Babe Didrikson

Babe Didrikson

Babe Didrikson Zaharias
— Golfer —
Zaharias (early 1930s)
Personal information
Full name Mildred Ella Didrikson Zaharias
Nickname Babe
Born (1911-06-26)June 26, 1911
Port Arthur, Texas, USA
Died September 27, 1956(1956-09-27) (aged 45)
Galveston, Texas, USA
Nationality  United States
Spouse George Zaharias
Turned professional 1947
Retired 1956 (her death)
Former tour(s) LPGA Tour
(joined 1950, its founding)
Professional wins 48
Number of wins by tour
LPGA Tour 41
Other 7
Best results in LPGA Major Championships
(Wins: 10)
Western Open Won: 1940, 1944, 1945, 1950
Titleholders C'ship Won: 1947, 1950, 1952
U.S. Women's Open Won: 1948, 1950, 1954
Achievements and awards
World Golf Hall of Fame 1951 (Money Winner 1950, 1951
LPGA Vare Trophy 1954
Associated Press
Female Athlete of the Year
1932, 1945, 1946, 1947, 1950, 1954
Bob Jones Award 1957
Medal record

Mildred Ella "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias (/zəˈhɑriəs/; June 26, 1911 – September 27, 1956) was an American athlete who achieved outstanding success in golf, basketball, and track and field.


Mildred Ella Didrikson was the sixth of seven children born in the coastal oil city of Port Arthur in southeastern Texas. Her mother, Hannah, and her father, Ole, were immigrants from Norway. Her 3 eldest siblings were born in Norway, the others in Port Arthur. She later changed the spelling of her surname from Didriksen to Didrikson.[1] She moved with her family to 850 Doucette in Beaumont, Texas, at age 4. She claimed to have acquired the nickname "Babe" (after Babe Ruth) upon hitting 5 home runs in a childhood baseball game, but in reality, her Norwegian mother had called her "Bebe" from the time she was a toddler.[2]

Though best known for her athletic gifts, Didrikson had many talents and was a competitor in even the most domestic of occupations: sewing. An excellent seamstress, she made many of the clothes she wore, including her golfing outfits. She claimed to have won the sewing championship at the 1931 State Fair of Texas in Dallas, but in reality won the South Texas State Fair in Beaumont, embellishing the story many years later in 1953. She attended Beaumont High School. Never a strong student, she was forced to repeat the eighth grade and was a year older than her classmates. She eventually dropped out without graduating after she moved to Dallas to play basketball.[2] She was a singer and a harmonica player. She recorded several songs on the Mercury Records label. Her biggest seller was "I Felt a Little Teardrop" with "Detour" on the flip side.

Already famous as Babe Didrikson, she married George Zaharias (1908–1984), a professional wrestler, in St. Louis, Missouri, on December 23, 1938. Thereafter, she was largely known as Babe Didrikson Zaharias or Babe Zaharias. The couple met while playing golf. George Zaharias, a Greek American, was a native of Pueblo, Colorado. Called the "Crying Greek from Cripple Creek," Zaharias also did some part-time acting. The Zahariases had no children and were rebuffed by authorities when they sought to adopt.

Athletic achievements

Didrikson gained world fame in track and field and All-American status in basketball. She played organized baseball and softball and was an expert diver, roller-skater and bowler. She won two gold medals and one silver medal for track and field in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.[3]

AAU champion

Didrikson's first job after high school was as a secretary, for the Employers Casualty Insurance Company of Dallas, though she was employed so that she could play basketball as an amateur on the company's "industrial team", the Golden Cyclones, in competition governed by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). Despite leading the team to an AAU Basketball Championship in 1931,[4] Didrikson first achieved wider attention as a track and field athlete.

Representing her company in the 1932 AAU Championships, she competed in eight out of ten events, winning five outright, and tying for first in a sixth. In the process, she set four world records in the javelin throw, 80-meter hurdles, high jump and baseball throw in a single afternoon. Didrikson's performances were enough to win the team championship, despite her being the sole member of her team.[5]


In the following years, she performed on the vaudeville circuit, travelled with teams like Babe Didrikson's All-Americans basketball team and the bearded House of David (commune) team. Didrikson was also a competitive pocket billiards (pool) player, though not a champion. She was noted in the January 1933 press for playing (and badly losing) a multi-day straight pool match in New York City against famed female Template:Glossary link Ruth McGinnis.[6]


By 1935, she began to play golf, a latecomer to the sport in which she became the most famous. Shortly thereafter, despite the brevity of her experience, she was denied amateur status, and so in January 1938, she competed in the Los Angeles Open, a men's PGA (Professional Golfers' Association) tournament, a feat no other woman tried until Annika Sörenstam, Suzy Whaley and Michelle Wie almost six decades later. She shot 81 and 84, and she missed the cut. In the tournament, she was teamed with George Zaharias. They were married eleven months later, and lived in Tampa on the premises of a golf course that they purchased in 1951.

She went on to become America's first female golf celebrity and the leading player of the 1940s and early 1950s. If she had wanted to gain back her amateur status, she would have had to play no other sports for three years. After gaining back her amateur status in 1942, she won the 1946 U.S. Women's Amateur and the 1947 British Ladies Amateur – the first American to do so – and three Women's Western Opens. Having formally turned professional in 1947, she dominated the Women's Professional Golf Association and later the Ladies Professional Golf Association, of which she was a founding member. Serious illness ended her career in the mid-1950s.

Zaharias won a tournament named after her, the Babe Zaharias Open of Beaumont, Texas. She won the 1947 Titleholders Championship and the 1948 U.S. Women's Open for her fourth and fifth major championships. She won 17 straight women's amateur victories, a feat never equaled by anyone. By 1950, she had won every golf title available. Totaling both her amateur and professional victories, Zaharias won a total of 82 golf tournaments.

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".[7]

Against the men

While Zaharias missed the cut in the PGA Tour event during her first year of tournament golf, later, as she became more experienced, she made the cut in every PGA Tour event she entered. In January 1945, Zaharias played in three PGA tournaments. She shot 76-76 to qualify for the Los Angeles Open.[8] She then shot 76-81 to make the two-day cut in the tournament itself, but missed the three-day cut after a 79, making her the first (and currently only) woman in history to make the cut in a regular PGA Tour event. She continued her cut streak at the Phoenix Open, where she shot 77-72-75-80, finishing in 33rd place.[8] At the Tucson Open, she qualified by shooting 74-81 and then shot a 307 in the tournament and finished tied for 42nd.[8] Unlike other female golfers competing in men's events, she got into the Los Angeles[9] and Tucson Opens through 36-hole qualifiers, as opposed to a sponsor's exemption.[10]

In 1948, she became the first woman to attempt to qualify for the U.S. Open, but her application was rejected by the USGA. They stated that the event was intended to be open to men only.[11]

Last years

Zaharias had her greatest year in 1950 when she completed the Grand Slam of the three women's majors of the day: the U.S. Open, the Titleholders Championship and the Women's Western Open, in addition to leading the money list. That year, she became the fastest LPGA golfer to reach 10 wins, doing so in one year and 20 days, a record that still stands as of 2012. She was the leading money-winner again in 1951, and in 1952 took another major with a Titleholders victory, but illness prevented her from playing a full schedule in 1952-53. This did not stop her from becoming the fastest player to reach 20 wins (two years and four months).

Zaharias was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1953, and after undergoing cancer surgery, she made a comeback in 1954. She took the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average, her only win of that trophy, and her 10th and final major with a U.S. Women's Open championship, one month after the surgery and while wearing a colostomy bag. With this win, she became the second-oldest woman to win a major LPGA championship tournament (behind Fay Crocker). Babe Zaharias now stands third to Crocker and Sherri Steinhauer. These wins made her the fastest player to reach 30 wins (five years and 22 days).[10] In addition to continuing tournament play, she also served as the president of the LPGA from 1952 to 1955.[12]

Her colon cancer recurred in 1955, and despite her limited schedule of eight golfing events that season, she managed to gain her last two wins in competitive golf. On September 27, 1956, Zaharias died of her illness at the John Sealy Hospital in Galveston, Texas, at age forty-five. At the time of her death, she was still a top-ranked female golfer. She and her husband established the Babe Zaharias Fund to support cancer clinics.[13] She is buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Beaumont.


She was named the 10th Greatest North American Athlete of the 20th Century by ESPN,[14] and the 9th Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century by the Associated Press.

Zaharias broke the accepted models of femininity in her time, including the accepted models of female athleticism. Standing 5' 7" tall and weighing 115 lbs.,[15] Zaharias was physically strong and socially straightforward about her strength. Although a sports hero to many, she was also derided for her "manliness".[1]

Zaharias has a museum dedicated to her, and a golf course that she owned was given landmark status. Beaumont, Texas is home to the Babe Didrikson Zaharias Park and Museum.

In 1981, the U.S. Postal Service issued an 18 cent stamp commemorating Zaharias.[16]

Contemporary impressions

It would be much better if she and her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up and waited for the phone to ring.

— sportswriter Joe Williams, New York World-Telegram, [1]

Williams' remark typified the attitude of some toward women who did not fit the traditional ideals of femininity current in the first half of the 20th century. However, in the same time period, the Associated Press chose her as the "Female Athlete of the Year" six times for track & field and for golfing, and, in 1950, overwhelmingly voted for her as the "Greatest Female Athlete of the First Half of the Century".[1] Aside from her impact on the women and girls of her time, she impressed seasoned sportswriters also:
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, of complete mental and physical coordination, the world of sport has ever seen.

— sportswriter Grantland Rice, quoted by ESPN, [1]

She was inducted into the Hall of Fame of Women's Golf in 1951. In 1957, she was given the Bob Jones Award, the highest honor given by the United States Golf Association in recognition of distinguished sportsmanship in golf. She was one of six initial inductees into the LPGA Hall of Fame at its inception in 1977.


The Associated Press followed up its 1950 declaration fifty years later by voting Zaharias the Woman Athlete of the 20th Century in 1999. In 2000, Sports Illustrated magazine also named her second on its list of the Greatest Female Athletes of All Time, behind the heptathlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee. She is also in the World Golf Hall of Fame. Zaharias is the highest ranked woman, at #10, on ESPN's list of the 50 top athletes of the 20th century. In 2000, she was ranked as the 17th greatest golfer, and the second-greatest woman player (after Mickey Wright) by Golf Digest magazine.[17] Her exploits were referenced by the irreverent comedy program Family Guy, in which her name and deeds were used as part of an "extended" version to the theme of the television series Maude. Zaharias was also mentioned on the Simpsons episode, "The Devil Wears Nada," as the costume Marge Simpson wears when she poses for a racy charity calendar.

She broke the mold of what a lady golfer was supposed to be. The ideal in the 20s and 30s was Joyce Wethered, a willowy Englishwoman with a picture-book swing that produced elegant shots but not especially long ones. Zaharias developed a grooved athletic swing reminiscent of Lee Trevino's, and she was so strong off the tee that a fellow Texan, the great golfer Byron Nelson, once said that he knew of only eight men who could outdrive her. "It's not enough just to swing at the ball," Babe said. "You've got to loosen your girdle and really let the ball have it."

— journalist Charles McGrath, New York Times, [7]

Zaharias penned an autobiography This Life I've Led. It is no longer in print but is available in many libraries.[18]

In 1975, the film Babe, based on Zaharias' life, was released, with Susan Clark playing the lead role (for which Clark would win an Emmy Award). Alex Karras played George Zaharias. Clark and Karras met while making the picture and later married.[18]

Babe Zaharias Golf Course

In 1949, Zaharias purchased a golf course in the Forest Hills area of Tampa and lived nearby. After her death, the golf course was sold. It lay dormant as developers attempted to acquire the land for residential housing.

In 1974, the City of Tampa took over the golf course, renovated it, and reopened it, naming it the Babe Zaharias Golf Course. At some point afterward, it was accorded historical-landmark status.[19]

In the media

Zaharias appeared as a guest on the ABC reality show, The Comeback Story (1953-1954), explaining her attempts to battle colon cancer, which thereafter still claimed her life.[20]

In 1952, she appeared in the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn film Pat and Mike.

In 2007, Carolyn Gage began work on Babe, a full-chorus, full-orchestra musical about Zaharias.[21]

In June 2011, Little, Brown published a major biography of Zaharias, Wonder Girl, by author Don Van Natta, Jr.[22]

In season 21 of The Simpsons, Marge dressed up as Zaharias for her Charity Chicks calendar with a history theme. Marge also refers to her as the female Tiger Woods of the 20th century

Amateur wins

This list is incomplete:

Professional wins

LPGA Tour wins (41)

LPGA Majors are shown in bold.

Other wins

Major championships

Wins (10)

Year Championship Winning score Margin Runner-up
1940 Women's Western Open 5 & 4 United States Mrs. Russell Mann
1944 Women's Western Open 7 & 5 United States Dorothy Germain (a)
1945 Women's Western Open 4 & 2 United States Dorothy Germain (a)
1947 Titleholders Championship +4 (78-81-71-74=304) 5 strokes United States Dorothy Kirby (a)
1948 U.S. Women's Open E (75-72-75-78=300) 8 strokes United States Betty Hicks
1950 Titleholders Championship +10 (72-78-73-75=298) 8 strokes United States Claire Doran (a)
1950 Women's Western Open 5 & 3 United States Peggy Kirk
1950 U.S. Women's Open −9 (75-76-70-70=291) 9 strokes United States Betsy Rawls (a)
1952 Titleholders Championship +11 (74-73-73-79=299) 7 strokes United States Betsy Rawls
1954 U.S. Women's Open +3 (72-71-73-75=291) 12 strokes United States Betty Hicks

See also

  • Golfers with most LPGA Tour wins
  • Golfers with most LPGA major championship wins

Notes and references


External links

  • The Internet Movie Database
  • Library of Congress.
  • Template:LPGA player
  • Babe Didrikson Zaharias biography at
  • "Babe Didrikson Zaharias's Legacy Fades," The New York Times, June 25, 2011
  • Babe Didrickson Zaharias - Note: Although this is the official site of the Babe Didrickson Zaharias Foundation, it contains a number of notable factual errors. For example, it states that she won all of the events she entered at the 1932 Olympic games when in fact she won two of the three. It states that she graduated from high school; she did not. And it states that she did not smoke, which is also not true.

Template:IAAF Hall of Fame

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