Povich Rewind: Babe Didrikson Zaharias

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Povich Rewind: Babe Didrikson Zaharias
Mar 29, 2018

Shirley Povich grew up in era before women were major players in sports. But throughout his career, he was an advocate for racial and gender equality. One woman athlete he did write about was Babe Didrikson Zaharias, the most dominant woman athlete in the first half of the 20th century. Reprinted below is Povich’s column written after her passing in 1956.

Jack Sharkey and Babe DidriksonCourtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

The Babe, Mildred Didrikson Zaharias, didn’t quite make it 83 winning tournaments. She lost her three-year bout with cancer in a Galveston, Texas, hospital yesterday, leaving the world to mourn the greatest girl athlete of them all.

The opponent that licked her, it must be noted, was the same deliverer of the sneak body-attack that also cut down those other champions, Jim Thorpe and Babe Ruth. It was not a stand-up foe to be out-gamed or out-performed, else Babe Zaharias would have won this one too, her admirers are sure. 

Never was there such virtuosity in athletics as the one-time skinny tomboy from Port Arthur, Texas, daughter of a Norwegian carpenter, brought to our times. Her mind that was bent on excelling gave few commands that her remarkable body couldn’t keep. The two Olympics titles she won at 18 were only the beginning of a fame that transcended her world of sports. Greatest woman athlete of the half century, she was voted in the Associated Press poll of 1960. It certified her as the female counterpart of Jim Thorpe. But she was more versatile even than Thorpe, she proved, when at an age considered late for big-time golf she flung herself into that game, too, and shattered even more records.

The Babe’s triumphs ranged from the javelin throw, the high hurdles, baseball pitching, basketball, golf and the harmonica. Of her skill with the harmonica, she once said, characteristically, “just picked on up when I was seven years old and been blowing it ever since.”

She won her fans with her frolic as well as with her skills. It was on the stage of the Statler Hotel’s Embassy room during the week of a National Celebrities Tournament here that Hildegarde invited the Babe into her act and asked the usual questions: How does a girl hit the ball that far? That’s when the uninhibited Babe gave the tip that became the most-quoted in women’s golf: “Just take off your girdle and swing.”

The day in 1947 when, in Scotland, she won her 19th straight golf tournament – a record unapproachable – cameramen asked her to pose with Jean Donald, the Scotch lassie who had also been in the finals of the British Open.

“A Highland Fling, please,” they asked of the Norwegian girl from Texas.

The Scotch girl put her arm around Babe, showed her how to raise her knee and start the dance. The Babe obliged, but then called a halt. “Wait until I can get my toe pointed right,” she said. That was Didrikson, the perfectionist.

The Babe shattered one record that doesn’t show in the books. In 1947, she became the first girl ever to invade the precincts of the Washington Touchdown Club as an honored-guest speaker. The toastmaster that day introduced her with some remarkable truths.

A photo of Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias with her autograph can been seen inside the Sports Immortals Museum on Federal Highway in Boca Raton, Fl. Photo by Peter W. Cross

“Here’s the girl,” he said, “who can run, jump, hurdle, toss a javelin, a baseball and a football farther than any other. She can swim, ride, shoot, box and beat them all at golf. She broke two Olympic records in one day, and just kidding around in a swimming pool she came within one second of the world record for the 100-yard free style (women’s).”

“And cook, too,” Babe added as she went to the lectern.

The next day in the Celebrities Tournament at Columbia, she declined Bob Considine’s bit of gallantry in offer her the privilege of driving off first. “Thanks,” she said, “but I guess you’d better tee off first, because I suspect it’s the last time you’ll have the honor.” She was the imp, and nobody ever got mad at Babe.

She was winning so many tournaments in 1957-48, twenty-one in a row, that she threw a severe fright into the United State Golf Association when she filed her entry in the National Open. They could find no rules to bar her and avoid what might be the embarrassment of having a gal golfer knock some of their pets, so they muttered something about “intent” of the rules to limit the Open to men.

Then they hastily re-wrote their own rules to insert the important word “male” in spelling out eligibility.

The Babe had no greater admirers on the golf course than the men champions she often played with. Snead, Demaret, Hogan, Harrison played with her and marveled at her flawless “action” with the clubs. Never did she pretend that she could beat them, but sometimes, here and there, she would.

Characteristic of her willingness to shoulder the pressure of a match was her exhibition in the two-ball International at Orlando where her partner was George Bolesta, the Tampa pro. They came to the 18th needing a win to close the match out. They surveyed their respective drives and the gallery assumed Bolesta would play Didrikson’s drive when the Babe cut in with “let me rap that little old thing up on the green, George.” Thus she took her partner off the spot, boomed a two-iron next to the pin and asked everybody, “How’d I do?” She was so wonderful.

September 28, 1956

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