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HUMAN KINETICS

Excerpts

Women's sport inspired by Mildred "Babe" Didrikson

This is an excerpt from Sports in American History, by Gerald R. Gems, Linda J. Borish, and Gertrud Pfister


The distinction of best all-around athlete during this period clearly belonged to a woman: Mildred "Babe" Didrikson. Born into a Norwegian working-class family in Beaumont, Texas, Babe gained her nickname for her baseball hitting abilities, but she won fame as a brash, multitalented athlete. Her prowess as a high school basketball player earned her a nominal job with the Employers Casualty Company in Dallas, where she was employed as a stenographer; her real value to the company, however, lay in her stellar play for the company basketball team, where she gained All-American recognition from 1930 through 1932 and led the team to the national AAU championship in 1931. In 1932, competing as an individual, she won the national track team championship single-handedly by winning six events. At the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, she was limited to three events and won gold medals in the 80-meter hurdles and the javelin throw with world-record performances. A Los Angeles Times journalist described her performance: "Mildred (Babe) Didrikson, 128 pounds [58 kilograms] of feminine dynamite, came through yesterday when all competitors of the so-called stronger sex failed in the world record-wrecking attempts. . . . More than 50,000 spectators joined in a wild cheer as the doughty Didrikson dame rifled the javelin 143 ft. 4 in. [43.7 meters] on her very first effort, a mighty heave which erased the former world mark of 133 ft. [41 meters]" (Dyer, "Babe" 9). She would have won the high jump as well, but officials claimed her diving style to be an illegal jump and awarded her the silver rather than the gold medal.

Although Didrikson had a bowling average of 170 and could reputedly punt a football 75 yards (68.6 meters) and swim at record pace, she made a living as a barnstorming baseball player and professional basketball player after the Olympics. She then turned to golf and won the West Texas Open in 1935, but the social set did not appreciate her working-class roots or crude manners. A braggart, supremely confident in her abilities, she once asked in the ladies’ locker room, "All you girls showed up just to see who would come in second?"

In 1938, she married ex-wrestler George Zaharias, mitigating her "tomboy" image but not curtailing her self-promotion. Her social skills gained some refinement with age, but she never became the darling of the golfing community. Nevertheless, Didrikson’s startling success drew attention to the women’s golf tour. She won 34 tournaments, including 17 in a row at one point (1946-1947). In 1948, she became one of the pioneers who organized the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA). Despite suffering colon cancer at the relatively young age of 41, she returned to golf, winning Comeback Player of the Year in 1953 as awarded by sportswriters. She died in 1956, leaving an incredible athletic legacy. The Associated Press honored her as Female Athlete of the Year six times and named her the top female athlete of the half-century in 1950. The example set by Didrikson inspired numerous women to challenge prescribed gender and social roles, and her performances brought considerable media attention not only to women’s growing participation in sport but to their considerable abilities as well.



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