Saturday, March 09, 2013

Who needs a lasso of truth when you have a golf club? My International Women's Day hero: Babe Zaharias

Since it's International Women's Day, and everybody else is sharing their historical female heroes, I'll take this as an excuse to share my athletic heroine, and somebody who I've adored since I discovered her. :)

Mildred Ella "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias.

I'll just call her Babe Zaharias because that's what she's most famously known as.  "Babe" was her nickname after Babe Ruth, which is fitting because like Babe Ruth, she was head and shoulders above all her competition.

What shocks me is how few people know about her, even feminists, or fans of women's sports.  Even among golf discussions, I rarely hear her mentioned.  I found out about her when I read legendary sports historian Bert Randolph Sugar's 100 Greatest Athletes of All Time book, and saw her ranked #3.  A woman ranked NUMBER THREE of all time, and that includes the men.  That puts her ahead of Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Pete Sampras, Jack Nicklaus and even her namesake, Babe Ruth.  And when I read his mini-bio of her, I was like, OMG she was the Wonder Woman of sports.  How come I've never heard of her!?

And then I read a biography about her (Wonder Girl: The Magnificent Sporting Life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias by Don Van Natta Jr.) and she cemented herself as my hero. :D

So here's a rundown of her accomplishments (gratuitously taken from Wikipedia since I don't have the book with me right now :\ ):

She was an expert at track and field, baseball, softball, diving, roller skating, bowling and basketball, before she even became a golfer.

She led her company's team to win the basketball championship of the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) in 1931.

In 1932, she single-handedly won the AAU championships for her company.  And I'm not being rhetorical, she was the only competitor on her team.  She participated in 8 of the 10 events, and won 5 of them outright, and tied for first in another.  She set 5 world records in the process.  One person participating in all sorts of different events (including running, hurdles, javelin throw, high jump, baseball throw) defeated people who specialized in those, and set world records.

In the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, she won 2 golds and a silver.

With few professional opportunities for women athletes, she took up golf, and eventually dominated the sport.  She won 17 straight women's amateur tournaments, which has never been beaten, and in total won 82 golf tournaments (professional and amateur).  By 1950, she had won every golf championship available.

In 1950, she won the "grand slam" of women's golf, winning the 3 major tournaments that existed during that time, and became the fastest LPGA golfer to get 10 wins (in 1 year and 20 days).

Despite not being able to play a full schedule in 1952-53 due to illness, she still became the fastest LGPA golfer to get to 20 tournament wins.

In 1953, she was diagnosed with colon cancer. :(  And yet, that didn't stop her from making a comeback in 1954 and continuing her amazing career.  She won the U.S. Open that year, 1 month after having surgery and still wearing a colostomy bag. O_O  That was her 10th and final major.  In that year, she became the fastest player to get to 30 wins.

And then in 1955 her cancer returned, and in 1956 she passed away. :(  She was 45, and still ranked #1 in women's golf.

But isn't that freaking amazing? O_O  And even more amazing is she wasn't like 6'4" or anything.  She was only 5'7".  And from the book, she apparently even struck out star major league baseball players while she was doing an exhibition tour before she took up golf.  Given her domination in track and field, I can believe it.

Also, what I love about her is her competitive spirit, and that she was really unusual for the time as a female athlete who would brag about her accomplishments, be publicly confident and assertive, and not give into the role that women, even athletes, were expected to play.  She wanted to win, she was determined, she was competitive, and confident, and she wasn't at all afraid to show it.

I'm a huge competitor when I do anything, especially sports, and I always appreciate athletes who are too.  I don't think you should cheat, or scream and cry when you lose, but I do think there's nothing wrong with wanting to win, trying your best, and not giving up.  There's nothing wrong with wanting to be the best, and wanting to win, and that's what she embodied, and it's a trait that women weren't supposed to have, at least not to the degree that it was embraced in all the great male athletes.

And she has some great great quotes... not just for sports, but for life:

"Study the rules so that you won't beat yourself by not knowing something."

I really like this one, because it's important to a) play by the rules and b) know them, because if you don't, you have nobody but yourself to blame.  And I like an athlete owning that, because sometimes you see people who blame the rules for their own ignorance of it.

 "Before I was in my teens, I knew exactly what I wanted to be: I wanted to be the best athlete who ever lived."

I love this one.

"The formula for success is simple: practice and concentration then more practice and more concentration."

"The more you practice, the better. But in any case, practice more than you play."

""Luck? Sure. But only after long practice and only with the ability to think under pressure."

No matter how much natural skill you have, always practice, always try to be better than you were.  Some pro athletes now could learn from this.

"Winning has always meant much to me, but winning friends has meant the most."

Awwww :)

"The Babe is here. Who's coming in second?"

"You know when there's a star, like in show business, the star has her name in lights on the marquee! Right? And the star gets the money because the people come to see the star, right? Well, I'm the star, and all of you are in the chorus."

"I am out to beat everybody in sight, and that is just what I'm going to do."

She was Muhammad Ali before Muhammad Ali was even born.

"You can't win them all -- but you can try."

 This is my attitude too. :)  I go into stuff trying to win.  It doesn't mean winning is everything, but I always believe I have a chance, and I try my best.

See, isn't she awesome? :D

It's not just her talent that makes her my hero, but her drive, her competitiveness, her belief in herself, and not being afraid to be herself and express all this back when these characteristics were assumed to be the domain of men.  She wasn't just one of (if not the greatest) female athlete of all time, she was one of the greatest competitors of all time, and was always striving to be better, never satisfied with even being the best.  And she never let anybody tell her she couldn't do it.

Babe Zaharias: The Wonder Woman of sports. :D


  1. Wow, she was a total BAMF who should be held up as an icon of accomplishment everywhere!

  2. Wow! What an amazing woman. Wikipedia mentions she wrote an autobiography, too. It's out of print, but might be found in libraries.

  3. Hi Ami,

    This has absolutely floored me. O_O I have never heard of Babe Zaharias, and now I'm so disappointed that I haven't heard of her sooner. She sounds awesome and certainly a role model for all women out there. Thank you for sharing this, and for always providing the most relevant topics on your blog. :)

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