Remembering Babe Didrikson Zaharias: Sports Immortal

When one has a solid grounding in the history of the Greek experience in the United States it offers a unique perspective. Beginning in the 1990s, the life and very name, of fabled sports figure Babe Didrikson Zaharias began to change on the pages of history. Zaharias lost her married name and without the benefit of evidence her sexual orientation was transformed. Given that Zaharias is still recognized as one of the most outstanding athletic figures in recorded history – she is frequently listed next to Babe Ruth, Jim Thorpe and Michael Jordan – one would think that such unsubstantiated claims would have long ago seen critical review. Unfortunately, even the history of American sports can be the ground for the most extreme versions of political correctness.
Yet all these unwarranted changes are most certainly not how this strong-minded individual referred to herself or how she is known in the literally thousands of pages devoted to her quite considerable sports record.
There is another aspect of Babe Zaharias’ life story to consider here. Whenever one reads about Greek and non-Greek marriages, the issue is invariably presented as a contemporary situation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Since Greeks first arrived on the Western Hemisphere, they have followed their hearts in matters of love. Literally thousands of persons alive today claim Hellenic descent, many from the earliest Colonial period. In the 1930s through to the 1950s, George and Babe Zaharias were perhaps the most famous of the mixed couples.
Mildred Ella Didrikson was born in Port Arthur, TX on June 26, 1911 of Norwegian immigrant parents. It is said that Didrikson was called “Babe,” after baseball great Babe (George Herman) Ruth since from an early age she exceled at all sports. The nickname suited her well, given that, as she was to recall later, “[B]efore I was even into my teens, I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up. My goal was to be the greatest athlete that ever lived.” All personal ambitions aside there were considerable social obstacles to overcome.
At the turn of the last century, professional sports for women were virtually nonexistent. Opportunities for women in college sports were few. So, it is not surprising to learn that in February 1930, just before completing high school, Babe joined the Golden Cyclone Athletic Club of the Employers Casualty Company. In this era, it was common for companies to sponsor their female employee’s sports teams. These teams were often called Industrial Athletics. Sixteen year-old Babe Didrikson was soon on the insurance company’s payroll as an office worker.
In two years Babe played with the Golden Cyclone squad. She was twice selected as All-American basketball forward. She captained the company’s track team to second place in the national championship standing; winning most of the points herself! Babe established eight track and field records for the South and three for the nation. The unstoppable Babe helped with 17 loving cups, personally won 92 medals, including prizes for records in life saving and figure skating. As if her record on the sports field was not enough, Babe designed a sport dress that won first prize at the 1931 Texas State Fair.
It was at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles where Babe first won international fame. In the javelin throw, her 43.68m handily surpassed the previous record of 32’ 7 7/8” winning a gold medal. In the 80-meter hurdle race, Babe easily beat the 12.2 seconds world record with 11.7 seconds and received her second gold medal. Finally, in the high jump, her record-breaking jump was disavowed on a technicality. Babe was awarded a silver medal. During the course of her participation in the 1932 Olympics, Babe set four world records. In recognition of her outstanding achievements the Associated Press named her Woman Athlete of the Year.
Zaharias broke the accepted models of femininity in her time. Standing 5’7” and weighing 115 lbs. Zaharias was physically strong and very proud about her athleticism. Although a sports hero to many, she was also continuously derided for her “manliness.” Far from a mere cultural prejudice of the times, these notions had their direct social impact as well. The potential success usual for the male Olympic winning athletes was denied to Babe. After her Olympic triumphant Babe Didrikson, given that she was a female, could not enter professional sports and ended up working as a poorly-paid secretary. Her life in sports seemed to be at a dead end. Any published account to the contrary is simply false.
In 1938, at the Los Angeles Open, usually a men-only golf tournament, Babe was paired with professional wrestler and sport’s promoter, George Zaharias. She shot 81 and 84 to miss the cut, but no one gave her any grief. Babe made the two-day cut at the 1945 Los Angeles Open (she’s still the only woman to make the cut at a regular PGA Tour event), and she became America’s first female golf celebrity, winning 41 times on the LPGA Tour.
Zaharias was born Theodore Vetoyanis in Pueblo, C in 1908 and took the name Zaharias when he became a professional wrestler. In the ring, Zaharias skillfully played the role of the villain who fought unfairly and met defeat with tears. Known as the “Crying Greek from Cripple Creek” (a town near Pueblo) the 200+ pound Zaharias was an extremely prosperous wrestler and an equally successful promoter. When the couple first met both were recognized sports figures.
After only eleven months, they married on December 23, 1938. Their marriage became an instant media event. A shrewd businessman of the first order, Zaharias devoted himself to promoting Babe’s career. At 37, Zaharias was already a millionaire, while the 28 year-old Babe had many more years of gold ahead of her.
By early 1953, Babe Zaharias was diagnosed as having intestinal cancer. The valiant Babe continued to play golf after her various operations and became a public spokesperson for cancer research. On September 27, 1956, Zaharias died of her illness at the John Sealy Hospital in Galveston, TX. She was buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Beaumont.
Accolades, awards, and all manner of honors continue to be bestowed on Zaharias. In 1951, Babe Zaharias was inducted into the Women’s Golfer’s Hall of Fame. In 1957, she posthumously received the Bob Jones Award, the highest honor given by the United States Golf Association. In 1975, Babe, a made-for-television movie featuring Susan Clark and Alex Karras in the title roles appeared winning a number of awards. In 1977, Babe was one of six initial inductees into the LPGA Hall of Fame at its inception. The Babe Didrikson Zaharias Park and Museum in Beaumont is also the chamber of commerce welcoming center. A golf course that Babe owned was given landmark status. In 1981, the U.S. Postal Service issued an 18-cent stamp commemorating Babe Zaharias.
But there is another, far less welcome “title” that also has been posthumously given to Babe Zaharias. Around 1950, Babe became close friends with fellow female golfer Betty Dodd. Dodd began to serve as an aid to Babe and even moved in with the Zahariases. That led to claims to Zaharias and Dodd were lovers – without benefit of proof. That this story continues seems the result of some kind of strange form of political correctness. Aside from the pain and consternation this claim has upon the Zahariases’ extended family (and many of her fans) those that deny this claim are broadly painted as haters of homosexuals. Individuals’ sexual preferences should be their own concerns and not something thrust upon them by those with special interests. But we live at a moment in time when the past is no longer the reign solely of documented events. I believe this claim is also an insult to Babe Zaharias’ ability as an athlete. It is as if she could never have been a sports champion unless she was also somehow “less” feminine.
Also, no matter what potential lay within Babe Didrikson after the 1932 Olympic Games without George Zaharias’ fundamental contributions to her overall career she would never have been allowed to achieve all that was to follow. It is especially striking that in the 1975 film Babe, George Zaharias’ ongoing efforts on Babe’s behalf are denigrated. “Promoter” is treated as a dirty word throughout this biopic of Babe Zaharias’ life. Sportswriters seem at a loss at this turn of events.
It seems that if Greek-Americans do not stand up for George and Babe Zaharias, no one will.