The Babe Can Do It

And she can do it better than you.

From time to time, a person comes along that isn’t like the others. The accomplishments of their predecessors are as dust; the legacy they leave behind untouchable. Looking at them in the context of history they stand out as some kind of strange, almost superhuman anomaly. Other people break records. Other people seem always victorious. Other people do what has never been done before. But of the individuals of which we speak, they do all these things at once. It’s as though they perform among different peers, before a different audience, and we witness from our mundane seats the dizzying heights of a competition they alone can see.

Put simply:
They’re the greatest of all time.

That’s Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias:
Arguably the greatest (certainly the most versatile) female athlete in recorded history.

Though she is perhaps not the household name she was in 1932, Babe’s accomplishments remain as jaw-droppingly awe inspiring today as they were the moment that tin-voiced radio hosts enthusiastically detailed her exploits to families huddled around their radios, collectively holding their breath lest they miss a single word.

Born Mildred Ella Didriksen in 1911 in Port Arthur, Texas to Norwegian immigrants, the girl was a natural athlete from the word go. A childhood baseball game in which she hit five home runs earned her the moniker “Babe” – à la the famous baseball player – which she bore with pride for the rest of her life. Not particularly interested in academics, Babe dropped out of high school to take a job as a secretary with Employers Casualty, an insurance company in Dallas, Texas. The job title was actually an end-run around pro sports rules however, because what the company really wanted was for Babe to play basketball for the company team. Paying her for the gig would have cost her amateur status. Showing up on the train to Dallas wearing her blue silk dress with box pleats she made in school and patent leather shoes, she likely looked every bit the country girl who told her father how she envied the wealth of the porter, who got a quarter for carrying baggage.

Hiring that country girl turned out to be a good call, with Babe leading the team to the championship in 1931. The following year she represented Employers Casualty as the sole member of their team in the 1932 AAU Championships. There Babe gave the world a hint of what was to come, dominating and winning the event outright, with the second place team trailing 22 points to her 30 point total. She won five events, tied for first in a sixth, and remains the only athlete to compete in all the Olympic Trial events at a single championship. At the Olympics she repeated the feat, setting four world records and winning two gold medals in the 80 meter hurdles and javelin throw, and a silver medal after tying for first in the high jump. Judges ruled that her jumping technique (the Western roll) was improper despite the fact that she had used that technique throughout the event and it was a well known and widely used method. Likely the judges found themselves in a pickle determining who to award the gold and decided to get very strict on the “no-diving” rule in the high jump, which was destined to be repealed after 1936 anyway.

Babe flies over a hurdle with her distinctive bent knee, which she developed as a child practicing hurdles by running through her neighbor’s yards and jumping their hedges. She scraped the back of her leg if she didn’t bend it, so she did. Coaches tried to train her out of it to no avail. Didn’t seem to hurt her jumping much.
"Babe" Didrikson practiced escaping traps until she became notably good at it.

Following Olympic success, Babe took up golfing and once again proved there was no sport she could not excel in. She became America’s first female golf celebrity, taking part in the founding of the Ladies Professional Golf Association and even taking the fight to the men in the Professional Golf Association. She competed multiple times in PGA tournaments, making the cut twice. She is the only woman to have ever done so. In the women’s division she reigned supreme, piling up 82 amateur and professional tournament wins. She posted a 17 tournament amateur winning streak, a feat unrivaled to this day (anyone else beginning to see a pattern?). If a golfing title existed during her lifetime, Babe Zaharias claimed it.

Though she was born in Port Arthur, a hurricane destroyed the family’s property in 1914 and the Didriksens moved to Beaumont, Texas. Consequently it’s Beaumont that she’s most strongly associated with. It’s where she grew up practicing the hurdles with her neighbor’s hedges and where “Colonel” Melvin J. McCombs discovered her on the basketball court – dominating despite not playing until her junior year at Beaumont High because she was originally deemed “too small” to be competitive – and brought her to Dallas to play for his Golden Cyclones.

In 1976 a few people got together with the intention of installing a permanent monument to Babe’s memory. Among them were Ben Rogers, Colonel W.L. Pate Sr., and renowned architect Milton Bell. A foundation was established and memorabilia gathered with the help of George Zaharias, Babe’s husband, and many of her friends. Pate and Rogers began the Babe Didrikson Zaharias Invitational golf tournament, which began in the mid-70s and was played until 2013 as a long term fundraising effort. With funding from golf tournaments (a primary source of income for the project) and support from locals interested in preserving the story of Babe’s once-a-century athletic ability, the foundation constructed the Babe Didrikson Zaharias Museum and Visitor Center. To date, it remains the only stand-alone museum to a female athlete in the world. The unusually shaped building was designed by Bell and for years served as a visitor center welcoming people into Beaumont. Unfortunately, changes to the layout of the highway put the museum off the beaten track.

In recent years the foundation board has been considering various renovations to the museum, which has stood largely unchanged since its completion. The board approached Gary Deserrano, director of the women’s All Pro Tour, to help restart the Babe Zaharias Open as a means of raising funds for their first project, an update to the museum’s exhibitions. The tournament was a great success, raising almost $15,000 and is already scheduled again for 2021. Combining proceeds from the tournament with a grant from the Dishman Foundation resulted in sufficient funding to begin work.

W.L. Pate Jr., the foundation’s current president, reached out to Tom Neal for advice and guidance. Neal, Executive Director of the Museum of the Gulf Coast, has only recently overseen digital upgrades to that museum’s exhibitions. At his suggestion, the board tapped Tony Weber of Southwest Museum Services to assist in creating a plan for renovation. The result was a phase one exhibition upgrade that includes a multimedia installation with over a dozen screens playing a digital photo loop and an interactive touch screen kiosk which gives on-demand clips and information about the Babe.

Look closely at the multimedia display and you’ll see two images of Babe with boxing gloves. She wrote about that particular photo shoot in her autobiography, This Life I’ve Led.

“I guess I’ve competed in more different sports than any other girl, but I’ve always drawn the line at certain things. I never played football, although it’s been printed hundreds of times that football was one of my sports, along with some other things I never did, like wrestling and boxing.

The photographer asked me if I’d mind putting on a pair of boxing gloves and posing with [Herbert “Baby”] Stribling. I said sure, I’d go along with the gag.

So they tied the gloves on me, and I pretended to square off with Stribling while the photographer shot some pictures. That was all, but the story began to appear in print later on that I’d once had an exhibition sparring match with Baby Stribling. The more that story was told, the wilder it got. Some versions had me doing everything but knock him out. Actually, I’ve never had boxing gloves on in my life except for publicity pictures.”

Now that the first round of interior modernizations are finished, the board will begin work on new parking solutions to address accessibility issues caused by changes to the interstate over the past 40 years. Pate tells stories about how he and friends played football in the median where the highway now lies. When the museum was built, visitors could exit and re-enter the highway without trouble, but now are required to loop around under the overpass. A parking lot on the east side of the museum would solve that neatly, and that’s next on the list.

These upgrades represent the most extensive – and expensive – renovations to the museum since it was established four decades ago, but that isn’t all the board is doing to preserve Babe Zaharias’s legacy. Babe’s name has been submitted for consideration for the Presidential Medal of Freedom due to her trailblazing as the nation’s first female athlete superstar and her efforts to raise awareness of cancer in public discourse. The museum is considering partnerships with other local entities, such as the Cattail Marsh Visitor’s Center, with whom the board plans to share memorabilia for display. The foundation currently manages seven scholarships given to promising female athletes attending Lamar University.

The importance of preserving the Babe’s story isn’t just a novelty for sports aficionados; she changed perceptions of what women were “allowed” to do. Even among her female athletic peers there was quite a bit of friction. It was said she was difficult to work with. Jean Shirley, to whom Babe lost high jump gold in 1932, tells a different story in her book, Tales of Gold.

“Babe Didrikson inspired either great enthusiasm or great dislike. At that time, even though they competed in sports, girls were to be young ladies, and I think a lot of girls found her behavior a little beyond how they thought a young lady should act. The Babe was very brash, and she bragged a lot, but she was also very humorous, especially when she wasn’t getting all the attention. She’d pull a harmonica out of her pocket and start to play it just to get attention. And nobody did anything better than she did. I don’t care if it was swallowing goldfish; she would have to swallow more fish than anybody else. It wasn’t Muhammad Ali who started this “I’m number one” stuff. Babe started it.

She was just so different from all the rest of the girls that it grated on their nerves. It could have been jealousy. That’s the way Babe was, and it bothered some of the girls, but it didn’t bother me. I was captain of the 1932 team, and I had to represent all of the girls. I had been on the 1928 team, and I learned that there are a lot of people in the world, and they are very different and very interesting. So Babe didn’t bother me; in fact, she and I became friends and remained so even though we’re two entirely different people.”

By brashly putting herself in the public eye and absorbing the criticism directed at her Babe cleared the way for other unorthodox women to follow in her footsteps. Her ceaseless victories vindicated her and won the admiration and respect of the public. Her brutal honesty about cancer – going so far as to play a golf tournament three months after surgery and wearing a colostomy bag – was an encouragement to others suffering the disease and made the topic more publicly acceptable.

Nothing illustrates the shift in opinion she inspired more than a couple of quotes by sportswriters at the time.

In an undated quote, Joe Williams wrote in the New York World-Telegram, “It would be much better if she and her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up and waited for the phone to ring.”

Alternatively, near the end of her career, Charles McGrath of The New York Times wrote of Zaharias, “Except perhaps for Arnold Palmer, no golfer has ever been more beloved by the gallery.”

The country girl in the blue dress surely had the last laugh.