It was her versatility, her excellence in so many sports—basketball, hurdles, discus, high jump, javelin, swimming, tennis, bowling—that made Babe Didrikson Zaharias singular, a woman athlete without peer. But it was golf that brought her lasting fame—and most of the million dollars she earned in her lifetime. She was not the best woman golfer of her era. That distinction belongs to a splendid Briton, Joyce Wethered, who won the British amateur four times in the '20s, turned professional for a brief, profitable U.S. tour in the mid-'30s, then wed Lord Heathcoat-Amory and retired behind the genteel hedges of an estate in Devon.
But Babe Zaharias created big-time women's golf. She launched it as a legitimate sport and brought gusts of freshness and fun to a game too often grim. She joked and clowned and had a rapport with fans that is rare. She had the ability to be cocky with charm, and the galleries loved her. Her booming power game lowered scores and forced others to imitate her. And had it not been for her death—in 1956 when she was just 45—she would reign as the game's dowager queen.
When Babe won her first golf tournament—the 1935 Texas women's championship—Grantland Rice took note in his celebrated tin-ear doggerel:
From the high jump of Olympic fame,
The hurdles and the rest,
The javelin that flashed its flame
On by the record test—
The Texas Babe now shifts the scene
Where slashing drives are far
Where spoon shots find the distant green
To break the back of par.
October 19, 1975
But Babe, then 23, had had to crack something much more testing than the back of par—Texas golf society. She had no pedigree, coming as she did from a dead-end neighborhood in Beaumont, no money and not much social grace. Her gold medals from the 1932 Olympics counted for little among the country-club set, and her fame had already faded. There was only her golf game, at that point strong but scarcely smooth. When she entered the Texas event, a member of the Texas Women's Golf Association named Peggy Chandler declared, "We really don't need any truck drivers' daughters in our tournament."
Several women withdrew from a driving contest that preceded the tournament, implying that Babe was too manly for them to compete against. Babe purposely dubbed drive after drive with an exaggerated girlish swing—except one that she hit 250 yards to win.
In the tournament she overwhelmed her first three opponents and won her semifinal match in the rain on the 18th hole with a 20-foot putt that spurted water across the green. In the final she met none other than Peggy Chandler, and the match was B-movie material: scruffy poor girl vs. snobbish rich girl. They played 36 holes before a large gallery. By the 26th hole Peggy Chandler was 3 up, but Babe rallied, and on the 30th hole she drew even. On the 34th hole, a long par-5, Peggy Chandler put her third shot on the green close to the cup and a birdie seemed certain. Babe's drive had been a wild 250-yarder into a ditch. Her second, a three-iron, carried over the green, the ball coming to rest in a rut containing an inch of water. Her next shot was pure penny-dreadful heroics, a pitch that rolled into the hole for an eagle 3. The golfers halved the 35th and Babe won the 36th to take the match 2 up.
Now, if the B-movie scenario were truly followed, Babe would have been welcomed into the perfumed society of Texas golf. Instead, the U.S. Golf Association, acting on information presumably supplied by some of the Texas women, ruled that it was in "the best interest of the game" that Babe Didrikson be barred from amateur golf, that she was a professional. This meant Babe was eligible to compete in only one tournament, the Western Open. There was no other event in the world for women pros (the U.S. Women's Open was first played in 1946). Babe turned for help to R.L. and Bertha Bowen of Fort Worth, friends she had made during the Texas tournament. R.L. was president of Community Public Service, an electric light and power company. Bertha was one of the group that ran women's golf in the state, and she had been appalled at the clawing Babe had received. The Bowens invited Babe to their home. They called a lawyer; they contacted the USGA; it was no use. About the only thing they could do was start their own tournament for Babe and pros like her, the Texas Women's Open. Bertha recalls, "I was furious that Babe had been cut off. I was criticized by some of my friends for befriending Babe. They'd ask, 'Why are you fooling around with that girl?' "
Babe had rough edges then and her association with the Bowens supplied some social polish. "She was so poor it was pitiful," Bertha says. "One night we were invited to a formal party and we asked Babe to come along. She hemmed and hawed because she didn't have any clothes. Well, we got her an evening dress and she took one look at it and said, 'I'm not going to wear that naked thing.' She was very modest. We had to chase her all over the house before we could get the dress on her. We finally cornered her in the kitchen and forced her into it."
Most members of the Texas Women's Golf Association remained cool toward the Bowens' protégée; the ladies kept telling Bertha that Babe really must wear a girdle when she played golf. Babe put one on, played a round and returned in a frenzy to the Bowens. "I heard the car come screeching in the driveway," says Bertha, "and Babe came tearing into the house. She was yelling, 'Goddam! I'm chokin' to death!' As far as I know, she never put on a girdle again." (Nonetheless, Babe's favorite wisecrack to galleries was: ' "When I wanta really blast one, I just loosen my girdle and let 'er fly!")
The metamorphosis in Babe's appearance was considerable, but there seemed no solution to the problem of making a living from sport. With only two tournaments open to her, Babe had no choice but to go on the road. In the summer of 1935 she toured with Gene Sarazen. They played 18-hole exhibitions, Babe receiving $150 for each, a solid sum in those Depression times, when many teachers got less than $1,300 a year. Sarazen, now 73, remembers, "She was still a big draw because of the Olympics. One odd thing, she always wanted to be paid in one-dollar bills. I'd go to write her a check and she'd say, 'No, Squire, make it in ones.' Then she'd stack them up and mail them to her bank in Beaumont."
In 1938 Babe married George Zaharias, then a prosperous wrestler who made as much as $15,000 a night, and for a considerable time that ended her financial concerns. By 1940 she felt able to publicly renounce professional golf, and she settled down to the prescribed three-year purification period that would enable her to regain her amateur status. On Jan. 21,1943 she celebrated becoming an amateur by winning the California state championship.
There was not a great deal of golf in wartime; many tournaments were canceled and travel was difficult, with gas rationing and troop movements on trains. In June 1945 Babe did manage to get to Indianapolis to play in the Western Open, but no sooner had the tournament begun than she received a phone call from George saying her mother had suffered a heart attack in Los Angeles and probably would not live. Babe tried to get on a plane to California, but even a personal emergency priority did not turn up a seat for her. So she continued to play, winning her way into the final. That night her mother died. With no hope of getting to California, Babe invited golfers Peggy Kirk Bell and Marge Row to dinner. "We went to her room and Babe just sat there and played her harmonica," remembers Peggy. "We didn't really know her and didn't know what to say. She played for hours. She didn't speak, she just played on and on. The next day she went out and beat Dorothy Germain 4 and 2."
Babe dominated amateur golf as no woman ever has, winning 17 significant tournaments in a row during 1946 and 1947. Among them was the U.S. Women's Amateur (the final of which she won by a record 11 and 9), the All-American at Tam O'Shanter and the Titleholders, a mini-Masters, in which she overcame a 10-stroke deficit to win by five.
But her most notable victory was in the 1947 British amateur at Gullane, Scotland. No American had ever won this championship. Though it was Babe's first trip to Europe, she could not have been more at home. Each day she strolled the cobbled streets of Gullane on her way to the course, nodding and hollering Texas howdies. Gullane was a rough and lively links, lashed by wind and inhabited by sheep. When Babe played her practice rounds, the club arranged for a man to accompany her and sweep the greens of sheep droppings before she putted. She was her usual exuberant self, on one occasion doing a highland fling on the clubhouse lawn.
Babe's flamboyance and ungirdled power caught the imagination of Great Britain. She had won her six matches with ease, and The Manchester Guardian enthused: "Surely no woman golfer has accomplished in a championship what Mrs. Zaharias has achieved in this one.... She has combined in a remarkable way immense length with accuracy, reaching with a number-five iron holes at which others are content to be short with a wood. She is a crushing and heartbreaking opponent."
Babe came home a heroine. A month later she won the Broadmoor invitational—her 17th straight. Then, in August, she once again decided to become a professional, signing a contract with Fred Corcoran, who had promoted the men's professional tour for 11 years.
There was not much money to be made from pro golf then; Babe earned most of her income playing exhibitions. By now she was receiving $600 for an appearance, while Ben Hogan and Sam Snead were getting $500. Corcoran also booked her into baseball parks—for $500—where she would hit trick golf shots and play third base during batting practice.
It was not enough for Babe. In the winter of 1948 she and George met with Corcoran and Patty Berg to found the Ladies Professional Golf Association. L.B. Icely, the president of Wilson Sporting Goods (which paid Babe $8,000 a year to promote its products), put up the money to start the tour in 1949. The original LPGA had six members, with Patty Berg as president. Total prize money the first year was about $15,000; Babe earned the most, $4,300, and she played in eight of the nine events. The following year she won six tournaments to finish No. 1 on the money list again, with $13,450.
As the tour grew richer, an intense rivalry developed between Babe and Louise Suggs. Suggs was stoical, very serious, colorless, humorless. She was a good golfer and her record in the early '50s almost equaled Babe's. Yet Suggs never got the kind of coverage Babe did. When Suggs won, the headlines were as likely to read BABE LOSES as LOUISE WINS. When Babe celebrated her last birthday in 1956 in a Galveston hospital, every member of the LPGA sent her flowers except Louise. "I didn't because I'm not going to be a hypocrite," she explained.
A couple of women who competed in the early days of the LPGA deny that Babe Zaharias was the key to the organization's success, but even they acknowledge that her personality and talent attracted interest to tour events. Patty Berg says, "Our sport grew because of Babe. She had so much flair, color and showmanship, we needed her. Her power astonished galleries."
Babe once hit a drive 408 yards—according to TIME—but there was much more to her game than strength. She was an intelligent golfer. She had graceful, tapered hands and her short game was soft and certain. Even her stance had an athletic buoyancy.
She was ferociously competitive, even with her closest friends. Once, during a practice round, she lent Betty Dodd a driver and another time she gave Peggy Kirk Bell an 11-iron. Both immediately used the clubs to splendid advantage; in both cases, after a few holes, Babe took the club back.
Babe would attempt to psych her opponents in every possible way. She would hit a five-iron, quickly stuff it in the bag and tell everyone it was a seven. She would stride onto the putting green before a tournament and shout, "Are you girls practicin' to come in second?"
She was acquisitive and aggressive off the golf course as well as on—at everything from craps to gin rummy (she once claimed she won by watching the cards reflected in her opponent's glasses). Her homes were filled with free appliances. Often she simply walked into a store and asked for what she wanted. Betty Dodd recalls one such occasion: "We were in Manhattan, and Babe spotted a Rolex gold watch in a window. She said she'd always wanted one and the next thing I know, we're in the Rolex office. She said to the receptionist, 'I'm Babe Zaharias and I want to see the boss.' Babe was invited into his office and he and Babe set up a golf date the next day at Winged Foot. Rolex threw a luncheon for her. They gave her a gold Rolex. They gave me a gold Rolex. They gave her another gold Rolex for George. In those days the watch was worth $1,000. I was embarrassed to death, but Babe never gave it a second thought."
During her professional years Babe frequently was offered and got appearance money for participating in events. This is not done in the U.S.—though common in other countries—and a number of players on the LPGA tour resented it. In the early '50s golfer Betty Hicks publicly criticized Babe on this account. Babe, then president of the LPGA, called a meeting of the members and said: "Now let me tell you girls something. You know when there's a star like in show business? The star has her name in lights, right? Well, I happen to be the star of this show and all the rest of you are in the chorus. People come to see the star and the star gets the money."
She was the star. For as long as she was able.
In April 1953 Babe won the Babe Zaharias Open in Beaumont, then checked into a hospital for a physical examination. The doctors found a rectal malignancy and recommended an immediate operation. Dr. W. E. Tatum announced, "I don't know yet if surgery will cure her, but I will say that she never again will play golf of championship caliber."
Babe was condemned to a condition that was, for her, worse than invalidism. A colostomy was the only hope of saving her life. Her intestinal tract had to be rerouted so that she passed solid waste through an incision in the left side of her stomach. "The cancer didn't bother Babe," Betty Dodd says. "But it was that horrible operation. Her mental and emotional state was shaky."
Following the operation, the chief surgeon summoned George and Betty Dodd, who had a close and enduring relationship with Babe. The colostomy had gone well, but more cancer had been found in Babe's lymph nodes. It was only a matter of time, perhaps a year, before she would have more trouble. The doctor said he thought it unwise to tell Babe. She would not learn the cancer was spreading until two years later.
On July 31, 1953, only 3½ months after the operation, Babe entered the All-American tournament in Niles, Ill. She walked to the first hole, a yellow tee in her teeth, and murmured, "Guess I gotta go." She had played only 83 holes of golf since her operation and was wan beneath her tan, overweight, flaccid. She feared that her artificial intestinal tract might misfunction. "You go out there thinking you're going to hit it hard," she said, "and then you feel like you're going to pull everything loose and you ease up on a shot." She shot 82 and 85 the first two days and got off to a shaky start in the third round. Betty Dodd was playing with her. "She was missing shots and fighting like mad," Betty says. "On the 5th hole she three-putted from four feet. She walked off the green and sat down on a bench, put her head in her hands and sobbed. I told her, 'Quit, Babe, no one will care, they'll understand.' She looked up with tears streaming down her face and said, 'No, no, I don't want to quit. I'm not a quitter.' "
George padded along, a great anxious bear, opening a red leather shooting stick for her to rest on, massaging her shoulders. On the second nine, Babe settled down, shot a birdie or two, and George, who now weighed nearer 400 pounds than 300, told a reporter, "If she gets to believe she can do it, she'll really be all right. It's just like when you sit down to a table covered with food and say, T don't want to eat.' Then you eat a little bit and then you eat a little bit more and first thing you know, you're hungry."
The mere fact that she had played was astonishing. That she finished the tournament, shot 82-85-78-84 and tied for 15th was beyond belief. The following week in the World Golf Championship she shot 74-77-75-81, finished third behind Patty Berg and Louise Suggs, and won $1,000. She played the rest of the season, finished sixth on the money list with $6,345, and won the Ben Hogan comeback of the year award. In 1954 she won five tournaments, including the U.S. Women's Open at Salem Country Club in Peabody, Mass. There she shot 72-71-73-75 to win by a shattering 12 strokes, a record never broken. She finished second on the LPGA money list with $14,452.
Following the colostomy, Babe played tournament golf for almost two years. Then, in the spring of 1955, Babe and Betty Dodd were fishing on Padre Island in the Gulf of Mexico and Betty's car got stuck in the sand. Babe worked hard to dig it out. The next morning she had terrible pains in her back. "They got worse and worse," Betty says. Babe went to a hospital in Beaumont, but doctors could not trace the source of the problem. Several weeks later she went to a hospital in Galveston, where a milogram series was done. Nothing showed up. They put her in traction and Betty Dodd recalls visiting Babe: "When I walked in she started to cry. Finally a test indicated she had a disk problem. They operated. Ten days later she still had no relief from the pain. She was on drugs. One day the doctor came in and said, 'Babe, I'm going to lay it on the line. We feel there is nothing wrong with you physically. We think you have become addicted to drugs.'
"I thought Babe would hit him," Betty says. "She was in tremendous pain and he was telling her it was all in her head, that she was psychologically addicted to drugs. So she refused to take another shot. Now she was in so much pain she couldn't eat. One night she went out of her mind with the pain, pulling the intravenous tubes from her arms. They started giving her pain-killers again and X-raying once more. And finally a radiologist spotted cancer in her lower spine." There was no way to operate. Babe wanted to go home to Tampa, and the doctors let her go.
In Florida Babe tried to live a normal life. Betty Dodd came and stayed often, although she and George did not get along well. The greatest pain was located in Babe's left foot; the cancer had affected the sciatic nerve that ran down her leg. Betty remembers, "The only relief was to squeeze the foot. I used to lie on the end of her bed for hours and just mash her foot. My hands became so strong I could even have strangled George."
For months Babe would not admit that her golf career was over. On Oct. 9, 1955, she wrote the Bowens: "I don't think it will be too long before I can play again as I am feeling so good and strong. Oh for the day!"
Later that month Peggy Kirk Bell visited Babe. They actually played golf, but it was a melancholy occasion. "She was in a great deal of pain," Peggy says, "but she got out of bed and insisted that we play. She couldn't get her golf shoes on, they hurt too much. So she played in loafers.
"On the first hole, where she used to drive the green, she hit it about where I did. She did the same thing on the next hole and she said to me, 'Peggy, you've got to be one of the greatest golfers in the world. How do you break 100 only driving this far?' " It was Babe's last round of golf.
Soon after, she was back in the John Sealy Hospital in Galveston. She left to spend Christmas with the Bowens. One afternoon they drove her to the Colonial Country Club. Bertha says, "I remember Babe bending down and putting her hand on the green, just feeling it."
She lived for nine more months. On her 45th birthday, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead were playing in the Canada Cup in London and they arranged a moment of silent prayer for her; players from 30 countries joined the tribute.
Babe's endurance and her fine physical condition combined to cause a long, slow death. Toward the end she could scarcely move. Betty Dodd saw her 11 days before she died. She was now down to 80 pounds. They talked about victims in concentration camps and how they, too, weighed only 80 pounds and came back.
Babe Didrikson Zaharias died on Sept. 27, 1956. Betty Dodd was in Los Angeles. What she remembers most is the relief that Babe's ordeal was over. Two days later she went to Kansas City for a tournament. She and Babe had agreed that one would not attend the other's funeral.
George Zaharias was stricken. An Associated Press deathbed story began: " 'Babe never really asked God for too much,' Big George sobbed. 'She never asked Him to win any tournaments for her...she just prayed Him to let her get well.' "
Babe deserved better. Her death was so agonizing, so public, so sensationally reported that it is only now possible to see her in perspective, to appreciate her boldness, zest, courage, consummate skill—to call her the greatest woman athlete of all time.