Monday, January 30, 2017
January 30, 2017: Women and Sports: Babe Didrikson Zaharias
[Each year for the last few, I’ve used Super Bowl week as a platform for a series on sports in America. This week, I’ll be AmericanStudying figures and moments related to women in sports, leading up to a weekend Guest Post on cheerleading in American society and culture!]
On two ways to connect and parallel the pioneering athlete to legendary men, and one key way not to.
1) Multi-Sport Achievements and Fame: I’ve always thought of Jim Thorpe as the 20th century’s most talented athlete, what with his stunning and groundbreaking successes in Olympic track and field, football, and baseball, among other sports. But in researching this post, I realized that Didrikson Zaharias has a serious case for the same title: I had long known about her unparalleled successes as a professional golfer, but she also won two track and field gold medals (and one silver medal) at the 1932 Summer Olympics and was an All-American in basketball, again among many other athletic accomplishments. Although sports lend themselves particularly well to lists and rankings and debates about who was the best, the truth is that both Thorpe and Didrikson Zaharias should be remembered as truly exceptional and influential athletes, figures whose early to mid 20th century, runaway crossover successes in both amateur and professional sports helped pave the way for the sports world to become the national and global phenomenon that it remains to this day.
2) Larger-than-life Persona: Born Mildred Ella Didrikson, Didrikson Zaharias would later claim that she gained the nickname “Babe” when she hit five home runs in a youth baseball game. That might or might not be true (her Norwegian immigrant mother supposedly called her “Bebe” throughout her life), but even the uncertainty helps illustrate Didrikson Zaharias’ embrace of a larger-than-life persona that echoes that of her potential namesake Babe Ruth. For example, she long claimed to have been born in 1914 (rather than her actual 1911 birth year), perhaps to exaggerate her youthful accomplishments yet further. And she complemented the athletic successes I detailed above with a lifelong series of forays into the worlds of celebrity and popular culture: singing and playing harmonica on several pop songs for Mercury Records; performing on the vaudeville circuit; trying her hand as a pocket billiards player, as in a famous multi-day match against billiards champion Ruth McGinnis; and marrying professional wrestler George Zaharias, the “Crying Greek from Cripple Creek.” Like Babe Ruth, Didrikson Zaharias’ athletic accomplishments would have been more than enough to cement her fame and legacy; but like Ruth, she clearly wanted all that culture and life had to offer.
3) Shattering Stereotypes: Jim Thorpe and Babe Ruth are two of the greatest American athletes of all time, and linking any other athlete to them is (I hope and would argue) a sign of respect. Yet at the same time, I did so at least somewhat ironically, to help engage with the particular, unquestionably gendered limits which Didrikson Zaharias continually encountered and yet challenged and destroyed. (Certainly a Native American athlete like Thorpe faced his own barriers and challenges, of course.) The most overt such limits, many of which called into question Didrikson Zaharias’ gender itself, are nicely encapsulated by this quote, from sportswriter Joe Williams in the New York World-Telegram: “It would be much better if she and her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up and waited for the phone to ring.” In the last few years of her life, Didrikson Zaharias developed a close, quite possibly romantic relationship with fellow golfer Betty Dodd, a relationship neither would describe as romantic due to the limits of their early 1950s society. Yet at the same time, in those final years Didrikson Zaharias shattered all limits one final time: diagnosed with colon cancer in 1953, she continued to golf professionally until her 1956 death, winning multiple tournaments including the last two she entered. A towering and inspiring sports legend to the last.
Next post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other women and sports connections or analyses you’d share?