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"Babe" Didrickson Zaharias

the first major money winner on the LPGA circuit

Mildred Ella Didriksen was born in Port Arthur, Texas, on June 26, 1914, the daughter of Norwegian immigrants. She took the nickname "Babe" from sports hero Babe Ruth, and spelled her surname "Didrickson" to emphasize that she was of Norwegian rather than Swedish ancestry. Her family moved to Beaumont, Texas, in 1915, where she established a reputation for being quite the tomboy. At Beaumont High School, she excelled at volleyball, tennis, baseball, basketball, and swimming; she was a poor student, however, passing only enough courses to remain eligible for athletic competition.

Dropping out of high school in 1930, Didrickson took a job as a stenographer for the Casualty Insurance Company in order to play on the company's Golden Cyclone basketball team in Dallas. Between 1930 and 1932, she was selected as an All-American women's basketball player, often scoring thirty or more points per game, and she led the Golden Cyclones to the national championship in 1931. During this same period Didrickson also competed in the Dallas City Softball League, in which she batted over .400 and had a reputation as an excellent pitcher.

A member of the Golden Cyclone Track Team in 1930, she soon became the premier women's track-and-field athlete in the nation. Between 1930 and 1932, she held American, Olympic, or world records in five different track-and-field events. On July 16, 1932, she entered the National Amateur Track Meet for Women, in Evanston, Illinois, as the only member of the Golden Cyclone team. She then went on to single-handedly win the national women's team championship by scoring thirty points -- the Illinois Women's Athletic Club, which had more than twenty members, placed second, with a total of twenty-two points. During the competition she won six gold medals and broke four world records. At the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Didrikson won two gold medals (for the javelin and the eighty-meter hurdles) and a silver medal (for the high-jump), set a world record, and was the co-holder of two others.

javelin thrower at 1932 Olympics
Babe Didrikson, javelin thrower at 1932 Olympics

80-meter hurdler at 1932 Olympics
Babe Didrikson, 80-meter hurdler at 1932 Olympics

Returning to Dallas after the Olympics, Didrickson was voted Woman Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press in 1932, 1945, 1946, 1947, 1950, and 1954. Turning professional in late 1932, she 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 formed Babe Didrickson's All-Americans, a professional basketball team that toured the backroads of America to play against local men's teams. In 1934, she appeared in major league exhibition games during spring training and then toured with the infamous House of David, a baseball team on which every man sported a long beard.

professional basketball player
Babe Didrikson, professional basketball player

Turning her attention to golf, Didrickson began taking lessons in 1934, played in her first tournament in Texas in 1934, and won the Texas Women's Amateur Championship in 1935. Banned from amateur golf by the United States Golf Association (which declared her a professional), she toured the country with professional golfer Gene Sarazen and participated primarily in exhibition matches.

Babe Didrikson Zaharias, golfer

On December 23, 1938, Didrickson married professional wrestler George Zaharias, who also became her manager.

After winning the 1940 Texas and Western Open golf tournaments, Zaharias agreed to abstain from professional athletics for three years in order to regain her amateur status. In 1943, the United States Golf Association restored her amateur standing. During the 1946-1947 season, Zaharias won seventeen straight tournaments, a record which has never been equaled by anyone (man or woman). One of those tournaments was the British Women's Amateur, of which she was the first American winner.

In the summer of 1947, Zaharias turned professional again, with Fred Corcoran as her manager. Although the money she received from various promotions and exhibitions was substantial, her prize winnings were meager, despite having a successful season. In 1948, Corcoran organized the Ladies Professional Golfer's Association in order to help popularize women's golf and increase tournament prize money. Not surprisingly, Zaharias soon became the leading money winner on the LPGA circuit.

Diagnosed with cancer in the spring of 1953, Zaharias underwent radical surgery in April. She played in a golf tournament only fourteen weeks after the surgery, and then played well enough the remainder of the year to win the Ben Hogan Comeback of the Year Award. In 1954, she won five tournaments, including the United States Women's Open. She continued to play golf even after her cancer returned in 1955, although excruciating pain made it increasingly difficult.

Mildred "Babe" Didrickson Zaharias died in Galveston on September 27, 1956.

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This page was last updated on January 28, 2019.