  She won the 8 lb. shot put with 39’6 ¼”; baseball throw (for the third year in a row) with 272’2”; javelin with 139’3”; 80m hurdles in 12.1 sec. She tied Jean Shiley in the high jump with 5’3½”, and each were given a half gold/half silver medal. In the 80m hurdles she won one heat with 11.9, which was 0.1 seconds better than her previous world record.  She finished fourth in the discus.

 

1932 Olympic Team

In earning her place on the 1932 Olympic team, the 5’7”, 115 pound girl qualified for five events, but was only allowed to enter three.  She won two gold medals for javelin (143’4”) and 80m hurdles (11.7 sec.) She tied Jean Shiley for the high jump with an Olympic record of 5’5¼” (sometimes recorded as 5’5”), but because of her “western roll” style jump, which had never been questioned before, she was awarded the silver medal.

 

Golf

Golf’s Great Firsts

Great Firsts

  • American to win the British Women’s Amateur
  • Woman to win both the British and U.S. Women’s Amateur (1947)
  • Woman to win the Western Women’s Open three times (as an amateur and professional)
  • And only woman to qualify (so far)  for the Los Angeles Open, a men’s tournament (1938)

She was voted the World’s Greatest Woman Athlete of the First Half of the 20th Century, in a poll conducted by the Associated Press (AP), and the only athlete to be named Woman Athlete of the Year by the AP six times, in 1931, 1945, 1946, 1947, 1950, and 1954.  She was awarded the Sports Illustrated “Female Athlete of the 20th Century – Individual Sports.”  She has been inducted into too many halls of fame to note here.

 

World’s Greatest Woman Athlete of the First Half of the 20th Century

Babe claimed to win 17 tournaments in a row

She actually won these 3 in 1946: 

  1. Trans-Mississippi-Denver, beat Polly Riley in finals, 6 & 5.
  2. Broadmoor Invitational-Colorado Springs, beat Dot Kielty 6 & 4.
  3. All-American Championship at Tam O’Shanter, 310 (medal play).

 She had one loss, then her 14 amateur victories in a row from 1946-47 are: 

  1. U.S. Women’s Amateur-Tulsa, beat Clara Callender Sherman 11 & 9 for the biggest margin in the history of the tournament.
  2. Texas Women’s Open, beat Betty Hicks 5 & 3.
  3. Tampa Women’s Open, won by five strokes.
  4. Helen Lee Doherty Women’s Amateur-Miami, beat Margaret Gunther 12 & 10. Qualified eight below women’s par with 68 and four under men’s par.  Babe was only one stroke off the men’s record for the course.
  5. Florida Mixed Two-Ball, Partnership with Gerald Walker, won on 31st hole.
  6. Palm Beach Women’s Amateur, beat Jean Hopkins, 1 up.
  7. Women’s International Four-Ball-Hollywood, FL, with Peggy Kirk, beat Louis Suggs and Jean Hopkins in 18 hole playoff, 4 & 2.
  8. South Atlantic Women’s Championship-Ormond Beach, FL beat Peggy Kirk 5 & 4.
  9. Florida East Coast Women’s Championship-San Augustine, beat Mary Agnes Wall 2 & 1.
  10. Women’s Titleholder-Augusta,  overcame 10 stroke lead by Dorothy Kirby to win with 304, by five strokes.
  11. North and South Women’s Amateur- Pinehurst, beat Louise Suggs on 2nd extra hole.
  12. National Celebrities in Washington, DC
  13. British Women’s Amateur-Gullane, Scotland, beat Jacqueline Gordon.
  14. Broadmoor Match Play, beat Dot Kielty 10 & 9.

 

Golf Hall of Fame

She reached great heights in golf and is known as the player who did more than any other to popularize women’s golf. Babe is a member of the Ladies Golf Hall of Fame and Helms Athletic Foundations Golf Hall of Fame.  In her career, Babe won 82 golf tournaments, including amateur and professional. A pioneer of the LPGA tour, playing in the days when tournaments were few, she won 31 events before she died and was the leading money-winner on the tour for four years in a row – 1948 through 1951. In 1948, she won the All-American Open, World Championship and the U.S. Women’s Open.  In 1950, she won the All-American Open, World Championship, U.S. Women’s Open, Titleholders, 144-hole Weathervane and Women’s Western Open.  In 1951, she won the All-American Open, World Championship, Ponte Vedra Open, Tampa Open, Fresno Open, and Texas Open.  She had to win the World Championship 3 times in order to keep the “Dead Head” Trophy, but she actually won it four times in 1948, 1949, 1950, and 1951. It is now on display in the museum.  She is one of two players (Louise Suggs) to win both the U.S. Women’s Amateur and U.S. Women’s Open.  In the 1954 Women’s Open-Salem – set a record of 12 shots as the biggest victory margin that has been tied, but not broken. She won the Vare Trophy in 1954 with a 75.48 average.  The Babe Zaharias Open was started in her honor in Beaumont in 1953-1955. Babe won the first event and played in all three.

"Babe" Didrikson Zaharias FAQs

When was the Babe born and where did she live?
Babe was born June 26, 1911 in Port Arthur, Texas and moved to Beaumont, Texas when she was four years old, residing at 850 Doucette.
How many children were there in her family and in what order were they born?
There were seven children in her family. They were Dora, Nancy, Ole, Lillie, and Louis (twins), Babe, and Arthur (Bubba). Dora, Nancy and Ole were born in Norway. Lillie, Louis, Babe and Bubba were born in Port Arthur, Texas. Bubba was only four days old when the storm hit Port Arthur in 1915.
Where were her parents born and what were their names?
Oslo, Norway and their names were Hannah (mother) and Ole (father).
What was Babe’s full name?
Mildred Ella Didrikson
Where did Babe go to High School?
Beaumont High School in Beaumont, Texas.
Did Babe go to college?
No. She moved to Dallas, Texas and worked at Employers Casualty Insurance Company and played on their basketball team called Golden Cyclones.
Who did Babe marry?
Babe married George Zaharias in St. Louis, Missouri on December 23, 1938.
Where did Babe meet George?
Babe met George in California playing golf.
Where was George born?
George was born in Pueblo, Colorado in 1908.
What did George do for a living?
He was a professional wrestler known as “The Crying Greek from Cripple Creek” and did some part time acting.
Did Babe and George have any children?
No. They tried to adopt a baby, but the rules were too strict during that time period.
Are any of her brothers or sisters living?
No
How tall was Babe and how much did she weigh?
Babe was 5’7″ and weighed 115 pounds when she was in the 1932 Olympics held in Los Angeles, CA.
How many events did Babe enter in the Olympics and how many medals did she win?
She entered three events and won all three events. Gold – Javelin Throw – 143’4″, Gold – 80 Meter Hurdles – 11.7 seconds, Silver – High Jump – 5’5″.
Are all the medals and trophies she won housed in the Babe Museum?
No. This about a third of her medals and trophies. Her husband, George, had some of them. The Tampa Golf Course has many of them.
How many golf tournaments did Babe win?
82, including amateur and professional.
Why was a 250 pound, 15 foot high key given to Babe?
She won the British Women’s Open Golf Tournament in Gulane, Scotland in 1947. She was the first American to ever win the British Tournament since if first began in 1893. She and George were living Denver, Colorado at the time and when she returned to Denver, they presented her with the “Key to the City”.
How did Babe win the “Dead Head Trophy” and what is a “Dead Head Trophy”?
Babe had to win this Golf Tournament three times in a row to keep this trophy, it was for the World Championship of Women’s Golf.
Did the gold shoes belong to Babe?
Yes. They have been sprayed gold.
What is the reason for the gold shovel?
The gold shovel was used to dig the first spade full of dirt for the ground breaking for building the Museum, which opened November 27, 1976.
What is the book, “This Life I’ve Led” and can it be bought anywhere?
Babe’s autobiography is no longer in print, although it can probably be found at the library.
Did Babe box?
Not professionally.
How did Babe make a name for herself?
Babe started by playing basketball in Beaumont, Texas.
In what sport was Babe best known and remembered?
GOLF
When did Babe find out that she had Cancer?
She was diagnosed in 1953.
Where and when did Babe die?
Babe, age 45, died at John Sealy Hospital in Galveston, Texas from colon cancer, September 27, 1956.
Where did Babe live when she died?
Babe and George were living in Tampa, Florida.
Where is Babe buried?
She is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Beaumont, Texas.
When was the movie of her life made?
The movie “Babe” was made in 1975.
Who played in the movie about Babe’s life?
Susan Clark and Alex Karras, who met while making the movie and are now married.