With Wonder Girl, Babe Didrikson Zaharias gets the biography she deserves.
For many contemporary sports fans, Babe is little more than a name, albeit the name of the only woman in the top 10 of Sports Illustrated's top 100 athletes of the 20th century.
Her name might be a little more familiar to Tampa residents because of the golf course in Forest Hills named for her, which she once owned.
But in Wonder Girl, Don Van Natta, a New York Times national correspondent and bestselling author, brings Babe back to life in all her rough-edged, indomitable glory. Not only did she achieve astonishing records across a wide range of sports, she broke down all kinds of doors that had been closed to women, from the Olympics to professional sports, before she swaggered onto the scene. Her life story is such a wildly colorful, unlikely but irresistible tale, complete with heartbreaking ending, that even someone who's not a sports fan (like me) will be caught up in it.
Mildred Ella Didriksen (she changed the spelling of her surname to Didrikson in high school because "I didn't want people to think I was a Swede") was born on June 26, 1911, in Port Arthur, Texas, just as that town's first oil boom took off. The sixth of seven children of hard-working Norwegian immigrants, she was, by Van Natta's account, a pistol pretty much from birth. When she was six weeks old, her father told her mother, "I'm afraid no crib I can build is going to hold her."
Another favorite family story told of Babe (her lifelong nickname) at age 4, dancing in the hurricane that nearly flattened Port Arthur in 1915, on the day her youngest brother was born. Ole Didriksen was away at sea, so Hannah, Babe's mother, gave birth and then climbed out of bed to protect her children as the storm raged — suggesting one source of Babe's grit.
The hurricane's devastation pushed the family inland to Beaumont, where Babe grew up on the town's "ugly industrial southern backside" between an oil refinery and a railroad yard.
At first, the boys would roll their eyes when tomboyish Babe showed up and demanded to play in their sandlot football and baseball games. But by the time she was 10, she "could run, pass, throw, and hit. Almost always, she won. And she didn't mind razzing you about it" — pretty much setting the pattern for the rest of her life.
One reason she almost always won was that she practiced obsessively, whether it was shooting marbles for hours or, after she read about the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam and decided she was going to compete in the next games, practicing her hurdling by jumping her neighbors' waist-high, 2-foot-wide hedges.
Nothing would deter Babe from that Olympic dream — not her lack of money or coaching, not even the fact that the Olympics at that time barred almost all participation by women. That was particularly true in track and field, Babe's chosen competition, because of the "widespread worry" that women's bodies were too fragile to endure any but the most ladylike and nonstrenuous sports. (Tell that to Hannah Didriksen after she finished delivering a baby in a hurricane.)
In the meantime, Babe was conquering basketball, first as a high school player and then as a semiprofessional on the Dallas Cyclones, the athletic program of Employers Casualty Insurance. She led the team to one crushing victory after another, often by as much as 50 points (most of them scored by Babe).
The Cyclones' coach, Melvorne "Colonel" McCombs, was her first mentor, and first in a long line of people to profit from her prowess. He and Babe cooked up a scheme for the Amateur Athletic Union's national championships in 1932, which doubled as tryouts for the second-ever U.S. women's track and field team for the Olympics. Instead of sending the Cyclones team to Chicago to compete, McCombs sent only Babe. In the midst of a heat wave, she won gold medals in broad jump, baseball throw, shot put, javelin and 80-meter hurdles. She amassed 30 points; the second-place team had 22 — with 22 women. She was 21 years old.
Babe qualified for three Olympic events in Los Angeles and won them all — although the judges knocked her down to silver on the high jump because of her unorthodox "western roll" form — and set two world records. Among the gaggle of sportswriters in the press box was the great Grantland Rice, who declared there was no sport she couldn't master. Fatefully, Westbrook Pegler suggested golf. When Rice invited her to play, Babe said she'd meet him the next day.
The Olympic glow wore off painfully fast: Within a couple of years Babe was supporting herself and her family by doing vaudeville shows and playing donkey baseball. But golf was her game. Not only was she possessed of spectacular talent — she routinely hit drives 250 yards and more — golf appealed to her temperament. Babe was never a team player (as her Cyclones teammates and others attested) because she hated to share the spotlight. When she broke a record, she wanted her name — and only hers — on the trophy.
She was also often careless about rules, and that kept her out of championship golf for years because the AAU revoked her amateur status after she made product endorsements and accepted gifts. Once she finally was reinstated, though, she dominated women's golf as no one ever had.
Golf also led her to George Zaharias. He was a hugely successful "villain" in scripted professional wrestling, a sport that had boomed during the Depression, who had not only made a lot of money but invested it well.
He and Babe were teamed up at the Los Angeles Open in 1938, and, as Van Natta tells it, it was love at first sight. Another child of hardscrabble immigrants, Zaharias was as ambitious and competitive as Babe, and, unlike most men, had no problem with her athletic career.
He soon cut back on wrestling to promote and manage his wife, and for a few years there was domestic bliss and, for Babe, one record after another. She became the first woman to play in the PGA and was one of the founders of the LPGA; she won more consecutive tournaments than any golfer — male or female — before or since. Her uninhibited personality and delight in playing to the crowd made her even more of a celebrity.
Her marriage was soon marred by Zaharias' restlessness and their nomadic lifestyle, but the pair bought the Forest Hills Golf and Country Club in Tampa in 1951. They paid $40,000, dubbed it the Tampa Golf and Country Club and moved into a pink stucco house just off the putting green.
But Babe was suffering from shooting pains in her left hip that became so bad she sought medical treatment (something she always resisted). The eventual diagnosis was dire: She had stage four rectal cancer.
She wasn't done playing. In fact, she threw herself into a new game: publicizing cancer prevention and treatment in an era when the disease was only whispered about. She talked fearlessly about her colostomy — a procedure cancer patients then feared so much that many of them chose to simply die rather than undergo it.
Babe wasn't about to lie down and die. After a two-year series of operations, she returned to competition and, in 1954, won her third U.S. Women's Open by 12 strokes, soldiering through four days of play to earn a scorecard of 72-71-73-75.
She won her last tournament, the Peach Blossom Open, in April 1955. She and George built their dream house, Rainbow Manor, on a Tampa lake. She visited the White House and gave golf tips to President Eisenhower, appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show with her best friend, golfer Betty Dodd, and raised funds for cancer research. She dictated her autobiography. In September 1956, she died in a Galveston hospital at age 45.
It's a remarkable story, and Van Natta tells it with grace and humor. He doesn't beatify Babe — she was inclined to tall tales, exaggerations and outright lies; she was stubborn and boastful and sometimes downright mean. He's forthright about the rumors about her sexual orientation that dogged her most of her life.
But he keeps his eye on the ball: Babe's enormous talent, prodigious work ethic and, whether she was facing another athlete or a sexist society or cancer, her boundless courage.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435.