Before Annika There Was Babe

RSS

This is the first of a two-part story on the life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias, the first female to compete in a men's professional golf tournament and arguably the greatest athlete, male or female, of all time
 
Long before the days of smoke and smog, the sun radiated uninhibitedly over Southern California on January 7, 1938.
 
It was the first day of the 13th annual Los Angeles Open; an event one could enter -- with the tournaments permission -- simply by filling out an application.
 
Jimmy Thomson won the 72-hole tournament over John Revolta; Henry Picard and Lawson Little shared third, while Horton Smith and Lloyd Mangrum tied for fifth.
 
But it was a 5-foot 6-inch 115-pound 26-year-old who created local fervor -- even though she missed the cut.
 
Yes, she.
 
Sixty-five years before Annika Sorenstam announced she would accept an invitation to play in the Bank of America Colonial, Babe Didrikson became the first female to participate in a mens professional golf tournament.
 
There was no national exposure, no debate as to whether or not she was doing justice to her gender - just local photographers, scribes and patrons viewing the spectacle.
 
And Didrikson always provided a show. She was boisterous, gregarious and brash; full of vim and vigor, but not bravado ' she could back up her antics with action.
 
'All of my life I have always had the urge to do things better than anybody else.' ' Babe Didrikson
 
Mildred Ella Didriksen (she later changed the 'E' to an 'O' so as not to be confused as Swedish) was born June 26, 1911, in Port Arthur, Texas, to Norwegian immigrants.
 
The family moved 17 miles inland to Beaumont in 1915 after a hurricane devastated the Port Arthur area.
 
Living in the rough south end of town, Mildred, the sixth of seven children, was more than a tomboy. She didnt just play with the boys, she beat them ' or beat them up.
 
In an era when female athletes were almost unacceptable, Babe, as she would soon forever be known, was as much a force as she was a freak of nature.
 
She excelled in everything in which she competed: basketball, golf, track, bowling, tennis, billiards, baseball, swimming, diving, boxing and volleyball (just to name a few).
 
Golf was far from the forefront of Didriksons fertile mind during her secondary years in Beaumont. She first gained prominence in basketball - her high-school team never lost and she reportedly scored 106 points in a game.
 
It was because of her hardcourt prowess that she left high school during her junior year -- with the reluctant permission of her parents -- to work for the Employers Casualty Company of Dallas.
 
They paid her to be a secretary, but hired her to play for the companys Golden Cyclone basketball team.
 
Babe earned All-American honors from 1930-32. But it wasnt in her nature to be content dominating inferior opponents without seeking out other challenges.
 
With an eye on everything, she soon focused on track. There her legend was nationalized.
 
In what would warrant an explosion in popularity and endorsement deals today, she single-handedly won the 1932 AAU Championships, which then served as Olympic qualifying.
 
On July 16 in Evanston, Ill., Babe, the sole representative of Employers Casualty, totaled 30 points ' eight more than the runner-up team, who had 22 athletes.
 
She won five of the eight events in which she competed and tied another. She also set four world records, and did it all in a three-hour span.
 
At the 32 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, she was only allowed to participate in three events. She won gold in the javelin and 80-meter hurdles, and took silver in the high jump after two judges ruled against her - even though she jumped the same height as the gold medallist.
 
Over the next couple of years, Babe cashed in on her celebrity by barnstorming. She performed in vaudeville acts, competed in various sports against both men and women, and even sparred against heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey.
 
But eventually the public's interest waned, and when it did it was time for Babe to find a new wave to ride. That vehicle was golf.
 
Related Links:
  • Part 2 - Before Annika, There Was Babe
  • Babe Zaharius Bio in the World Golf Hall of Fame
  • ''Everything Annika'' Feature Page
  • Annika and the Colonial Timeline
  • Full Coverage of the Bank of America Colonial