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Babe Didrikson Zaharias: The Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th Century

Posted on June 26, 2011 by Dean Hybl

Babe Didrikson Zaharias was the most successful female athlete of her generation.

The LPGA will crown its 2011 champion later today, but it was on this date 100 years ago that one of the catalysts for the LPGA and the greatest female athlete of all-time was born.

Though there have been many great female athletes, none has ever been able to duplicate the athletic prowess or cross into the world of men’s sports with quite as much success as Babe Didrikson Zaharias.

Whether competing in basketball, baseball track and field or golf, Zaharias wasn’t just considered to be “pretty good for a girl”, she was generally recognized as being a special athlete.

While Zaharias first enjoyed success in basketball, leading her team to a 1931 AAU Championship, it was track and field where she initially gained a larger following.

In the Spring of 1932 she entered the Amateur Track and Field Championships in Evanston, Illinois as the lone team member for the Employers Casualty Insurance Company of Dallas, Texas. Competing against teams that included as many as 22 women, the “one-woman track team” dominated the competition.

Zaharias won five events (broad jump, shot-put, javelin, 80-meter hurdles and the baseball throw) and tied for first in the high jump. She earned 30 total points in the team competition to finish well in front of the second place Illinois Women’s Athletic Club, which had 22 athletes and scored 22 points.

As a result of her amazing one-woman performance, Zaharias qualified for three events at the 1932 Summer Olympics, which were held in Los Angeles. She won the Olympic Gold Medal in the 80-meter hurdles and javelin and finished second in the high jump.

Didrikson-Zaharias won two gold medals at the 1932 Summer Olympics.

Following her Olympic success, Zaharias spent the next several years bouncing around on the vaudeville circuit showing off her athletic prowess in a wide variety of unusual ways including playing baseball while riding around the base paths on a donkey. She also struggled to overcome the perception that she was too manly for a lady and a lesbian.

In 1935, at the suggestion of legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice, she took up the sport of golf and it would eventually change her career path and image.

It didn’t take long for Zaharias to become proficient in her new sport and after being denied amateur status and lacking female competition, participated in the 1938 Los Angeles Open. Though she missed the cut after shooting an 81-84, she met her future husband, professional wrestler George Zaharias.

Over the next few years he helped craft a new image for the phenomenal athlete and she soon became one of the most famous female athletes in the country.

After having her amateur status restored in 1942, Zaharias became the most dominant women’s golfer in the world. She won the U.S. Women’s Amateur Golf Championship in 1946 and 1947 and in 1947 became the first American woman to win the British Ladies Amateur Golf Championship. At one point she claimed 14 straight tournament titles.

Didrikson-Zaharias won 82 golf tournament and was one of the founders of the LPGA.

She also continued to occasionally compete against the men and in 1945 became the first and only woman ever to make the cut at a PGA event. She shot 76-81 to make the two-day cut at the Los Angeles Open. She finished 33rd at the Phoenix Open and tied for 42nd at the Tucson Open. What perhaps made it palatable that Zaharias was competing in men’s tournaments was that in both Phoenix and Tucson she earned her spot in the field through 36-hole qualifiers.

In 1947 Zaharias officially turned professional and in 1950 she won all three of what would eventually be considered LPGA Majors, the U.S. Women’s Open, Titleholders Championship and Western Open.

In 1951 Zaharias was one of 13 founding members of the LPGA.

As the most recognized player on the tour, Zaharias provided the fledgling organization with instant credibility and name recognition. She also was the most dominant player on the tour claiming the money title in 1951 and 1952.

After being diagnosed with colon cancer in 1953, Zaharias made a comeback in 1954 and claimed her 10th major championship by winning the 1954 U.S. Women’s Championship in grand fashion with a 12-stroke victory. For her career, Zaharias won 82 total tournaments, including 38 professional victories.

Zaharias passed away on September 27, 1956.

Recognized as one of the greatest athletes of her time, either male or female, Zaharias was ranked 10th on ESPN’s Sports Century list of the top 50 North American athletes of the 20th Century and was the highest ranking female athlete on the list.

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