Babe Didrikson Zaharias Collection

Babe playing golf

The United States Sports Academy Courage award is given to "an individual who demonstrates courageous action in overcoming adversity to excel in sport."  Nothing could better describe the life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias.

Mildred Ella Didrikson was born in Port Arthur, Texas on June 26, 1914.  She adopted the nickname "Babe" in honor of baseball hero Babe Ruth. The Babe grew up in Beaumont, Texas, a slim, athletic tomboy with a competitive nature.

During her years at Beaumont High her school basketball team never lost a game, and Didrikson excelled at other sports as well - volleyball, tennis, baseball and swimming.  Never a strong student academically, Babe dropped out of high school in her junior year and took a job with a company that would allow her time off to compete in athletic events.

Between 1930 and 1932 Didrikson held American, Olympic, or world records in five different track-and-field events. At the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games the Babe won two gold medals, in javelin and 80-meter hurdles, and a silver medal in the high jump. She also set a world's record and became co-holder of two others. She was voted the 1932 Woman Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press and became a favorite of the public as well as a darling of the media.

After the glory of the Olympics, Didrikson struggled to make her living as an athlete. She appeared briefly in vaudeville, played in some exhibition basketball games, tried billiards and considered the fad of long-distance swimming.  She toured the rural areas with a basketball team and joined an otherwise male baseball team for a nation-wide tour.  Finally, in 1933, she tried golf.

Golf became the Babe's game.  Her practice schedule was grueling; she sometimes played until her hands bled.  Her progress was nothing short of phenomenal. By 1935 she was able to win the Texas Women's Amateur Championship. When she married wrestler George Zaharias in 1938 she gained a manager as well as a husband.  Under his direction she continued to win tournaments until, during World War II, she gave up professional sports for three years so she could win back her amateur standing.  

The USGA restored her amateur standing in 1943, and soon Babe Zaharias was winning one tournament after another.  In 1945 she was named Woman Athlete of the Year for the second time. During the 1946-1947 seasons Zaharias won seventeen straight tournaments, a record never equaled by any player.  In 1948 she went professional again and helped found the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA).  Babe continued to be both successful and popular.

Zaharias was diagnosed with cancer and underwent radical surgery in 1953. Although many feared that her athletic career was over, Zaharias played in a golf tournament only fourteen weeks after the surgery. In 1954 Zaharias won five tournaments, including the United States Women's Open, and earned her sixth Woman Athlete of the Year Award.  In 1955 her cancer returned but she continued to play the sport she loved in spite of severe pain.  Her courage inspired millions who followed her struggle until her death in Galveston on September 27, 1956.

The Babe left a string of records behind her.  She won the U.S. Women's Open three times, the Women's Western Open four times, and the British Open—82 golf tournaments in all, amateur and professional.  She earned American, Olympic and world records in five other sports.  Most important she had the courage to strive and succeed as a professional athlete in an era that considered sports unfeminine.   She played her best in spite of prejudice, in spite of illness and in spite of personal sorrows.  Many still consider her a contender for the title "top woman athlete of the 20th century."  With her strong competitive streak, surely the Babe would be pleased.