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Historical Vignette: Mildred 'Babe' Didrikson

17 May 2006

When Swedish golfer Annika Sorenstam played in the Colonial golf tournament in 2003, she was the first woman to play in a men’s Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) of America event since Babe Didrikson Zaharias, in 1945.

As Mildred 'Babe' Didrikson, Zaharias won two gold and one silver medal in athletics at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. At the US trials for those Olympics Didrikson led her team from Dallas, Texas to the overall points championship. That may not sound very special but Didrikson’s team consisted of only one athlete, her! She won five, and tied for first in another, of the eight events she contested.

Didrikson “only” won three Olympic medals because in 1932 women were only allowed to compete in three events. Had she been able to compete in as many events for which she was qualified for she could possibly have won medals in five of the six events on the women’s athletics program for those Olympics.

She won the javelin throw and the 80 metres hurdles. She initially tied for first place in the high jump with countrywoman Jean Shiley. In attempting to determine a clear winner the officials suddenly decided to examine more closely Didrikson’s jumping style. They considered her style to be illegal, because her head preceded her body and legs over the bar - thus handing Shiley the gold medal. For some strange reason Didrikson’s style was only considered to be illegal to determine the ultimate winner of the high jump and she was given a share of the new world record height that she and Shiley had cleared, as well as receiving the silver medal.

Besides athletics Didrikson was a champion in many other sports including basketball, baseball, softball, swimming and diving, lacrosse, tennis and ten pin bowling.

It was her prowess at baseball that landed her with the 'Babe' nickname – after the great baseballer of the time, Babe Ruth.

In the mid 1930s she took up golf and in 1938 she married professional wrestler George Zaharias, whom she had met on the golf course. After World War II her golf career blossomed to the point where she dominated women’s golf throughout the world for the decade preceding her untimely death from cancer in 1956. She was only in her mid forties when she died.

Her death was not before she was voted the Greatest Female Athlete of the First Half of the 20th Century in an Associated Press (AP) poll. She also won AP’s Woman Athlete of the Year six times in her multi-sport career. In 1999 she placed ninth, and top woman, in AP’s poll for the Top 100 Athletes of the 20th Century.

So who was the overall top athlete of the 20th century? None other than her “nicknamesake”, Babe Ruth! It is interesting to note that of the sixteen experts who cast votes in the poll, one gave the top spot to Babe Didrikson Zaharias – the only others to be placed first by at least one voter were Ruth, Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Jim Thorpe and Joe Louis.

Bruce Coe
Olympic Historian