Mildred Ella Didrikson was born June 26, 1911 to Ole and Hannah Marie Olsen Didriksen in Port Arthur, Texas. Her father was a carpenter in the maritime industry. When she was three years old, the family moved to Beaumont, Texas where she went to public school. She was a gifted athlete and excelled at about every sport she participated in. She picked up her nickname “Babe” (after Babe Ruth, the baseball star) after slugging five home runs in a baseball game, though her mother said her nickname had been “Baby” earlier on. She adopted the spelling Didrikson when she was an adult.
(Image credit: ancestry.com)
Babe was recruited out of high school by Melvin J. McCombs to play on an Amateur Athletic Union basketball team out of Dallas, Texas. McCombs was an employee of Employers Casualty Insurance Company (ECC) which sponsored the team named the Golden Cyclones. McCombs had put together a team of young women from various locations to compete against other such teams. The women were nominally employees of ECC and traveled all over the United States to competitions. The Golden Cyclones were runners up for the AAU national championship in 1930 and 1932 and won the championship in 1931. After her tenure with the team, Babe returned to Beaumont where she graduated with her class at Beaumont High School. Babe was named an All-American forward by the AAU two of the three years.
McCombs recognized her individual track and field skills and continued to coach her in anticipation of the national AAU track and field championships. With Babe’s individual talents, she led the team to the team championship in 1932. The AAU competition served as the United States Olympic Trials and Babe participated in eight of the ten events, winning six of them. She was invited to participate in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. At that time, women were only allowed to enter three events, and Babe won gold medals in the javelin throw and 80-meter hurdles. She tied for the gold medal in high jump but was awarded the silver medal when her style of jumping was ruled to be illegal.
Babe took up golf around 1935 and quickly became recognized even as an amateur. In 1935 she won the Texas State Women’s Championship. She was declared a professional later that year due to an endorsement she had accepted, but this did not affect her performance on the golf circuit. She was an outstanding golfer and won thirteen consecutive Ladies Professional Golf Association tournaments and one point, and thirty-one tournaments in all. Her remarkable golf career included winning the British Ladies Amateur Championship in 1947, becoming the first American to do so.
She was an excellent all around athlete and played in golf tournaments against men. She also pitched in major league baseball exhibition games. She married professional wrestler George Zaharias in 1938, and the couple had no children. Babe was diagnosed with cancer and had an operation in 1953. Her career was in doubt but she returned to competition three months later and in 1954 she won the United States Womens Open. She had a second operation for cancer in 1955 and succumbed to the disease at age 45 in 1956. She was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park and Funeral Home in Beaumont, Jefferson County, Texas.
She and George established the Babe Didrikson Zaharias Fund to support cancer clinics and treatment centers. Numerous golf courses are named for her. Her honors also include being a founding member of the LPGA, being inducted into the LPGA Hall of Fame, posthumously receiving the Bob Jones Award from the United States Golf Association and the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
(Paul Mosley narrates this post here.)
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