The first to call Babe Didrikson the greatest woman athlete of all time was Grantland Rice. After her performance at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Granny enthused, "She is an incredible human being. She is beyond all belief until you see her perform. Then you finally understand that you are looking at the most flawless section of muscle harmony, of complete mental and physical coordination the world of sport has ever known. There is only one Babe Didrikson, and there has never been another in her class—even close to her class."
Dispensing on-the-spot immortality was not unusual in those days but Grantland Rice was the most effective among the many writers building and gilding heroes. American sports pages were full of bedtime stories, of living legends who answered to names such as Galloping Ghost, Sultan of Swat, Manassa Mauler. Readers, it seemed, could scarcely wait for the next miracle. Rice believed in the 21-year-old, in fact bragged about her almost as if she were his daughter. One day in the Olympic press box he was rhapsodizing over her as the big names of sports journalism—Westbrook Pegler, Paul Gallico and Braven Dyer—listened. Dyer, now 75 and retired, recalls, "Granny told us he simply could not think of a sport that Babe couldn't master. Pegler was skeptical and said, 'O.K., what about golf?' Granny said, 'All right, golf.' And he sent word down to the field for Babe to come and see him. She trotted up to the press box and Granny said, 'When can we play golf?' She said, 'Tomorrow?' We made the game for the next morning."
Years later in her autobiography Babe insisted that she had never played a round of golf before that morning, that before teeing off she had gotten Olin Dutra, the club pro at the Brentwood course, to show her how to grip the club. However, all the reports of that day (including her own quotes in clippings) indicate that this was the 11th round of golf in her life. In truth she had played a great deal of golf, beginning as a high school student in Beaumont and continuing in Dallas, where she often hit 1,000 balls a day while working as a basketball star and stenographer for an insurance company that supported a lavish sports program.
In any case, the Didrikson myth got another plating of gold, for, as always, Babe delivered when she had to. That morning, using a baseball-style grip, she slugged drive after drive 250 yards, her power and liquid coordination producing a commendable performance from tee to green. But she was a disaster putting. Her score on the front nine was 52; on the back, 43. Had it been anyone else, the round would have been forgotten. With Babe, fame begat fame. When that ordinary round of golf was finished, the writers pronounced her game astonishing. Rice once more led everyone in hyperbole: "She is the longest hitter women's golf has ever seen—for she has a free, lashing style backed up with championship form and terrific power in strong hands, strong wrists, forearms of steel."
In the afterglow of the Olympics, Babe Didrikson was one of the most famous people in America. She was reported in training to become a marathon swimmer, her intention being to cross the English Channel and the Hellespont. There were reports of movie contracts, of offers to become a bullfighter in Mexico, a fashion model in London, a professional basketball player for $65,000 a year. These reports were not true, but Babe's celebrity was such that the papers printed almost anything said about her. Babe met Amelia Earhart, who was then planning one of her long-distance flights—not her fatal one. The aviatrix pleaded with Babe to accompany her, in part because she believed the Didrikson name would add luster to her record attempt.
Then, suddenly—almost as suddenly as it had risen—Babe's comet fell. Two years after the Olympic Games, the New York Evening Post, in a column devoted to headliners of the past, stated that, "At an age when most people are wondering when the first break is going to come, Mildred Didrikson is one of our most illustrious has-beens." At the time, she was touring Depression America with the bearded House of David baseball team. It was a swift, far fall from the hymns of Grantland Rice.
Babe Didrikson's decline to obscurity began when the AAU questioned her amateur status, the object of investigation being a red Dodge coupe she got in the fall of 1932. It was an $835 car: Babe was reportedly making $90 a month as a stenographer for Employers Casualty Company. She had said she bought the car without a down payment and had arranged payments of $69 a month—which left her $5 a week to live on. That sounded unlikely enough. However, it was not until her photograph and name appeared in a Dodge advertisement that the AAU ruled she had violated her amateur status. She was suspended indefinitely. Babe responded to the charges, saying they were "hooey," that she had never given permission for her picture or her words to be used in the ad. The automobile company said that was true and that an employee had merely taken down verbatim Miss Didrikson's enthusiastic comments when she first looked upon the Dodge. The words she burbled, if the ad or the auto company were to be believed, were these: "Speed—unyielding strength—enduring stamina—that's the stuff that makes real champions, whether they're in the athletic arena or in the world of automobiles." Within a couple of weeks the AAU reversed itself. It was agreed that Babe was a victim of charlatans in advertising. Babe professed to be delighted her suspension had been lifted. But just days later, without a real explanation, she turned professional.
She went to work for the Chrysler Corporation, maker of the lovely little red Dodge coupe she admired so much. She appeared at an automobile show in Detroit standing by a display booth signing autographs and playing the harmonica. She did a fine imitation of a locomotive leaving a station, complete with labored puffing and a hooting whistle.
Babe next got an agent, who booked her into the Palace Theater in Chicago where she did an 18-minute act with a piano player and mimic. No Olympic champion ever put on a weirder performance. After her partner warmed up the audience with imitations of Eddie Cantor, Babe came striding down the aisle in a Panama hat and a green swagger coat. She sang I'm Fit As a Fiddle and Ready for Love. She played the harmonica. Then she threw off hat and coat to reveal red, white and blue satin shorts. Next she laced up a pair of track shoes and began jogging on a treadmill—faster, faster, faster—to show her Olympic running form. Hurdles were placed on the stage and she leaped over them. The act ended—mercifully—with her driving plastic golf balls into the crowd. After a week in Chicago, there was discussion about Babe joining the RKO vaudeville circuit; this was not as bizarre an idea as it sounds, for she was an excellent harmonica player, but the plan apparently was scrapped.
She headed for New York with her future in doubt. She was a professional all right, but a professional what? She called a press conference to announce that she hoped to spar with Babe Ruth at McGovern's Gym. "I never met the Babe, but gee, I'd like to put the gloves on with him for a while," she said. The following day Babe Didrikson was at McGovern's Gym, but Babe Ruth was not. A couple of weeks later she played her first game of professional basketball. About 2,000 people turned up in a Brooklyn dance hall to see her score nine points for the Brooklyn Yankees, who defeated the Long Island Ducklings 19-16. She earned $400 for 40 minutes' work. Within the week, she took on Ruth McGinnis, a billiards champion, in a series of well-publicized matches. This was a miscalculation, for McGinnis had spent her childhood practicing in her family's pool hall. She annihilated Didrikson.
Babe was placing herself in a vulnerable position. The personality she had created and promoted during her amateur years was that of a bumpkin who intimidated her opponents by bragging but made every boast come true. Like Muhammad Ali, Babe Didrikson got away with it. Once she began to fail, sports fans were eager to degrade her—and delighted to forget her.
Moreover, the tide of the times was running powerfully against women athletes. In 1923 Mrs. Herbert Hoover had founded a firmly girdled organization called the Women's Division of the National Amateur Athletic Federation. Initially the purpose was to promote what sounded like a good idea: the expansion of sports to reach every woman—"a team for everyone and everyone on a team." But this philosophy ultimately led to competitive sports for women being abolished or reduced to limp exercises. By 1929 the Women's Division was opposing women's participation in the Olympics. Although the organization was unsuccessful in achieving this goal, by the time Babe had arrived at the peak of her skills, competitive sports for women were seriously declining.
In this powder-puff climate, a scuffler like Babe became a pariah. Texas physical-education teachers posted signs on school bulletin boards reading: DON'T BE A MUSCLE MOLL. Dr. Belle Mead Holm, 50, dean of the women's physical-education department at Lamar University in Babe's hometown of Beaumont, recalls her youth: "My mother used to cry when I played soft ball. She'd say, 'I just don't want you to grow up to be like Babe Didrikson.' "
Babe's sex life was the subject of many a snide remark. Even Paul Gallico, who had been her friend, wrote callously about the "muscle molls" of the sporting scene, defining them as "women who made possible deliciously frank and biological discussions in the newspapers as to whether this or that woman athlete should be addressed as Miss, Mrs., Mr. or It."
Her records began to be attacked. A leading debunker was Joe Williams, columnist for the New York World-Telegram. In 1935 he wrote of Babe: "The same year she became the greatest woman athlete in history, a comparative chart showed that she had not equaled one record made by a masculine high school champion of the same period. If the best woman athlete in the country is not as good as some gawky kid in high school, why waste the effort, why invite the embarrassment of mediocrity, why—well, why not get a seat in the stands and make the big male blokes out there on the cinder track believe you are nuts about them?"
Of course, the women vs. schoolboys argument is specious, somewhat the same as saying Sugar Ray Robinson or Henry Armstrong was not as good as Joe Louis because neither was big enough to beat him. Still, Babe herself acknowledged it was easier for a woman to become a champion than a man because fewer women chose sports as their major pursuit.
This shortage of competition forced Babe to become an itinerant athlete, a sideshow exhibitionist. Roy Doan, a sports promoter from Muscatine, Iowa, set her up with a traveling basketball team called Babe Didrikson's All-Americans. The squad included four men. The All-Americans played a killing schedule of one-night stands. Babe made about $1,000 a month touring and she was a great attraction through the Midwest. People were hungry for entertainment. There were 17,000 movie theaters in the country and people went to the movies in droves to see Busby Berkeley musicals and take their chances on winning a set of dishes in the weekly lottery. Everyone listened to the radio, to Amos 'n' Andy, Kate Smith, Fibber McGee and Molly, One Man's Family. Babe's name was well enough known so that her team—usually matched against local townspeople—rarely failed to pull a full house.
In the spring of 1934 she was in Florida and as a gag, and for $200, she pitched an inning or two at the major league camps. She hurled for the St. Louis Cardinals against the Boston Red Sox, and Bucky Harris, the Boston manager, noted with restrained enthusiasm, "She can handle that old apple with some of the boys."
That summer Babe pitched for the House of David baseball team. Again, the travel was numbing, the sites wide-ranging (200 games from Fort Lauderdale to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho). The centerfielder for the House of David, Emory Olive, now living in Eau Claire, Wis., recalls: "Babe wasn't really all that good a pitcher, so we'd have her pitch one or two innings, but we'd fix it so the other teams wouldn't score against her. She could hit pretty good, though. Once at Logan Park in Chicago we were playing before 8,000 people and she hit a long line drive that she turned into a homer; it was the only run scored in the game." Babe drove her own car and traveled by herself across country, showing up in the scheduled town just before the game, pitching an inning or so, then leaving for the next town before the game was over.
She was not the only star reduced to House of David competition. Grover Cleveland Alexander, who had retired from the Phillies in 1930 at the age of 43, also pitched for the team. He was, like Babe, paid $1,500 a month. The other players on the team got between $300 and $500 a month. In 1934 11 million people (out of a labor force of 52 million) were out of work. In the garment sweatshops of New York, women made as little as $2.39 a week. So Babe was doing well.
In September 1934 Babe wrote an old friend, Tiny Scurlock, sports editor of the Beaumont Journal: "I said I would not come home again unless I'd made about or not less than $10,000. Well, I'm ready to come—and I have some—I'm really earning it. Although I did spend 18 hundred for a new Buick car—which I think I'll trade for a new LaSalle. They're pretty good looking—have you seen them?" She spent money freely on racy cars, but Babe was a sharp, cautious person with money, always on the lookout for a better way to invest it.
She was generous in supporting her hard-pressed family but Ruth Scurlock, Tiny's widow, remembers how some of Babe's six brothers and sisters "got to be very bitter when she did not give them more, more, more. They had their hands out all the time." One sister who did not was Lillie. Now 66, she fondly remembers the steady stream of gifts. Thumbing through a scrapbook recently, she came upon a photograph of Babe wearing a sleek, silky gown, leaning over a pool table, cue in hand. Lillie chuckled and said, "That there's my weddin' gown. Babe sent it to me. She sent me all the clothes they gave her for publicity pictures. Oh, my, I always had lovely things—shoes, dresses, furs. I was better dressed than anybody in Beaumont."
Babe spent much of her extra money on her golf game. She became complusive about the sport, hitting balls at driving ranges for as much as 10 straight hours when she was not appearing on the baseball or basketball circuit. By 1935 she had become good enough to go on tour with Gene Sarazen, who recalls, "She worked hard. I only know of one golfer who practiced more—Ben Hogan. She learned her golf by watching. She'd stand 10 feet away from me and watch everything I did. Then she'd go out and practice for hours."
Through the years Babe's commitment to sport had affected her social life. At Beaumont High she had few dates. When she was working for Employers Casualty in Dallas, Tiny Scurlock noted, "Babe had no use for 'sheiks' and they soon learned that." Somewhere along the line she did become a smooth, even elegant, ballroom dancer. She dated and apparently dazzled some of the men she traveled with. One was a 6'4" fellow who played for her All-American team; another was the man who managed her tour with Sarazen. When she was on the road with the House of David, she wrote a cryptic letter to Tiny on the stationery of St. Louis' Majestic Hotel ("Absolutely Fireproof, 200 Rooms—200 Baths"): "I got a letter from home and also a clipping which I will enclose about it being said from Walter Wentchels Column that I was married or going to be—well, he may be right, but I'm not saying a thing. I may be married, but if so it isn't to one of the Wisker boys—I'll guarantee you that."
In 1938 Babe met wrestler George Zaharias. He was a large fellow, jolly and bombastic, six feet tall, 225 pounds. They were introduced while playing in the Los Angeles Open. (Babe was one of two women to qualify and play in this major event. The other was Alice Bauer.) The day after they met, Babe took George home to meet her sister Lillie and her mother, who were living with her near the Paramount studios. Lillie recalls: "The day she brought George home she said, 'Lillie, fix your hair, we're havin' company tonight.' Then I saw that big ol' man standin' at the door, and I thought, 'Lord! Where'd he come from!' And my Mama she made Norwegian meatballs for dinner. Babe, she didn't fall in love till George come along. But he was it!"
George recalls that night, too: "When I got ready to leave, Babe's mother patted me on the cheek and said, 'My Babe likes you.' Everything was O.K. with everyone right from the start. After that, I was always looking for her at driving ranges, and she'd leave me notes that said, 'Romance was here.' I was wrestling every night. I never took her to the matches. She didn't like them because she thought I might get hurt."
They were married in December in St. Louis. Leo Durocher and Ducky Medwick of the St. Louis Cardinals were members of the wedding. George was making $100,000 a year from his profession. He was a performer, a promoter, an all-round hustler. He would be in and out of many investments and schemes over the years—some successful, such as the Beverly Hills clothing shop where Damon Runyon and Charlie Chaplin bought their suits, some not, such as the San Diego Gunners, a pro football team in the Pacific Coast American League. He lost tens of thousands of dollars on the Gunners, and dropped more money on a Denver hotel, of which Babe said after her first look at the premises, "George, the only way you're gonna make a profit on these rooms is to rent them by the hour."
Life for the couple was idyllic for a long while. George traveled almost everywhere with Babe, trailing her around golf courses all over the country. He was devoted to her, almost like a child. Golf Promoter Fred Corcoran recalls a night when he and George were dining at Al Schacht's, a New York restaurant, and Babe was playing in the Texas Open. "George kept getting up with his big napkin tucked under his chin and calling people to find out how she did. Finally Schacht got a report from the Associated Press. He came to our table and said, 'Well, Babe lost but it was real close.' I said, 'How close?' and he said, "Ten to nine.' I told him, Al, you mean 10 and 9. That's not close, that's the worst defeat of her life.' George stared at us, blinked and walked right out of the restaurant with the napkin still under his chin. I think he cried all night."
Many of Babe's friends did not care for George, a man of gross appetite who ballooned to well over 300 pounds. The Zahariases' hotel rooms were always filled with hams, beef roasts, wheels of cheese, cases of beer. George used to buy olive oil by the gallon, pour it on his plate and dunk slabs of bread in it. He would take a quarter-pound stick of butter, peel off the wrapper and eat it like a banana.
By the late '40s the Zaharias marriage was becoming strained, problems occurring after George gave up wrestling and his own business activities to promote Babe. Increasingly, he sought to control her, to manage her career and cause her to succeed through his promotional schemes. Once during a trip to New York with golfer Betty Dodd, Babe appeared on several television shows, including Ed Sullivan's, and squeezed cash payments—$1,500 here, $1,000 there—from producers. Elated, she telephoned George in Tampa. "Honey, Eve made $6,000!" she said. Betty Dodd recalls: "George was furious and told her to get home. He knew he was losing control of her, that she didn't need him. She hung up the phone and said to me, 'Damn him! If he thinks I'm going to go home so he can book me for $300 in some exhibition, he's crazy!' " The separations became more frequent, but only partly because of professional commitments. There were discussions of divorce. "Babe loved George, but she pulled herself up nine miles over him," says Betty Dodd. "She was always welcome anywhere, George was not."
Betty Dodd had made her debut on the Ladies' Professional Golf tour in 1952. One of Babe's longtime friends, Bertha Bowen, had asked Babe to look out for Betty. Mrs. Bowen says: "When they met they liked one another right away. Betty was from a good family—her father was a general—and she had many advantages Babe did not have. But Betty would go around looking just awful. People didn't know if she was a girl or a boy. I remember coming home one day and Babe was giving Betty a permanent. She kept screaming at her, 'Sit still! Years ago Bertha made a lady out of me and I'm gonna make a lady out of you!' "
Betty Dodd never did learn to primp and powder herself. She was a natural athlete who had no interest in looking feminine. She was a fine guitar player with a good voice that blended perfectly with Babe's wailing harmonica. Soon after they met, the women began rooming together and their attachment grew in intensity. Betty says, "When our relationship first started I'd be with her for two or three tournaments, then she'd go back to Tampa. George thought she should be there with him. Well, no one stopped him from being on the tour, but he blamed me if she didn't want to go home. I had such admiration for this fabulous person. She was the most famous person in the world and I was her protégé. She was very unpredictable, though. At times she'd act like she didn't know me. I never wanted to be away from her even when she was dying of cancer. I loved her. I would have done anything for her." The affection between the two women became stronger as Babe drew near death.
Yet Babe never totally rejected George. Indeed, on the day in 1953 when she learned she had cancer, the depth of Babe's feeling toward her husband was plain. "She came back from the doctor's office and she was ghastly white," Bertha Bowen says. "Her lips were a thin line. She walked into their bedroom and threw a big brown pocketbook on a chair and said, 'B.B. I've got it, the worst kind. I'm not worried about myself, I'm only worried about George.' "
Golf was her glory. She made the pro game, and it made her. And then, at 45, it was over, her last round played.