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Remembering A 'Babe' Sports Fans Shouldn't Forget

In 2000, Sports Illustrated named its 100 top athletes of the 20th century. There are names you no doubt are familiar with — Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali, and of course Michael Jordan. But there's also a name that might slip by: Babe Didrikson. She is the only woman in the top 10.

In the 1920s and 30s, Babe Didrikson proved a girl could be a phenomenal all-around athlete. After mastering basketball and track and field, she eventually turned to golf — and won three U.S. Women's Open championships before she died of cancer when she was only 45. This weekend, Babe Didrikson would be 100 years old.

Author Don Van Natta Jr. has written a new book about the life of Babe Didrikson called Wonder Girl: The Magnificent Sporting Life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias. He tells NPR's Rachel Martin that Babe "excelled at every sport she tried to play."

Little Girl, Big Dreams

Babe Didrikson grew up in a poor family in Beaumont, Texas, where she was often seen running around the neighborhood barefoot, causing mischief when she wasn't playing sports with the local boys and girls.

"Around the age of 12 or 13 she became aware of the Olympics and she declared she was going to become the greatest athlete of all time. She didn't say woman athlete, she just said greatest athlete."

Even though Babe wasn't concerned with the gender and class issues of the time, she soon learned that women were not supposed to play sports, and she would have to get a job with a business to play professionally for their team.

So Babe left high school to work for a company called Employers Casualty Insurance and play for their basketball team, the Golden Cyclones.

"Babe went initially and played basketball for the Employers Casualty team, and while at Employers Casualty she took up track and field (...) and within a year and a half Babe was sent by Colonel McCombs, who ran Employers Casualty Insurances' team, to Chicago to compete as a one-woman track team for a spot on the Olympic team."

Most companies that had these types of women's athletic teams would send over a dozen girls to national competitions, but McCombs knew that sending Babe alone would draw unprecedented publicity — and he truly believed Babe could win the national championship on her own.

He was right.

"Babe Didrikson won five events [broad jump, baseball throw, shot put, javelin, and 80-meter hurdles] within three hours and single-handedly won the national track championship."

In the process, she qualified for three Olympic events: the 80-meter hurdles, high jump and javelin.

An Ego The Size of Texas

Babe Didrikson knew she was good, and she wasn't afraid to brag. Van Natta says her self-confidence sometimes upset her teammates.

"She would show up and say, you know, who's going to come in second today, Babe is here! And that over-confidence — really, she was a pain in the neck — I think intimidated many of her opponents throughout her career and really worked in her favor."

The more championships Babe won the more her confidence grew. But after Babe won two gold medals and one silver medal for track and field in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, the press turned on her and began to question her gender.

"It was all men writing nasty things about her (...) and it really did get under her skin. It bothered her a lot but she dug in and just kept at it."

Babe did eventually fall in love and get married to George Zaharias, who was a professional wrestler known popularly as "The Crying Greek from Cripple Creek."

A Golf Swing With A Twist

It wasn't until Babe was 21 that she started seriously playing golf — the sport she is best remembered for today. Not long after, she was already winning championships and would go on to win three U.S. Opens.

Babe liked to tell people she was a natural, but that wasn't entirely true.

Van Natta says Babe was a bit of a con artist; "She really knew how to turn on members of the press core with almost a fairy tale story."

"For instance, she would go out and shoot an 80 on the golf course [then] would tell the reporters that she shot a 71 or a 72. And she would justify it by saying well they don't want to hear I shot an 80, they want to hear I shot a 71. And the press bought it."

Don Van Natta Jr. is an investigative correspondent for <em>The New York Times</em>, where he was a member of two Pulitzer Prize-winning teams.
/ Nancy Crampton
Nancy Crampton
Don Van Natta Jr. is an investigative correspondent for The New York Times, where he was a member of two Pulitzer Prize-winning teams.

In 1948 Babe won her first U.S. Women's Open, the World Championship and the All-American Open. Only five years later she learned she had colon cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes.

Despite her disease, Babe would make a golf comeback shortly after her diagnosis and would go on to win her third U.S. Women's Open before passing away in on Sept. 27, 1956 in Galveston, Texas.

Van Natta says she is no doubt "one of the great American forgotten athletic superstars."

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