Babe Didriksen Zaharias Essay, Research Paper
Mildred Ella Didriksen was born June 26, 1914, in Port Arthur, Texas. Her mother, Hannah Olson, was born in Norway and immigrated to the United States in 1908. Her father, Ole Didriksen, also from Norway, came to Port Arthur in 1905 and worked as a sailor and carpenter. Through her adult life she was known as Babe Didrikson, taking the name “Babe” from the sports hero Babe Ruth and the spelling of her last name, Didrikson, to emphasize that she was of Norwegian rather than Swedish ancestry.
After the 1915 hurricane hit Port Arthur, the family, which included her sister and two brothers, moved to nearby Beaumont. Growing up in the rugged south end of the city, Didrikson was a tomboy who avoided feminine qualities and excelled at a variety of athletic attempts. She was slim and average height but had a muscular body and was exceptionally well coordinated. Her hair was cut short like a boy’s, and she usually wore masculine clothing. As a youth, Didrikson had an aggressive personality and was constantly involved in fights.
At Beaumont High School, Didrikson was well-known as being talented in a number of sports, including volleyball, tennis, baseball, basketball, and swimming, but she was not popular with her classmates. Didrikson was a poor student, usually passing only enough courses to keep her qualified for athletic competition. All of her energy was pushing towards accomplishments on the athletic field, where she had competition. Didrikson’s best sport was basketball, which was the most popular women’s sport at the time. During her 4 years in Beaumont, her high school team never lost a game, mostly because of her aggressive, coordinated strategies and her competitiveness towards the other teams.
In February 1930, Colonel Melvorne J. McCombs of the Casualty Insurance Company recruited Didrikson to play for the company’s Golden Cyclone basketball team in Dallas. She dropped out of high school in her junior year and took a job as a stenographer with the company with the understanding that she would have time to train and compete in sports. During the next three years, 1930-1932, Didrikson was chosen as an All-American women’s basketball player and led the Golden Cyclones to the national championship in 1931. She often scored thirty or more points when a team score of twenty for a game was considered respectable. While in Dallas, she competed in other athletic events, including softball. Didrikson was an excellent pitcher and batted over .400 in the Dallas City league. Soon, her interest was drawn to track and field and she became a member of the Golden Cyclone track team in 1930. Profiting from coaching provided by the Dallas insurance company and relying on her natural athletic ability, Didrikson soon became the leading women’s track and field performer in the nation.
Between 1930 and 1932, Didrikson held American, Olympic, or world records in five different track-and-field events. She surprised the athletic world on July 16, 1932, with her performance at the national amateur track meet for women in Evanston, Illinois. Didrikson entered the meet as the sole member of the Golden Cyclone team and by herself won the national women’s team championship by scoring thirty points. The Illinois Women’s Athletic Club, which had more than twenty members, scored a total of twenty-two points to place second. In all, Didrikson won six gold medals and broke four world records in one afternoon. Her achievements were the most amazing feat accomplished by any individual, male or female, in the records of track-and-field history. The outstanding performance at Evanston put Didrikson in the headlines of every sports page in the nation and made her one of the most prominent members of the United States Olympic team of 1932.
Although Didrikson had gained wide recognition in her chosen field of athletics, many members of her teams resented her. They complained that she was an aggressive, overbearing show-off who would stop at nothing in order to win. During the trip to Los Angeles for the Olympic Games, many of her teammates began to despise her, but her performance during the Olympiad made her a favorite among sportswriters and with the public. At Los Angeles, Didrikson won two gold medals and a silver medal, set a world’s record, and was the co-holder of two others. She won the javelin event and the eighty-meter hurdles and came in second in the high-jump event amid a controversy which saw two rulings of the judges go against her. Didrikson came very close to winning three Olympic gold medals, which had never been accomplished before by a woman. She became a princess to the press, and her performance in Los Angeles created a base for Didrikson’s lasting fame as an athlete.
After the 1932 Olympic Games, Didrikson returned to Dallas for a hero’s welcome. At the end of 1932, the Associated Press voted her Woman Athlete of the Year, an award that she won five more times, in 1945, 1946, 1947, 1950, and 1954. After a controversy with the Amateur Athletic Union concerning her amateur status, Didrikson turned professional in late 1932. She did some promotional advertising and briefly appeared in a vaudeville act in Chicago, where she performed athletic feats and played her harmonica, a talent she had developed when she was a kid. Struggling to make a living as a professional athlete, Didrikson played in an exhibition basketball game in Brooklyn, participated in a series of billiard matches, and talked about becoming a long-distance swimmer. In 1933, she decided to barnstorm the rural areas of the country with a professional basketball team called Babe Didrikson’s All-Americans. The tour was very successful for several years, as the team traveled to the smallest and most deserted places of America playing against local men’s teams. In 1934, Didrikson went to Florida and appeared in major league exhibition baseball games during spring training and then played on the famous House of David all the men on the team sported long beards baseball team on a nationwide tour. As a result of her many exhibitions, Didrikson was able to earn several thousand dollars each month, which was every good since it was during the Depression.
During the mid-1930’s, Didrikson’s athletic interests increasingly shifted to golf. Receiving encouragement from sportswriter Grantland Rice, she began intensive lessons in 1933, often hitting balls until her hands bled. She played in her first tournament in Texas in 1934 and a year later won the Texas Women’s Amateur Championship. That same year, Didrikson was bitterly disappointed when the United States Golf Association (USGA) declared her a professional and banned her from amateur golf. Unable to make a living from the few tournaments open to professionals, Didrikson toured the country with professional golfer Gene Sarazen, participating mainly in exhibition matches.
On December 23, 1938, Didrikson married George Zaharias, a professional wrestler. They did not have any children during their marriage. Her marriage helped put to rest rumors that she was in fact a male and other attacks on her femininity. Zaharias became her manager and under his direction she won the 1940 Texas and Western Open golf tournaments. During World War II, Babe Zaharias gave golf exhibitions to raise money for war bonds and agreed to refrain from professional athletics for three years in order to regain her amateur status. In 1943, the USGA restored her amateur standing.
After the war, Babe Zaharias emerged as one of the most successful and popular women golfers in history. In 1945, she played flawless golf on the amateur tour and was named Woman Athlete of the Year for the second time. The following year, she began a string of consecutive tournament victories, a record that has never been equaled by man or woman. During the 1946-1947 seasons, Zaharias won seventeen straight tournaments, including the British Women’s Amateur. She became the first American to win the prestigious British championship. In the summer of 1947, Zaharias turned professional once again, with Fred Corcoran as her manager. She earned an estimated $100,000 in 1948 through various promotions and exhibitions, but only $3,400 in prize money on the professional tour, despite a successful season. In 1948, Corcoran organized the Ladies Professional Golfer’s Association (LPGA) in order to help popularize women’s golf and increase tournament prize money. During the next several years, the LPGA grew in stature and Zaharias became the leading money winner on the women’s professional circuit.
In the spring of 1953, doctors discovered that Zaharias had cancer, and she underwent radical surgery in April 1953. Although many people thought that her athletic career was over, Zaharias played in a golf tournament only fourteen weeks after the surgery. She played well enough the remainder of the year to win the Ben Hogan Comeback of the Year Award. In 1954, Zaharias won five tournaments, including the United States Women’s Open, and earned her sixth Woman Athlete of the Year Award. During 1955, doctors diagnosed that the cancer had returned, and she suffered excruciating pain during her final illness. Despite the pain, Zaharias continued to play an occasional round of golf and through her courage served as an inspiration for many Americans. She died in Galveston on September 27, 1956.
Babe Didrikson Zaharias was a remarkable woman in many ways. Her place in American sports history is secure in her athletic accomplishments alone. In addition to her six Woman Athlete of the Year Awards, the Associated Press named her the Woman Athlete of the Half-Century in 1950. No other woman has performed in so many different sports so well. She is probably the greatest woman athlete of all time.
Beyond this, however, Zaharias was a pioneer who struggled to break down social customs that kept women from different parts of American life. During a time when society decided that women were only certain ways, Zaharias changed the public’s view of woman’s place in society. She opened people eyes to the fact that women could do well in and dominate sports considered to be a male domain. In her dress, speech, and manner, Zaharias did not allow herself to become what was expected of female athletes. She did it successfully because she was such an outstanding athlete. It took courage, because she was subjected to the harshest rumors, attacks which she suffered without complaint.
During her final illness, Zaharias displayed the kind of strength and courage, which was a trademark of her career. She was a great athlete, but beyond that she was a courageous pioneer in women’s sports which others have followed.