Happy Birthday, Babe! by Harvey Frommer
Times have changed - and in most cases
in the world of sports - for the better. Racism and sexism in the main
have gone into the good riddance category. And the world of athletics is
now the most democratic of places.
But it wasn't always this way. It took
the effort of many pioneers who paid the price to make things better.
One of the greatest of them all was
Babe Didrikson, child of Norwegian immigrants. She was born June 26, 1914
- 86 years ago today in Port Arthur, Texas. Her given name was Mildred
Ella Didriksen; she later changed the spelling of her name.
Reared in poverty in South Texas, she
never met a sport or game she didn't like or couldn't excel at. As a
teenager, the young Didrikson declared her life's ambition: "to
become the greatest athlete who ever lived". She wound up not far
from that goal. Basketball, track, golf, baseball, tennis, swimming
diving, boxing, handball, bowling, billiards, skating and cycling were all
sports she competed and excelled at.
Someone asked her if there was
anything she didn't play, and her quick quip was "Yeah, dolls".
There are those who claim that Babe
Didrikson once put in 99 points in a high school basketball game. There
are those who claim that she shot 91 the first day she swung a golf club.
There are those who claim that she bowled a 193 after just five minutes of
All of those claims are, of course,
untrue. But they underscore the mystique and legend of this incredibly
gifted athlete who shunned convention and was as tough a competitor as
American sport has ever produced.
One major truism about her was that
she fought hard to make her mark in a male-dominated world of sports. As a
young woman, she didn't wear jewelry or makeup, and didn't own a pair of
The sexism that was always part of the
package for her is reflected in comments by sports writers of her time:
"It would be much better if she and her ilk stayed at home, got
themselves prettied up and waited for the phone to ring," Joe
Williams wrote in the New York World-Telegram. Paul Gallico mused:
"Should the Babe be addressed as Miss, Mrs., Mr., or It."
But Grantland Rice, another writing
legend of the time, had a far different take on her: "She is beyond
all belief until you see her perform. Then you finally understand that you
are looking at the most flawless section of muscle harmony (and) of
complete mental and physical coordination the world of sport has ever
They called her the "the Texas
Tornado". And she had a way of stirring things up. Arriving at the
1932 Los Angeles Olympics, she announced that she would beat everyone in
sight. For good measure, she added, "I can do anything".
A strange ruling by the Olympic
Committee restricted competition by women to three events. She won a gold
medal in the javelin, setting an Olympic record. She won a gold medal in
the 80-meter hurdles, shattering the world record. In the high jump
competition, she jumped higher than everyone else but had to settle for a
silver medal. The judges, in their wisdom, decided that her head-first,
Western roll style did not quite conform to tradition.
Attempting afterwards to capitalize on
her Olympic fame, she took part in a bizarre vaudeville act, all decked
out in a red, white and blue track suit. She ran a treadmill, smacked
plastic golf balls out into the audience, and played the harmonica.
Looking for another challenge, in 1933
she turned to golf, which she had played in high school. She became a
champion golfer and it was through that sport that she met her future
husband. She was paired with George Zaharias, a 235-pound wrestler, at the
1938 Los Angeles Open. They married soon afterwards.
In April 1953, Mildred
"Babe" Didrikson Zaharias learned she had cancer. Surgeons
removed the tumor but discovered the cancer had spread. On Sept. 27, 1956,
the Babe died. She just was 45 years old.
The Associated Press selected her
along with George Herman "Babe" Ruth as the top female and male
athlete of the century. Some may question the choice of Ruth, but there is
no argument over the other "Babe".
# # #
You can reach
Harvey Frommer at:
About the Author:
Harvey Frommer is in his 38th year of writing books.
A noted oral historian and sports journalist, the author of 42 sports
books including the classics: "New York City Baseball,1947-1957" and
"Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball," his acclaimed REMEMBERING YANKEE
STADIUM was published in 2008 and his REMEMBERING FENWAY PARK: AN ORAL
AND NARRATIVE HISTORY OF THE HOME OF RED SOX NATION was published to
acclaim in 2011. The prolific Frommer is at work on When It Was
Just a Game, An Oral History on Super Bowel One.
His work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times,
Washington Post, New York Daily News, Newsday, USA Today, Men's Heath,
The Sporting News, among other publications.
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Frommer along with his wife, Myrna Katz Frommer are the authors of
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College, and travel writers who specialize in cultural history, food, wine, and Jewish history and heritage
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