Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias was the quintessential athlete whose performance in multiple sports made her a cultural icon and a sports legend. The Associated Press named her Female Athlete of the Year six times from 1932 to 1954 and Female Athlete of the Half Century in 1950. No other woman has performed in so many different sports so well. Babe, nicknamed because of her home-run-hitting prowess as a youngster, was a pioneer who struggled to break down stereotypes of women in professional sports. She not only insisted on a sports career but also played in sports that were traditionally considered to be the male’s domain and refused to conform to the ladylike image required of female athletes.
Babe Didrikson grew up as a tomboy whose main focus in life was athletics. In her high school, she was outstanding in volleyball, tennis, baseball, basketball, and swimming. Her best sport was basketball, for which she was recruited out of high school to play for a women’s team, where she was a three-time All-American. Her interests turned to softball and then track and field. Between 1930 and 1932, Didrikson held American, Olympic, or world records in five different track-and-field events. In the 1932 Olympics, she won two gold medals and a silver medal, set a world’s record, and was co-holder of two other records. Her interests turned increasingly to golf. She played her first golf tournament in 1934 and won the Texas Women’s Amateur Championship in 1935.
In 1938, Didrikson married professional wrestler George Zaharias, from Pueblo, Colorado. He coached her to win two golf tournaments in 1940. The couple moved to Denver in 1943, where Babe became a special consultant to Judge Philip B. Gilliam of the Denver Juvenile court, working with disadvantaged children. Babe Zaharias played for Park Hill Country Club and during the 1946-47 seasons, she won 17 straight tournaments, including the British Women’s Amateur tournament, the first American to do so. She returned from that win to a hero’s welcome as Denver’s home-town girl on July 4, 1947. Zaharias was one of the founders of the LPGA in 1950. She had 35 career victories in golf, ten of them majors, including three U.S. Opens. She won the third U.S. Open championship 14 weeks after she underwent major cancer surgery in 1954. The disease claimed her life in 1956. Zaharias was inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame in 1974 and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1976.