Babe Didrikson Zaharias: the Most Prolific All-Around Athlete in Sports History

For young women with athletic aspirations, life before the enactment of Title IX was vastly different. Primary physical activities for women included cheerleading and square dancing, and a mere 1 in 27 girls played sports in their high school years. Scholarships for female athletics were virtually unheard of, and women received a mere 2 percent of a school’s overall athletic budget.

Despite the limitations placed on women in the decades before the enactment of Title IX, many women had successful athletic careers. One such woman was Babe Didrikson Zaharias, who is arguably one of the most accomplished all-around athletes of our time, who accelerated in nearly every sport she tried: basketball, track, golf, baseball, tennis, swimming, diving, boxing, volleyball. Handball, bowling, billiards, skating, and cycling.

Born June 26, 1911 in Port Arthur, Texas, Mildred Didrikson Zaharias (who became known by her nickname, ‘Babe’) was the fifth of six children descended from immigrants from Norway. Though she would later be known for her athletic abilities, she found a way to make almost any activity competitive, even domestic activities.

She knew she was destined for greatness, saying, “My goal was to be the greatest athlete who ever lived.”

While playing basketball for Beaumont High School in 1930, Babe was offered $75 a month to work for Employers Casualty Company in Dallas to play for its team. Though her parents were hesitant to allow her to leave, she eventually dropped out of school to pursue her athletic endeavors.

It was here that Didrikson first proved her athletic abilities, earning Amateur Athletic Union All-American honors from 1930-1932. During these formative years, she also started training in track and field, and won four events in an AAU track competition in 1930.

Just two years later, she single-handedly won the 1932 AAU championships, which served as the Olympic qualifiers for that year. The sole representative of the Employers Casualty Company, she scored 30 points, completely destroying the runner up team which had 22 athletes participating.

That day, Babe competed in eight of the ten events, came away with wins in five, and tied for first place in the high jump event. That same day she set world records in javelin, 80-meter hurdles, high jump, and baseball throw.

While her wins qualified her for five Olympic events, women at the time were only allowed to compete in three. She won the first women’s Olympic javelin competition and set a world record in winning the first Olympic 80-meter hurdles.

During the years following her impressive Olympic wins, Babe performed on the vaudeville circuit, competed on a traveling basketball team, and toured with the bearded House of David baseball team.

As if her accomplishments weren’t enough, in 1933 she tackled a new challenge, taking up golf. Two years later she won the Texas Women’s Amateur league, and afterwards the U.S. Golf Association ruled that “for the best interest of the game,” Babe could no longer compete in the amateur league, as she was already a professional athlete in other sports. She wasn’t reinstated into the amateur leagues until nearly a decade later.

After her reinstatement, she would dominate the women’s golf circuit from 1945-1947, regularly driving the ball more than 250 yards in spite of her petite frame. She became a professional golfer in 1947, after winning 17 of 18 tournaments. She would go on to accomplish much in women’s professional golf.

Shortly after winning a tournament in 1953, she would receive an upsetting cancer diagnosis. Though the tumor was removed, surgeons discovered that the cancer had spread to an inoperable area of her lymph nodes.

Despite her terminal diagnosis, Didrikson continued her impressive streak in women’s golf. Within a year of her operation she had won her 3rd U.S. Women’s open by an unprecedented 12 strokes.

Just two years later, pain in her spine caused by cancer prevented her from competing further. She succumbed to cancer September 27, 1956 at age 45 in Galveston, TX.

Women with athletic ambitions in the years leading up to the enactment of Title IX were rife with challenges. Though Didrikson continues to have one of the most impressive all-around athletic resumes in sports history. Though she faced her fair share of sexism throughout her life during a time when female athletes were deemed freakish or unacceptable, she maintained that the only activity she wouldn’t play was dolls.

Written for Sheroes of History by Danika McClure. Danika is a musician from the northwest who sometimes takes a 30 minute break from writing to enjoy a TV show. Lover of Drake, guacamole, and angry girl music of the indie rock persuasion. You can follow her on twitter @sadwhitegrrl

Find out more…

Below are links to a selection of articles about Babe and women in sports:

Didrikson Was a Woman Ahead of Her Time
Babe Didrikson Zaharias’s Legacy Fades
The Evolution of Women’s Sports
Before and After Title IX: Women in Sports

The Babe Didrikson Zaharias Museum & Visitor Centre in Texas is dedicated to remembering her achievements.  You can find out lots more on their website.

You can watch Babe in action in these clips:

 

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