Encyclopedia Womannica

Explorers & Contenders: Babe Didrikson

Episode Summary

Babe Didrikson (1911-1956) was a barrier-breaking basketball player, baseball player, softball player, diver, roller skater, bowler, golfer, and Olympic track and field star. Considered one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century, she challenged her era’s accepted norms of femininity.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins. 

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan. And this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

Today’s contender was a barrier-breaking basketball player, baseball player, softball player, diver, roller skater, bowler, golfer *AND* Olympic track and field star. Considered one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century, she challenged her era’s accepted norms of femininity. 

Let’s talk about Babe Didrikson. 

Mildred Ella Didrikson was born in 1911, in Port Arthur, Texas. Her parents, Hannah and Ole [OH-lay], were Norwegian immigrants. They had seven children. Mildred, first called “Min Bebe” [beh-beh] by her mother, was their sixth. Later in life, Babe often claimed her nickname had come from comparisons to Babe Ruth, after hitting 5 home runs during a childhood baseball game. It was hardly the only embellishment she would add to stories over the years. 

From an early age, Babe excelled in sports, shining in local basketball and baseball games. She was also an expert seamstress, often designing outfits to fit her 5 foot seven, muscular frame. But academics were another story. Babe was forced to repeat the 8th grade and eventually dropped out of Beaumont High School without graduating. 

Instead, she moved to Dallas, Texas. The Employers Casualty Company, a local insurance agency, paid her $75 a month to play on their amateur basketball team, the Golden Cyclones.

In 1932, at the age of 21, Babe represented the Employers Casualty Company at the U.S. Track and Field Olympic trials in Evanston, Illinois. Functioning as a one-woman team, she dominated the competition. Babe took first place in high jump, the 80 meter hurdles, javelin, long jump, shot put, and baseball throw. In three hours, she had single-handedly won the meet --- and qualified for the Olympics six times over. 

In the New York Times, Arthur Daley wrote, “Implausible is the adjective that best befits the Babe.” 

But women at the time were only allowed to compete in three Olympic events. In 1932, in Los Angeles, Babe became the first woman to win a gold medal in javelin throw, and set a world record in the 80 meter hurdles. She also took the silver in high jump. Her collective success -- medals in running, jumping *and* throwing events -- has yet to be repeated by any other female Olympian. That year, Babe was voted “Female Athlete of the Year” by the Associated Press. 

Following her historic medal haul, and a post-Olympics run on Vaudeville, Babe moved on to another sport: Golf. 

In 1933, she began competing at the amateur level. In 1935, she won her first tournament, the Texas Women’s Amateur. 

In 1938, Babe met George Zaharias at the Los Angeles Open. She was the only woman competing. Nicknamed “The Crying Greek from Cripple Creek,” George was a Greek-American wrestler and part-time actor. He and Babe married that same year. After the wedding, she often went by Babe Didrikson Zaharias. 

Between 1946 and 1947, Babe won 14 consecutive amateur golf tournaments, an unprecedented streak. Soon after, she turned pro. Frustrated by the lack of professional opportunities for female golfers, Babe co-founded the Ladies Professional Golf Association, now known as the LPGA. 

Throughout her career, Babe faced intense scrutiny about her physical appearance and her femininity -- or, according to the media, her lack thereof.

A columnist in the New York World-Telegram wrote: “It would be much better if she and her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up and waited for the phone to ring.” Rumors circulated that Babe was a man in disguise. Others suggested she pursued athletics to make up for a lack of romantic suitors. 

But Babe refused to quiet down or back away. She was famous for arriving at clubhouses early, before golf matches, and bellowing, “The Babe is here! Who’s going to finish second?” When asked by reporters how a woman her size could hit the ball so far, she often said, “I just loosen my girdle and let the ball have it!” 

In 1950, Babe met Betty Dodd, a fellow golfer, at a tournament. The two immediately hit it off, and their relationship soon became incredibly close. Betty moved in with Babe and George. She and Babe even recorded an LP together. On one side was a duet called, “I Felt A Little Tear Drop.” On the other was “Detour,” featuring Babe on the harmonica. 

Though they never went public with their relationship, Babe’s biographer, Susan Cayleff, has written that there is “little doubt their relationship was both sexual and romantic.” 

In 1953, Babe was diagnosed with cancer. 15 months after surgery and a colostomy -- and a warning from doctors that her athletic career was over -- she returned to the pro golf circuit. In 1954, Babe won the U.S. Women’s Open in Peabody, Massachusetts. She was once again named the Associated Press Athlete of the Year, for the sixth and final time. 

Babe Didrikson Zaharias died in 1956, at the age of 45. In 1999, the Associated Press named her the Athlete of the Century. 

All month, we’re talking about Explorers and Contenders. For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our Encyclopedia Womannica newsletter, Womannica Weekly. 

You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram @EncyclopediaWomannica and you can follow me directly on twitter @jennymkaplan.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!