Aardvark Alley

Lutheran Aardvark

Confessional Lutheran theology, hagiography, philosophy, music, culture, sports, education, and whatever else is on the fevered mind of Orycteropus Afer

27 September 2005
  What a Babe!
(Didrikson, That Is)

Today marks the 49th anniversary of the death from cancer of Mildred Ella "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias (1911 – 1956). There's at least a tenuous Lutheran connection here (more on that in a moment) and I'd appreciate learning more.

With Janis Joplin, she's one of the two most famous women to come from Port Arthur, Texas. Unlike "Pearl," the "Babe" never seemed to sour on her hometown. During the first half of the 20th Century, I'd be hard pressed to find a better known and more universally admired and respected woman in the United States with the possible exception of Eleanor Roosevelt — and Babe didn't have to marry a politician to gain her fame.

Nope, she got respect the "old fashioned way" — she earned it. She was a natural athlete who honed and enhanced her skills to a degree previously seen in mainly male sports figures. She received her Ruthian nickname as a youngster after hitting five home runs in one baseball game.

Competing at a time when women's athletics were viewed with suspicion by many, Babe entered eight events in the 1932 Olympic Trials. Unfortunately, the Games only allowed her to compete in three. She won the javelin and 80 meter hurdles and tied for first in the high jump. Because the judges didn't like her jumping style (even though it wasn't illegal and she wasn't disqualified) they gave the gold to fellow American Jean Shiley while Babe received the silver. After the Games, Shiley and Didrikson showed their opinion by splitting the two medals with each keeping half.

Babe was also a talented basketball player who starred on an AAU team for several years.

Babe Didrikson Zaharias StampUltimately, golf became her greatest sport. Babe was the first marquee women's player. She dominated on the amateur and professional circuits, winning a total of 10 majors as a pro during a period when there were only three majors each year. In 1950, her greatest year, she won all three majors (the US Open, the Titleholders Championship, and the Western Open) and led the money-list.

Until Annika Sörenstam and Michelle Wie almost sixty years later, Babe Didrikson was the only woman to compete in a men's PGA tournament (1945). She was also a founding member of the LPGA.

She married popular former wrestler George Zaharias in 1938. The marriage only lasted a short time — Babe divorced him when he admitted that he was a homosexual. However, she kept the name until her death.

Babe's life ended while she was still a superb athlete. Even after the cancer began affecting her, she continued her golfing career. After a brief remission, the cancer returned in 1955 and she only played in 8 events. She still managed to win two of them.

The Associated Press named her its Female Athlete of the Year six times and in 1950, she was voted Woman Athlete of the First Half of the 20th Century in an AP poll. When ESPN listed the the 50 top athletes of the 20th Century, she was the highest ranked woman.

Her death leads me to the Lutheran connection: According to the New York Times Magazine, she was buried out of Bethlehem Lutheran Church (ALC, now ELCA) in Beaumont, Texas — just up the road from Port Arthur. Her grave is in Beaumont's Forest Lawn Memorial Park. If anyone knows whether she grew up Lutheran or was active in the church during her adult life, I'd be happy to add the information.
 
Comments:
Thank you, Pastor Synder. That was very interesting!
 
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