When you think of the greatest athletes of all time a lot of names come to mind like Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders, and others. Or you might even just think of some of the best players to ever play a sport like Michael Jordan, Serena Williams, Wayne Gretzky, and Tiger Woods.
There is an athlete you might not know about who deserves to be in this conversation. She not only set records playing multiple sports but she helped break down barriers for women. Her name is Babe Didrikson Zaharias.
Born in 1911 in Port Arthur, Texas Babe was the sixth of seven children growing up. She and her family eventually moved to Beaumont, Texas where she developed her nickname. Hitting home run after home run playing games with kids on her block is where her nickname Babe was born. It stemmed from her favorite baseball player Babe Ruth (duh). There is a contradicting story when it comes to her nickname stemming from her mom calling her “Min Bebe,” but the baseball story is more fun.
As Babe got older he always wanted to be the greatest athlete to ever live and she started her journey by dropping out of high school to get a job and play sports.
Between 1930-1932 she played amateur basketball for the Golden Cyclones. In 1931 she would lead her team to the AAU basketball championship. She was known to be the league’s top forward but she seemed to gravitate more towards track and field eventually leaving the sport.
During the same time period, Babe was also training for track and field. She would practice with her sister by jumping hedges around the neighborhood. Between 1930-1932 she would win a total of eight events in the national championship competition in track and field.
In the 1932 AAU competition, she won six individual events. Most impressively she also took the team title outscoring the 20-women runner-up team from Illinois 30 points to 22. That means that Babe alone beat out an entire track and field team by herself.
In that same year, Babe would go on to compete in the 1932 Olympics. She qualified and made the cut to compete in five events. Unfortunately in these times, women were only allowed to compete in three events so she competed in the 80-meter hurdle, javelin throw, and high jump. Babe would go on to win gold in both the 80-meter hurdle and javelin throw where she set a new world record. She technically won the high jump but due to her unconventional way of jumping the judges decided to disqualify her.
1934 she had a playing stint for the House of David baseball team. There, promoter Ray Doan arranged a training session with Cardinals pitcher Burleigh Grimes. According to the Associated Press, Didrikson “would be one of the best prospects in baseball if she were a boy,” said Grimes. They also noted, “The Babe has mastered somewhat of a curve.”
This lead to her getting a shot in spring training. The Philadelphia Athletics brought her in to pitch for one inning in an exhibition game against the Brooklyn Dodgers. She only gave up one walk and allowed no hits. In the book “Diz,” a biography of Dizzy Dean who was a professional baseball player, he said baseball manager Casey Stengel shook his head and said, “My little lambs just couldn’t get to her.” After this inning, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, “The Babe was wildly cheered as she left the premises.”
Two days later Babe would go on to pitch an inning for the St. Louis Cardinals against the Boston Red Sox. She wasn’t as successful giving up three runs but she allegedly would have gotten through the inning unscathed if not for a bad call from the umpire.
After the game columnist L.C. Davis of the Post-Dispatch said, “As a pitcher, Babe is an outstanding field and track athlete. Babe may be a drawing card, but a woman’s place is on the bench.”
Three days later, Didrikson pitched two scoreless innings for the minor-league New Orleans Pelicans against the Cleveland Indians. She faced the highest level of baseball talent and without a doubt stepped up to the occasion. Babe consistently faced criticism for being a woman. She never attacked them verbally and always let her performance do the talking.
In 1938 her focus shifted to golf and quickly she made headlines by being the first woman to ever compete in a men’s golf event. But again it came with criticism this time coming from a columnist who wrote for the New York World-Telegram saying “It would be much better if she and her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up and waited for the phone to ring,”
By 1946 Babe won the U.S. Women’s Amateur tournament. Between 1946 and 1947 she won 14 golf tournaments in a row. As an amateur, she became the first American woman to win the British Women’s Amateur Golf Tournament.
In 1948 she moved up and became a professional golfer. In that very year, she would go on to win the U.S. Women’s Open. By 1950 she helped found The Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA). Patty Berg was its first president but Babe would take over the year after.
Probably the craziest thing Babe ever did was undergo surgery for colon cancer in 1953. Just one year later in 1954, she won her third U.S. Open by 12 strokes while wearing a colostomy bag.
Overall Babe would go on to win 82 tournaments including 41 titles and 10 majors making her one of the best women golfers of all time.
Babe Didrikson Zaharias achieved a lot in her life and should be considered one of the greatest athletes of all time. She played amateur basketball, professional billiards, pitched in a couple of MLB exhibition games and became one of the greatest golfers of all time. Most importantly she helped break the stigma that women can’t be superior athletes. If she didn’t have so many barriers holding her down who knows what she could have achieved.