Years ago, there were two great sports “Babes,” the most prominent was George Herman “Babe” Ruth, arguably the greatest baseball player of all-time. Not a day goes by that there is not someone, somewhere, mentioning his name or extolling his legend.
But the other “Babe” these days is too often overlooked. Her name was Mildred “Babe” Didrikson-Zaharias, who may be the greatest female athlete the world has ever known.
Do I know so for sure? No, because I’m too young to definitively make such a claim, but I do believe it. I’ve seen the film clips, and I’ve read the stories, and based on this “research” I’m sold on her place in history—she is indeed No. 1. Still, because she competed so long ago, coupled with the fact that we seldom, if ever, give female athletes their just due, this Babe is not mentioned nearly enough.
Today would have been Babe Didrikson Zaharias’ 100th birthday. She died from cancer in 1956 at the age of 45. Even though she died so young, she nonetheless was able to accumulate one of sports’ most significant resumes. But amid her bounty of medals, trophies, prize money and fame, she also had to triumph over innuendo, and suspicion. How could a woman be so good? Underneath she just had to be a man—right? For others she wasn’t pretty enough, or even pretty at all, which made the nasty gossip of the time even more vicious and cruel.
Still, Babe played on. And played better than anyone else.
Her credentials for greatness are unquestioned. She won two gold medals at the 1932 Olympic Games. She set a world record in the hurdles, and she also won gold throwing the javelin as well as silver in the high jump. No sport seemed to pose to her a serious challenge.
She also excelled in just about every other sport in which she competed: baseball, basketball, tennis, bowling, and later golf.
For example, as a professional golfer, she was the LPGA’s first superstar. She won 48 tournaments in her career, including an all-time professional golf record (men or women) 14 consecutive victories. She was also the first woman ever to make the cut in a PGA event, a feat which she accomplished several times.
Unfortunately, in 1953 she was diagnosed with colon cancer. While fighting the disease with surgeries and treatments, she actually won several more tournaments. But cancer is the one competitor she couldn't defeat, and she died September 27, 1956. That day, the sports world lost one of its greatest champions. Let’s hope, though, that her sports legacy will never be forgotten and will no longer be ignored.
Happy 100th, Babe. You are the greatest.