On the morning of Aug. 11, 1932 permission was given for the mail plane to dip low on the way in from Fort Worth and circle downtown Dallas. As soon as the plane was sighted, sirens and whistles began screaming across the city, signaling her return to Texas. Ten thousand people were waiting for her at Love Field. Her hometown newspaper, the Beaumont Journal, ran a five-column headline on page one reading: BABE, HERALDED LIKE LINDBERGH OR BIG DIRIGIBLE AKRON, PLANES INTO TEXAS IN SAILOR PANTS CARRYING THREE JAVELINS.
The lead paragraph said: "With her progress ticked off on press wires as if she were Lindbergh, the Prince of Wales or the dirigible Akron, Babe Didrikson, the 19-year-old Beaumont girl who went, saw and conquered the world of athletics at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, arrived over Texas soil by airplane Thursday morning."
The morning paper in Beaumont, the Enterprise, proclaimed: WORLD-FAMOUS BABE IS GIVEN TUMULTUOUS DALLAS WELCOME AMID TICKER TAPE SHOWERS—She Tells of Having Picture Taken With Clark Gable.
A dozen bands marched in her parade. A battalion of courthouse kingfish, Chamber of Commerce boosters and what the papers reverently called "society matrons" turned out to shake her hand. When Babe Didrikson emerged from the mail plane, she clasped her hands over her head like a prizefighter. She wore a jaunty sailor cap on her chopped-off chestnut hair, a shirt with the U.S. Olympic emblem and flaring, baggy beach pants. The Dallas police department band struck up Hail to the Chief. A sweating dignitary in a wilting white suit introduced her as "the Jim Thorpe of modern women athletes." The crowd cheered.
Babe Didrikson was tanned and slender and looked very strong; her blue eyes were cool. There was a lithe, unconscious arrogance in her walk. To see her this jubilant summer morning one could not doubt that in her mind she believed that if Jim Thorpe were being introduced somewhere that day, the only proper way to do it would be to call him "the Babe Didrikson of modern male athletes." Babe Didrikson reacted to the immense Dallas reception with aplomb. No wiggles, no giggles. When a reporter asked her if she had anything to say, she replied, "I want to say hello, that's all." The crowd applauded this. Someone asked Babe about her future and she said, "I am definitely going to enter the national golf tournament for women in Massachusetts next month and, what's more, I believe I'll win it. I can outdrive most women golfers now and I've only played 10 rounds of golf in my life." The crowd shouted at this, too.
Then Babe grinned and told the assemblage that she had hoped to play golf with Will Rogers in Los Angeles, but when he appeared at the course, he was so overwhelmed by her prowess that "he wouldn't do nothing but caddie for me." The crowd hooted with laughter. Someone asked her why in tarnation she was carrying three javelins. Babe said, "Well, I got even with somebody. I took one discus out there and somebody hooked it, so I swung onto these three javelins. I come out ahead." The crowd guffawed at this, too.
People were feeling good this Texas morning. Not many had been so close to an airplane before. Even fewer had stood so near a legend.
She has been dead 19 years now. On the September morning in 1956 when she died of cancer, President Eisenhower opened a press conference at the White House by saying, "Ladies and gentlemen, I should like to take one minute to pay a tribute to Mrs. Zaharias, Babe Didrikson. She was a woman who in her athletic career certainly won the admiration of every person in the United States, all sports people over the world...." There was scarcely a newspaper in the U.S. that did not carry her obituary on the front page. She had been known as the greatest woman athlete of modern times. Some even believed her to be the greatest athlete of all mankind for all time. Some still claim that is so.
Statistics form the spine of the legend of Babe Didrikson Zaharias. She was an All-America basketball player in 1930, 1931 and 1932 and led her team to a national championship in 1931. She often made 30 points a game in an era when 20 points for an entire team was a normal score. Between 1930 and 1932 she held American, Olympic or world records in five separate track and field events: the 80-meter hurdles (11.7 seconds), javelin (143'4"), high jump (5'5¼"), broad jump (18' 8½"), baseball throw (272'2", a record she still holds). On July 16, 1932, at the national AAU track meet for women, Babe Didrikson was the sole member of the Employers Casualty Company team from Dallas, the Golden Cyclones. She entered eight of 10 events, competing against a field of more than 200 women on teams with at least 15 members each. Babe won five events outright (javelin, hurdles, shotput, broad jump and baseball throw), tied for first in the high jump and finished fourth in the discus. The lone Golden Cyclone scored 30 points, easily defeating the runner-up Illinois Women's Athletic Club team, which had 22 members who totaled 22 points. In the 1932 Olympics she won gold medals in the hurdles and the javelin, setting world records in both events, and she tied for first with another world-record performance in the high jump (although she was given the silver medal because officials ruled she "dived" illegally in her last successful jump).
In Dallas she was an all-star softball player; later she pitched for the itinerant bearded baseball team of the House of David and she appeared in major league exhibition games, pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals, the Philadelphia Athletics and the Cleveland Indians. She won 82 significant golf tournaments, pro and amateur. She once won a record 17 consecutive tournaments, capping that string in 1947 by becoming the first American to win the British Ladies' Amateur Championship. In 1954, only 15 months after she had undergone radical surgery for cancer of the rectum, she won the U.S. Women's Open at Peabody Country Club in Salem, Mass. by a record margin, 12 shots. She bowled to a 200 average as a teen-ager. She could roller-skate, sail, fly-cast, shoot pool, play tennis, play marbles, play volleyball, swim very close to world-record times in short distances, dive well enough to win municipal championships and even sew well enough to win second prize at an East Texas fair for a dress she made. In 1950, the Associated Press picked her as Woman Athlete of the Half Century (Jim Thorpe was the male).
So eager have people been to magnify the legend that they insist—gospel truth—that she somehow managed to excel at a lunatic potpourri of sports, including canoeing, croquet, archery, skeet shooting, even polo. They swear Babe Didrikson shot a 91 the first day she ever handled a golf club, that she once scored 99 points (47 field goals, five free throws) in a high school basketball game, that she bowled 193 after five minutes of instruction. People swear these things are true, although they are not. Sports statistician-historian Frank G. Menke came up with the shimmering statistic that as an amateur Babe Didrikson Zaharias entered 634 competitions and emerged victorious in 632 of them. This, too, is loving balderdash, but it is the measure of her real accomplishments that people do not doubt such things are true.
If statistics provide the spine of the legend, then its soul is made of memories. These are warm and inexact, a bit surrealistic perhaps. There is an immense vitality in the recollections of those who personally knew Babe. To them she is still a strong and springy young woman, full of foolishness and pranks, of braggadocio and stoic determination. The contrast between the Babe they remember and their own changed looks and lives today can be startling, even sad.
Babe's dearest sister, Mrs. O. B. Grimes (Lillie Didriksen), is now 66, widowed, and for 40 years has resided in a white bungalow set on cement blocks on Roberts Street in Beaumont. Lillie is plump, gray-haired, bespectacled, occasionally absentminded, anxious because "the colored's movin' in over back and sometimes I'm scared." Her glasses cloud and she wipes her eyes fairly often when she speaks of Babe. "You know what she loved more'n almost anythin'? Ridin' on the Ferris wheel. Oh, my, we would ride 'em by the hour, Babe and me. That was after she come into money; we couldn't afford rides before. But, oh, how that girl would work for things she wanted. When I was livin' with her in Dallas, I wasn't but 20, 21, I don't think, and she was two years younger'n me, she was just learnin' golf. Babe, she'd hit and hit the balls until she had to put tape over her hands, they was so tore up, but Babe wouldn't stop. I'd be out there with her and I'd be so hungry. It'd be gettin' dark, and I'd beg Babe to go in, but she'd say, 'No, I got to hit just a few more, Lillie.' And she'd hit 'em so far and she'd ask me where they went and I'd say, 'Babe, I don't know where. It's dark. I ain't no Indian, Babe.' "
Babe's husband, George Zaharias, was once an exuberant giant who won a certain fame of his own as a villainous wrestler who would turn so cowardly when his acts of transparent treachery were discovered that he was billed as The Weeping Greek from Cripple Creek. Today George Zaharias is feeble, confined to bed or wheelchair in a small house in Tampa. He is crippled from a massive stroke, a new pacemaker was recently installed, his eyesight is fading.
George Zaharias seems to revive when he talks of his late wife. They first met in 1938 at a golf tournament in Los Angeles. "It was a beautiful sunny day and we teed off early in the morning. She was in a light brown sweater and a pleated skirt with pockets. We didn't shake hands or anything. I put my arms around her in a wrestling hold for the photographers. She said, 'This is great.' I said, 'You're mine, you know that.' She said, 'That's right.' We teed off and we chitchatted during the round, you know, athlete to athlete, and we really got along. I finished with an 80, she had an 81. I told her, you're eating dinner with me tonight and we did. She loved champagne. She liked it all sugared up, and she'd stir it around and stir it around until she got the champagne to sing. We got engaged but we never found time to get married. I kept telling her it would only take five minutes. We were living together in St. Louis and finally I said, 'Babe, we can't go on like this. You're too famous for us to be living together.' So we got married just before Christmas in 1938."
Ruth Garrison Francis Scurlock, 81, was a pretty young English teacher at Beaumont High School when Babe was a student in the 1920s. Ruth Scurlock knew Babe well then and even better in later years, for her husband, the late Bill (Tiny) Scurlock, who weighed 300 pounds, was the sports editor of the Beaumont Journal and Babe Didrikson was Tiny's sports-page protégé. Ruth Scurlock gets about on two canes now in her spacious Beaumont home. She is a cultured, articulate woman who has collected many shelves of books on Texas history. As she speaks about Babe, ceiling fans spin slowly to make a breeze in the heat of the night. "Babe came to dinner here at our home one time and she parked a magnificent long tan Auburn in our driveway. It was a gleaming thing with exhaust pipes outside the hood. The children in the neighborhood heard she was here and gathered outside, chattering and rubbing the fenders of the car as if it were some kind of idol. They kept clamoring for Babe to come out and after dinner she did. That woman spent two hours with those children, teaching them how to hold their bats, their rackets, their golf clubs. She was there with them till dark. The next day she left for a tournament somewhere in Arkansas. She loved to drive fast and just across the Texas line she hit an old man coming out of his driveway in a wagon. She killed him, I think. There was some litigation over it, but Babe had good lawyers and she got out of it all right."
Peggy Kirk Bell, 53, was one of Babe's friends on the golf tour. She remains a fine golfer, and with her husband Warren owns Pine Needles, a Southern Pines (N.C.) country club. Peggy first met Babe at a golf-tournament in 1945. "I was so excited, here I was going to meet Didrikson, the great track star. Well, she looked pretty tough to me. Then after the first round, we met in the locker room and Babe said, 'Come on, kid, I'll play you some gin rummy.' I said I didn't know how and she said, 'That's O.K., I'll show you.' The next thing I know, she is madly adding up something on a piece of paper and she informs me that the game is over and I owe her $12. For years I teased Babe about how she hustled a green kid out of $12. She always said, 'Oh, I never did that.' But she did. She was always entertaining us, and always laughing. We'd sit down to eat, she'd balance a spoon on her hand, whack it and jump it into a glass. When she was dying in Galveston, I went to visit her and she said, 'See that Coke bottle over there?' And she flipped a cigarette into it. Impossible. She was always doing the impossible. If she missed, no one remembered. But when she made it work, it became legend."
Wherever she went, Babe made the champagne sing and the children laugh. She was a hustler, a bit of a huckster, too, and if she made the tales about herself a little taller than the truth in the interest of enlarging the legend, who cared?
She was born Mildred Ella Didriksen in Port Arthur, Texas, on June 26, 1911. The year of her birth was something she obscured. Today the obfuscation is evident at the very edge of her grave. On her tombstone, carved in marble, it says her life-span was 1911 to 1956. On an official Texas historical marker, stamped in steel, at the entrance to the plot, it says the year of her birth was 1914. This is the date she gives in her autobiography. On the official application form to enter the 1932 Olympics she wrote 1913 in a penciled girlish scrawl. By the early '50s she was claiming to have been born in 1915. And once on a visa application she declared the year to be 1919. There is no birth certificate on file at the Jefferson County courthouse in Beaumont, but a baptismal certificate indicates that the correct date is 1911.
Thus Didrikson was not 19 but 21 when she became the gold-medal darling of the 1932 Olympics. There is a small, but somewhat diminishing difference between being a bouncing teen-ager and a legal adult performing the wonders she did. But no matter. There is also a discrepancy in the fact that she always spelled her last name with an "s-o-n" while her parents and three sisters and two of her three brothers spelled the family name "s-e-n." That does not matter, either.
Her parents, Ole and Hannah Didriksen, emigrated from Norway. He was a small, wiry seaman, a ship's carpenter who had sailed around Cape Horn 19 times before he took to land for good. To the disappointment of his wife, he chose to settle in the dank Gulf Coast town of Port Arthur. The reason, he told a surprised reporter years later, was "I liked the climate." The area was a fetid, semitropical plain, littered with the steel of a booming oil-drilling industry. The first three Didriksen children had been born in Norway. Twins, Lillie and Louis, were born in Port Arthur in 1909, then Babe, then in 1915 the seventh and last child, a son. This boy was named Arthur Storm because on the day of his birth a hurricane devastated the Gulf Coast, killing 275 people. It also destroyed the Didriksen home, and the family moved to Beaumont, 17 miles away, no garden spot either. They settled on Doucette, a shabby street with a trolley-car line down the center and an assortment of bungalows along each side. Some of the houses were owned by Beaumont's largest industrial complex, the Magnolia oil refinery, which sprawled at one end of Doucette Street (the other end was bounded by railroad tracks). It was a tough neighborhood of rednecks and roughnecks, nearly everyone employed by "The Magnolia." Ole Didriksen was not; he picked up odd jobs, refinishing furniture for "the rich," working at construction. In his house he installed beautiful built-in cabinets, a mantel and a breezy, many-windowed sun porch. Ole was good at his craft, though he never made much money. He was no great shakes at sports. His favorite admonition to his children was: "Get plenty of exercise and keep your bowels clear."
To hear Lillie tell it, life on Doucette was endless summertime, full of sun and games and mischief. "We was always roller-skatin', always jumpin' and runnin', we had a trapeze and circus stuff hangin' in a tree in back. We didn't never play dolls, not that I can remember. I could run faster'n Babe when we was kids, but I couldn't never jump over hedges like she done. She used to practice hurdlin' the hedges on Doucette, but I couldn't get it right." There was music in the Didriksen home. Hannah sang, a couple of sisters played the piano, Ole played the fiddle after a fashion ("Well, Poppa, he knew one song real good, I know that," says Lillie) and Babe was a wizard on the harmonica. She had mastered the instrument as a child after listening to a local radio program starring a mouth organ maestro named Castor Oil Clarence.
The Didriksen house still stands, sturdy and tight as the day Ole Didriksen left it, but it has not been painted in decades. The neighborhood has a listlessness about it, weeds grow long in the sidewalk cracks. The refinery (now one of Mobil's) is still operating, the trolley tracks are gone. Doucette has become part of a section some people call Nigger Town. The family living in Babe's old home is named Gibbs, and Mrs. Mildred Gibbs is a well-spoken woman who was recently willing, though not enthusiastic, about showing Lillie around the place. Mrs. Gibbs says her family had not known this was the childhood home of Babe Didrikson Zaharias until a year or two after they moved in. "I have made certain my children know who lived here before them," she says. "It's really a historic place. But I doubt if anyone else in the neighborhood is aware of it." Ole Didriksen's cabinetwork is still in evidence. His cheerful sun porch still welcomes the breeze. Lillie fondly touched the woodwork and walls during her visit. "Oh, my, I feel they're all still here—Poppa and Babe and my Mama," she said.
At the 1932 Olympics Babe said, "People think it is a little strange that I do not seem to be worried or nervous before I run a race. Why should I be that way? All I'm doing is running against girls." She went on to advise any girl who "wants to become an athlete and do some winning" to play against boys so she becomes accustomed to being "smashed around." She said, "The only real first-class advice I can give on how girls can be better athletes is get toughened up playing boys' games but don't get tough. There's a lot of difference there."
Whether Babe Didrikson was truly tough or merely toughened, she cut a hard-knuckled swath through much of her childhood and adolescence. She was in endless playground fights, daring kids to step over lines scratched in the dirt, punching people in the arm "to make a knot," pinching, kicking, stepping on heels. Once, in high school, a football player named Red Reynolds stuck out his chin and told Babe that he doubted she could hurt him. She punched him and he dropped to the floor, senseless as a stone. The nature of Beaumont's South End had a lot to do with developing her talent and creating her temperament. People either clawed their way up and out of the neighborhood, or they spent their lives working at "The Magnolia" or the fig-packing plant or the gunnysack factory.
One of Babe's earliest pals, and frequent opponents, was Raymond Alford, a South Ender who grew up to be a local sports hero and later was the dynamic athletic director of the city school system. Alford recalls those early days in the South End: "We went barefoot all the time and some of us never did have shoes, I guess. Everyone was poor, not on relief, but poor. We used to play every sport known to man up in the trolley-barn lot. Babe was the only girl who'd play with us—who we'd let play. She wasn't hangin' around bein' the last to be chosen. No, sir. Babe was picked among the first. We started out by playin' her in right field, where you always put the weakest ones, you know. She didn't stay there long. We played everyday, all day. Babe wanted to excel, to win, to beat us boys. I don't know now if that was because she was against men, or if she was simply against the idea of bein' feminine.
I knew that winnin' in sports was the only way I had of bein' recognized. That was one of the few ways to get ahead. I thought I could get to be a little like the rich people if I was good at sports. Like the dances at school; most people who would go to them had cars to drive and suits to wear. If you were an athlete, you could hobnob with 'em even if you were poor. Sports was a way to be equal; it was the same as for the blacks in the '50s and '60s."
It is doubtful Babe was trying to use sports as a social vehicle in those days. In the Beaumont High School yearbook, The Pine Burr, of 1928, 1929 and 1930, she appears in photo after photo of athletic teams as a squinty, pugnacious kid with straight hair and severe bangs, dressed (if not in a team uniform) in a formless cotton frock, sagging socks, flat shoes. She never wore jewelry, abhorred makeup, didn't own a pair of silk stockings or a girdle—and probably not a brassiere either. All her aspirations had to do with athletics.
At the opposite extreme was a group called The Kackler Club. In The Pine Burr they are pictured together, a demure and passive group that symbolized the popular posture of girls toward sports in the 1920s, sideline princesses. In one yearbook was written, "Athletes are our favorite boys. The real aim of this club is to provide adequate entertainment for our athletes and to do everything possible to the furtherance of sportsmanlike athletic activities."
Babe's behavior was an aberration in those times. Ruth Scurlock remembers that "Babe's excellence at sports made her unacceptable to other girls. And these frothy girls, in her eyes, were simply not useful. Babe was bucking society even then."
Babe Didrikson's physical-education instructor in Beaumont was Beatrice Lytle, then in her first year or two of teaching. Now Bea Lytle is 75, bouncy as ever, retired after almost 50 years on the job. Over that half century, she says, she never saw anyone like Babe. "I can still remember how her muscles flowed when she walked. She had a neuromuscular coordination that is very, very rare—not one of the 12,000 girls I coached after that possessed it. She was the most teachable person I have ever known. You could explain to her the rudiments and the rules and she could play the game." Miss Lytle introduced her to golf when Babe was a freshman. "I'd let her use my clubs and caddie for me Saturdays at the municipal course," she says. "It was a horrible place, a pasture. There were lots of snakes, the greens were sand. Those stories about her driving the ball 250 yards the first time she swung a club are incorrect, of course. She could outdrive me after a while, but it took quite a few rounds." Did Bea Lytle remember the first shot Babe Didrikson ever made with a golf club? "No, no, I don't. All I know is that she didn't miss it...and that's not so bad, is it?"
Basketball was Babe's showcase during her school years. She was a quick, cocky player whose team, the Miss Royal Purples of Beaumont, was never beaten. It was at a high school basketball game in Houston in 1930 that she attracted the notice of Colonel Melvin Jackson McCombs, who was responsible for bringing her to national attention. His Army days over, the colonel had become manager of the Department of Safety for the Employers Casualty Company of Dallas, an insurance firm that specialized in cyclone and accident insurance. McCombs had been a fine athlete in college and sports, not safety, was his interest. He ran a women's athletic program for Employers Casualty. This was not merely a recreational outlet for working girls, but a high-powered and high-priced corporate operation, its main purpose being to generate publicity for the company through the feats of its women's teams. There were dozens of such semiprofessional corporate teams, sponsored chiefly by oil companies and insurance companies. They existed all over the country, though they were strongest in the Midwest and South. They formed the core of the AAU competitive network for women then, and McCombs' Employers Casualty team, the Golden Cyclones, had finished second in the AAU national basketball tournament in 1929. No sooner did McCombs see Babe in action than he was tapping at the door of the Beaumont locker room, ready with an offer of $75 a month for her to drop school and go to work as a stenographer in Dallas for his employer.
This was truly the big time to Texas schoolgirls who played basketball, tantamount to being discovered in the junior class play and signed by Paramount Pictures. Thelma Hughes, a member of the Beaumont team, later told a reporter of the night the colonel bid for Babe. "The rest of us were excited. But after the game, up in our rooms in the Rice Hotel, Babe didn't seem to be thinking about the offer she had. She was too busy leaning out the window trying to see how many people walking by on the sidewalk she could spit at and hit on the head."
The Didriksen family argued at length as to whether she should leave Beaumont. Babe would, of course, be sending money home ($45 of the $75, Babe recalled years later). They needed that, all right. Sister Lillie remembers the confusion: "Babe wanted to go in the worst way. Finally, Poppa said, 'Godommit! You go!' They decided that's what they come from Norway for. Poppa wanted to give the kids ever'thin' he could in America, ever' opportunity, you know?"
The 2½ years Babe spent in Dallas under the auspices of Colonel McCombs and Employers Casualty were to be the most important in her development as an athlete. Babe was 18 when she left the trolley-barn playground. No one but her school chums and a few especially interested people like Tiny Scurlock of the Journal had really noticed her. In Dallas the insurance company coddled her ego and polished her prowess and she blossomed athletically. She also developed a finely tuned appreciation for one of the more subtle realities of sports stardom: getting your name in the paper. From Dallas she began writing a revealing series of letters to Tiny Scurlock about her progress with the Golden Cyclones and her relations with the press. In these one can trace the development of her own sense of values.
She had left Beaumont High School on Feb. 17, 1930; her first letter to Tiny was dated two days later. It was written in a vigorous, immature scrawl and her exuberance shone almost as brightly as her innocence. "Dear Tiny: Played my first game last nigh [sic] the 18, and I never before practice with them and they say that I was the girl that they have been looking for. They put me to start and kept me in until the finish. Tiny I am a working girl and have got to get busy. Please keep this write up for me please or send it back when you get a chance. Thanks so much Babe." She included a clipping indicating the Cyclones had won 48-18 and that she had scored 14 points.
On Feb. 21 she wrote: "Dear 'Tiny'—The games are coming in pretty fast here lately. We played Seagoville again last night and tomorrow at Cisco, Texas and Monday night we play the champs of city. They have beaten the Cyclones but if I can help it they wont do it anymore. I am sending two write ups & me box score. They don't give you any write ups here. Well Good by Babe." This clipping showed the team won 46-15 and Babe got 16 points.
On March 6 Babe typed a letter, almost without a mistake. She wrote: "Dear Tiny'—Boy I am still knocking them cold.... We played the Western Union Tuesday night and beat them 62 to 9 and we played the Evary team last night and we beat them 82 to 5 [an enclosed box score showed Didrikson scored 36 points]. We have two All American guards and two All American forwards on our team and Mr. McCombs said that he would have three All American forwards and Three All American guards before the season is over. So Tiny I am up here now and that is what I am going to be, just watch and see." Already she had impressed recruiter-pirates from other companies, and she wrote she had "two more offers" from the Sunoco Oilers and Sparkman of Arkansas to jump to their teams, but that "I am going to stay with the Golden Cyclones until this season is over." She ended this letter: "Maybe in the national I will be able to send to Beaumont a picture of me in the newspaper about the national A.A.U. Hope so anyhow. Well to be frank with you I am going to make an All American cause I have got my mind set on that. Well Tiny I have to close. Good by Babe."
Only a month after she left Beaumont, her handwriting was sleeker. She wrote in mid-March: "Have gotten a lot of write ups from all of the leading newspapers of the South. And I surely do thank you for giving me the publicity and I surely did need it because when I came over here I didn't know any one. I have a whole lots of fans now. I am leaving Saturday for Wichita Kansas where I am going to enter national A.A.U. Tournament."
At Wichita the Golden Cyclones lost to the Sunoco Oilers by one point in the finals. Babe scored 210 points in five games and was chosen an All-America forward. Now there was a pack of corporate recruiters urging her to jump teams. A letter she received in May from the Kansas City Life Insurance Company offered $80 a month plus "free medical attention" if she would take a job, any job, "such as filing, clerical, typing, etc. If you have had no experience do not hesitate to say so as that will have no bearing on your opportunity." The letter also outlined a rather tempting scale of pay for "overtime work" that called for the team to split $25 for each victory in regular-season games, $50 per victory in the city tournament, $100 per victory in the national, with an extra $100 for winning the city title, another $100 for the local league championship and an "additional bonus in accordance with these others if the team should win the national tournament." Babe decided to stay with Employers Casualty, less for the company's financial generosity than for an exciting new pursuit that had entered her life. She wrote Tiny Scurlock: "Have been very busy with the track, and track meet that we had Saturday at S.M.U. Our team won plenty easy with about 48 points the good. The reason why I haven't written to you is because I have had nothing to say, we have been out every evening for track practice and are going out again. I am the track captain, we elected right after the meet at S.M.U. Saturday.... Boy Tiny if I hadn't sat down on that last broad jump I could have broken the world's record just like taking candy from a baby."
That was Babe's first track meet. On June 8 she typed this letter: "Just got back from Shreveport from the Southern track meet. Well that makes the 13th gold medal that I have gotten. Made me a bracelet out of the first ten that I got. All gold and no silver. I am gonna enter the tennis, swimming and every other kind of meets over here and over there. Get full of medals. You know like ants. Some typest Huh? Just Babe."
On June 23 she wrote: "Had the Texas A.A.U. Track Meet Saturday. We have had 4 track meets so far and Tiny I have made first places in all four of them and have been high pointer in all. Well Tiny how about a nice write up over there in Beaumont. Oh! yeah! right after the Track season I am gonna train for the Olympics in 1932 on the Broad Jump, High Jump true Western roll, Base ball & Javelin Throw. Train 2 times a week into 1932. Practice makes perfect." And two weeks later: "Dear Tiny! Here is where I ought to get a big write up in the Beaumont. Tiny I was one of the six girls from America asked to go to Germany and Tiny Mr. Bingham President of the National A.A.U. and all of the officials said that I had a berth on the Olympic team in 1932 without a doubt. Tiny fix me up a good write up. Yours for a big headline Babe."
The trip to Germany never came about and Babe continued as a "typest" at Employers Casualty. The basketball team won the 1931 AAU national championship; Babe scored 195 points in six games and once more was an All-America. However, there was an ill wind in the Golden Cyclone. By spring Babe was writing Tiny: "Why hello old top, how in the heck are you getting along. Now this is the time that I need a manager. Tiny I think that I should be making more money so I am asking you to write me a letter telling me of a better job that I can get and more money about $125.00 a month. You know kinda shake 'em up a little. They wouldn't want to let me go for nothing. I know good and well I am worth $150 and I am gonna get it out of this company, with your help. Write me just as though I had never written to you so they won't suspect." Also in this letter, Babe said petulantly, "The president is giving me free Golf Lessons out at Dallas Country Club and they are plenty nice so they won't have to raise my pay."
Apparently, between the golf lessons and a small raise, Babe was mollified, for in the summer of 1931 she and the Golden Cyclones entered the national AAU track meet in Jersey City. The team finished second with 19 points; Babe got 15 of them by winning the baseball throw, the 80-meter hurdles and the broad jump.
But by the fall she was restless again. Early in October she wrote: "Heck 'Tiny' if I get me another letter from Wichita, Kans. I'm gonna take it. These girls here are just like they were in Beaumont High School. Jealous and more so because they are all here and trying to beat me. But they can't do it."
The dissension on the team dissipated. The Golden Cyclones were runners-up in the 1932 national basketball championship and Babe was once again an All-America. That summer at the AAU national track meet in Evanston she put on one of the most impressive individual performances ever seen. This was the day she became known as the One-Woman Track Team, when she entered eight events, won five, tied for first in another and finished fourth in yet another, winning the U.S. team championship for Employers Casualty all by herself. The national press went mad about her.
By this time she had come to be something of a prima donna, no longer the childlike Beaumont bumpkin. The metamorphosis was apparent in her letters to Tiny. It was also clear to anyone who observed her during the three seasons she competed for Employers Casualty. Evelyne Hall, a short blonde hurdler from Chicago, had participated in the AAU nationals in 1930 (Dallas), 1931 (Jersey City) and 1932 (Evanston). Now she is 66, a housewife who lives in Pasadena. She recalls the degrees of change in Babe: "In Dallas her teammates were very proud of her. She was a modest, likable girl and we became friends. After the meet she wrote me a couple of letters and even sent snapshots of her family. I next saw her in Jersey City. It was a full house and the crowd got out of hand. It was bedlam. People poured onto the field, mounted police had to come to restore order, the track was full of hoofprints. This was the first time Babe ran the hurdles with me and I finished second. At that point, Babe was pretty cocky. Everybody was doing things for her. If she wanted a drink of water, someone brought it to her. She didn't snub me, but she was not nearly as friendly. She had been more childish in 1930, but by 1931 I think she hardly even drawled. They were really promoting her."
At Evanston, which was also the Olympic qualifying meet, Babe got permission to compete in eight events (the AAU limit for women was three). Now she became all but unbearable. "She was a great athlete," says Evelyne Hall, "but she bragged so much that she made us mad. When she won two events, the girls were even more annoyed because then she was going into six more and eliminating others from the Olympic team. The fact she was in so many events held the rest of us up; we'd be set to go and they'd say Didrikson isn't here yet, please wait. She was getting special treatment. She had managers who waited on her. The rest of us were very poor—we used to pool our money to make our trips. I had one pair of track shoes and the points were worn to nubs. Babe had the longest spikes and they were very very sharp. I didn't have the money to get mine sharpened."
Sixteen women were chosen for the U.S. Olympic track team and they left by train for Los Angeles. On this trip Babe's bragging and abrasive ways reached a climax. "Babe kept running through the train, shrieking and yanking pillows out from your head if you were sleeping," Evelyne Hall recalls. "In Albuquerque we stopped for water. Babe found a Western Union bike and rode it around the station platform hollering, 'Ever heard of Babe Didrikson? You will! You will!' She was exactly like Muhammad Ali even then. Such a braggart."
Jean Shiley Newhouse was America's star high jumper, and Babe had tied her in Evanston. Jean had competed in 1928 in the Antwerp Olympics at the age of 16, finishing fourth. She speaks bitterly of Babe on the train trip west. "She had no social graces. If one girl said she had paddled from Alaska in a kayak, Babe would horn in and say, 'Oh, I done that and I done it in half the time.' She couldn't stand the press talking to other girls and would interrupt the interviews. Once a reporter ignored her so she finally took out her harmonica and started playing it so he couldn't talk to anyone else."
Jean Shiley was elected captain of the team over Babe, a third girl who had been nominated having dropped out because she was afraid that in a three-way election Babe might win.
Los Angeles, a mecca for those seeking overnight fame and instant immortality, was a city ready for Babe Didrikson. The first freeway had yet to be built, but the stucco sprawl that is L.A. today was already moving across vast acres and the tinsel religion of Hollywood was the prevailing influence. Had the Games of '32 been held in Antwerp, Amsterdam, even Paris, it is questionable whether Babe Didrikson would have caused the sensation she did. L.A. was perfect. It offered a marvelous Olympic milieu, a dazzling mixture of movie stars and exotic jocks. The Flying Finn, Paavo Nurmi, was outlawed for professionalism from these Games, but he stayed on, glowering, in hopes the ruling might be reversed. Japanese swimmers were popular with the press ("merry little brown fellows") and the men won 11 medals. One sportswriter explained their success with succinct expertise: "Having shorter legs than most swimmers, the Japanese need not put their head down so far for balance as do the longer-limbed Americans. This enables them to swim higher in the water, which promotes far more speed." The Japanese women did not win any races, but one reporter gushed: "They have shown such admirable sportsmanship that they have won the hearts of thousands of spectators. And now comes their reward. Each is going to have her shiny, black, straight hair permanently waved by a Southern California beauty expert."
The Los Angeles papers covered the Olympics as they covered Hollywood, spinning out reams of gossipy gossamer stuff. They revealed that the Olympic "starlets" who stayed in the Chapman Park Hotel were doing their laundry in their rooms, wearing hotel soap bars "to fine slithers in a period of nothing flat." Olympic women were constantly questioned about "beauty diets" and when Babe Didrikson was asked about hers she replied, "I eat anything I want—except very greasy foods and gravy. I pass the gravy. That's just hot grease anyway, with some flour or water in it."
The Los Angeles Olympics were the first spectacular Games. The Coliseum had been especially enlarged and now had "30 miles of seats." These were the first Games to make money—more than a million dollars. The first Olympic Village sprouted in Los Angeles; it was a community of portable bungalows that Damon Runyon described as "a glorious feast to the eye with the California sun sparkling on the flowers and on the wee pink and white houses." He reported that the Village (which was for male athletes only) was full of naked young men sprawling "here and there on the turf, all of them tanned the color of an old saddle."
Movie stars—"luminaries"—were everywhere. Tom Mix, Douglas Fairbanks, the Marx Brothers, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Joe E. Brown, Conrad Nagel, Cary Grant, Johnny Weissmuller, the Barrymores, Bing Crosby, Buster Keaton, Tallulah Bankhead, Spanky McFarland and the entire Our Gang (including the dog with the monocle painted around one eye). Anyone who was anyone turned up at the Games.
Even in this sea of dross and glamour, Babe Didrikson stood out. She became "Whatta-Gal" Didrikson, The Texas Tornado, The Terrific Tomboy. Headlines were full of her name: BABE BREAKS RECORDS EASIER THAN DISHES.
She was outrageously boastful, and she was quoted endlessly: "I came out to beat everybody in sight and that's just what I'm going to do. Sure, I can do anything." Reporters gobbled up every grandiose word of it. She had a folksy, hick-town common touch, not unlike that of Will Rogers. Hers was a gap-toothed country wit that tended to deflate pretentious eggheads and city slickers. This was the worst of the Depression and millions of flat-broke Americans were convinced they had been victimized by Wall Street sharks and Washington know-it-alls. Babe's crude boasts had the echo of cracker-barrel retaliation against the Establishment and they produced guffaws through the Tobacco Roads, Hoovervilles, and Gopher Prairies of the nation. Babe rarely failed to capitalize on her rube image, saying things like: "Folks say that I go about winning these athletic games because I have the co-operation thing that has to do with eye, mind and muscle. That is sure a powerful lot of language to use about a girl from Texas, but maybe they are right about it. All I know is that I can run and I jump and I can toss things and when they fire a gun or tell me to get busy I just say to myself, 'Well, kid, here's where you've got to win another.' "
She was producing her own myth in Los Angeles. The remarkable thing about Babe was that, like Ali, her body was able to accomplish the fantastic tasks her big mouth set for it. She put incredible pressure on herself by bragging. She was a wing walker, a daredevil who risked humiliation every time she went into an event in that Olympics. Her own teammates wanted her to be beaten, as the just reward for her bullying.
That never happened because Babe Didrikson was just about as lucky as she was talented. She won the javelin with a herculean throw on her first attempt, flinging it like "a catcher's peg to second base" on a trajectory that rose no more than 12 feet above the ground. The javelin flew 143'4". That broke Babe's own world record by more than 11 feet. When bemused reporters asked her why she was throwing the javelin like that, she said, "No, I haven't got a new technique. My hand slipped when I picked up the pole. It slid along about six inches, and then I got a good grip again. And then I threw and it just went."
Luck? Skill? Both. Next came the 80-meter hurdles. Babe's chief competitor was Evelyne Hall. On the train Babe had told Evelyne that it was a simple matter of psyching the judges at the end of a race: "They're stupid. All you have to do to win if it's close is throw up your arm just before the finish and they think you're first." Babe and Evelyne won their heats in world-record times. In the finals they were to race side by side. Evelyne Hall led by a stride over the first couple of hurdles, but Babe kept coming, her form more powerful than graceful. She pulled even over the last two hurdles and the women hit the finish line together. Babe threw up her arm. Both were timed in 11.7 seconds, another world record. Evelyne said she had a welt on her neck for days from hitting the tape first. The judges huddled in confusion. Evelyne recalls: "After we crossed the line, Babe yelled to me, 'Well, I won again.' I turned and saw some athletes in the crowd cheering me, holding up one linger to show me I was first. I shook my head and held up two fingers. Later I learned that at that very moment a couple of judges were looking at me. It's possible they made their judgment from this gesture of mine. I really don't know. Babe had had so much publicity, it was hard to rule against her. The judges were foreign and to them it didn't matter that much; we were both Americans."
It was Babe's second gold medal and the press was in a frenzy over the possibility that she might win three. This was something no woman had ever done in Olympic track and field. Babe's main opponent in the high jump was Jean Shiley. The U.S. women's team was all but unanimous in its desire. "We were very high-strung and we put a lot of pressure on Jean to beat this obnoxious girl," says Evelyne Hall.
All the competitors except Babe and Jean had dropped out by the time the bar was raised to 5' 5¼". Both girls cleared that height, a new world record, and moved on to 5' 6¼". On her first jump Babe flew over the bar with more than an inch to spare. She fell triumphantly to the pit—and one foot kicked a stanchion and knocked the bar from the pegs. The judges dropped the bar back to 5' 5¼" to see which of the competitors would get the gold medal. Jean made it. Babe made it. Another tie? No. The judges ruled that Babe had "dived" over the bar, an illegal jump—her head went over before the rest of her body. The rule no longer exists, but on this technicality the gold medal was given to Jean Shiley, the silver to Babe; both were eventually recognized as co-holders of the world record.
That gold medal has always been a tarnished prize for Jean Shiley Newhouse—the medal Babe Didrikson lost, rather than the one she won. "Babe was awful about it. She never admitted she was beaten," Jean says. "But she would have lost earlier if I had done what I should have done. Both a Canadian girl and a German girl who went out at 5'3" kept telling me I should claim a foul against Babe, that all of her jumps over 5'3" were illegal dives. Our team coach, George Vreeland, even sent a note down to me from the stands saying that I should ask the judges to disqualify Babe for diving. I couldn't do that. I knew that with Babe's mouth, she'd clobber me if I caused her to lose by claiming a foul."
The Olympics over, Babe Didrikson, once more under the wing of Employers Casualty, flew home to Texas in an airliner. By contrast, Jean Shiley exchanged the train ticket the U.S. Olympic Committee gave her to get home to Philadelphia for a much cheaper bus ticket so she could afford to buy gifts for her family, and Evelyne Hall drove back to Chicago in a car that a finance company had informed her (by collect telegram) it was going to repossess.
And Babe? Life was an undiluted triumph. After the speeches and the music at Love Field, she was ushered to the gleaming red limousine of the Dallas fire chief. The tonneau was brimming with roses. Babe's sister Lillie was standing by the car, beaming through tears, and suddenly Babe yelled at her to climb into the car. "I got up there with her," says Lillie, "and there was roses all over us. I didn't know if I should be there but Babe said it was O.K. I was with her. My Mama and my Poppa and I had ridden to Dallas in my brother's car with a rumble seat and we was so dirty and so sweaty when we finally found the landin' field. We had two flat tires on the way and the big shots was all lookin' at us country folks, but we didn't care. Babe didn't care. We had our parade right through Dallas—confetti fallin' on the cars an' everythin'—and the Adolphus Hotel was full of flowers and beautiful lights for lunch. After the lunch, my Mama, she walked out of the Adolphus carryin' a napkin from the table. She was so ashamed—it was a big white napkin—and she was so embarrassed she wanted to take it right back in, but they said, no Miz Didriksen, keep it, you keep it for a memento. My Mama did. She took it home and washed it and ironed it and kept it in a drawer till the day she died."
Lillie pauses, remembering that golden day in Dallas, and then she says, "Babe had to buy us some tires to get us home to Beaumont. Did you know that?"
Babe turns pro and becomes an object of scorn, playing anything—House of David baseball, a harmonica—for pay.