Mildred Didrikson Zaharias—better known by the nickname “Babe”—was born on June 26, 1911, in Port Arthur, Texas. A gifted athlete from a young age, she became one of history’s first female sports stars by mastering everything from basketball and track and field to softball, tennis and even bowling. She also broke records as a golfer, winning an unprecedented 82 amateur and professional tournaments before her untimely death at age 45. Explore 10 fascinating facts about the multi-sport titan that the Associated Press once named the “Woman Athlete of the Half Century.”
1. She dropped out of high school to become an athlete.
Didrikson was born into a Norwegian immigrant family on the Gulf Coast of Texas, and earned the nickname “Babe” after her mother’s habit of calling her “Min Bebe.” After spending her youth beating the neighborhood boys in pickup sports games, she became a standout performer on her high school’s basketball, baseball, volleyball, tennis, golf and swimming teams. At age 18, her skills caught the eye of the Employers Casualty Insurance Company, which convinced her to quit school and play for its women’s basketball team in the Amateur Athletic Union. It wasn’t long before the brash and boastful Babe had staked a claim as the league’s top forward. She led her team in scoring during her debut game, and was selected as an all-American for three straight years from 1930 to 1932.
2. Didrikson won a team track meet singlehandedly.
Didrikson’s first taste of national celebrity came in 1932, when she took part in the U.S. women’s track and field championships as the lone member of the Employers Casualty team. While the other teams each fielded a dozen or more athletes, Babe singlehandedly competed in eight events ranging from the hurdles and the broad jump to the shot put and the discus throw, often finishing one heat and then immediately rushing to the starting line of another. Despite the obvious disadvantages of being a “one-girl track team,” she won five events and amassed enough points to claim the championship. Journalists hailed the victory as one of the greatest accomplishments in amateur sports history. “Implausible is the adjective that best befits the Babe,” wrote the New York Times. “As far as sports are concerned, she had the golden touch of Midas.”
3. She set multiple records at the Olympics.
Following her breakthrough at the track and field nationals, Didrikson participated in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics in three events: the javelin, the 80-meter hurdles and the high jump. She easily took gold in the javelin with an Olympic record throw of 143 feet, four inches, and set a new world record in the hurdles by crossing the finish line in just 11.7 seconds. Didrikson could have completed a clean sweep by winning the high jump, but she was relegated to a silver medal after the judges ruled that her head had illegally cleared the bar before her body during her final jump—a rule that no longer exists today. She still left Los Angeles with one silver medal and two gold, having set Olympic or world records in every event in which she competed. According to Didrikson biographer Don Van Natta, Jr., she remains the only female Olympian to have won individual medals in running, jumping and throwing contests.
4. Didrikson worked as a vaudeville performer.
Didrikson emerged from the Los Angeles Olympics as a celebrity sportswoman, but a lack of opportunities for female athletes forced her to seek employment on the vaudeville circuit. Billing herself as the “World’s Greatest Woman Athlete,” she toured Chicago and New York with a variety show that included singing, harmonica playing and sports-related stunts such as hitting plastic golf balls into the crowd. During an era when most women were making mere cents an hour, the wildly popular performances earned her as much as $1,200 per week.
5. She endured frequent prejudice in the media.
Though often lauded in the press, Didrikson also faced jabs from reporters who believed women had no place in athletics. “It would be much better if she and her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up and waited for the phone to ring,” one sports columnist wrote in the New York World-Telegram. Other reporters demeaned her for being unladylike or claimed that she only excelled at sports because she couldn’t attract attention from men. A few even suggested that she might be a man in disguise. Didrikson was reportedly hurt by the sexism she encountered, but she usually responded with cool confidence and humor. When once asked how she managed to produce monster 260-yard tee shots in golf, she replied, “I just loosen my girdle and let the ball have it.”
6. Didrikson was the first woman to play in a PGA Tour event.
In 1934, Didrikson turned her attention to playing competitive golf, which she described as a “game of coordination, rhythm and grace.” Four years later, she made history by entering the all-male Los Angeles Open, the first event on the Professional Golfers’ Association calendar. Didrikson struggled at the tournament and missed the 36-hole cut, but her appearance marked the first time that a woman had competed in a PGA Tour event. The feat wouldn’t be repeated until 2003, when golfer Annika Sorenstam won a sponsor’s exemption for a PGA tournament in Texas.
7. She married a professional wrestler.
In 1938, Didrikson met George Zaharias, a 235-pound pro wrestler who performed as one of the sport’s most famous villains under the nickname “The Crying Greek from Cripple Creek.” The two struck up an instant attraction after playing together at the Los Angeles Open—Babe was supposedly impressed that George could out-drive her off the tee—and they were married that December. George would go on to serve as Didrikson’s business manager, trainer and promoter for the rest of her career.
8. Didrikson once won 14 golf tournaments in a row.
Didrikson’s outsized ego often grated on her fellow golfers—she was fond of informing them that they were all playing for second—but she backed up her boasts with results. Between 1946 and 1947, she won 14 golf tournaments in a row, often annihilating her opponents in match play. The run also included a victory at the British Women’s Amateur Championship, which had never been won by an American. To this day, Didrikson’s 14-tournament winning streak remains the longest in golf history.
9. She was a founding member of the LPGA.
Didrikson dominated women’s golf in the late-1940s and eventually turned pro, but she was hampered by a meager tournament schedule that included only a half-dozen events per year. In 1950, with the help of corporate sponsors, she and twelve other female golfers formed a new pro tour called the Ladies Professional Golf Association, or LPGA. Didrikson caused a controversy within the LPGA by demanding a special appearance fee of $1,000 per tournament, but her celebrity helped grow the fledgling tour, which went on to triple its prize money in its first five years.
10. Didrikson won her last major golf tournament while suffering from terminal cancer.
In 1953, Didrikson was diagnosed with colon cancer and forced to undergo emergency surgery and a colostomy. It was reported that she would never play golf again, but she returned to her winning ways a little more than a year later, when she trounced the field at the 1954 U.S. Women’s Open by a record margin of 12 strokes. The comeback saw Didrikson voted the Associated Press’ “Female Athlete of the Year” for the sixth time in her career. Her illness continued to intensify, however, and she later passed away on September 27, 1956, at the age of 45.