With Tiger Woods receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Monday at the White House, it’s a good time to peruse the list of winners and see who’s missing.
Thirty-three sports figures have received the award, with Woods becoming the fourth golfer, joining Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Charlie Sifford.
Of the 33 athletes, only two are women: Billie Jean King and Pat Summitt.
What about Babe?
Not Ruth, he’s already on the list, awarded posthumously last year by President Trump. We’re talking The Babe – as in Babe Didrikson Zaharias.
Babe Didrikson Zaharias holds the Women’s U.S. Open Golf Championship trophy in 1954. (Photo: Associated Press)
The early LPGA was built to showcase Zaharias, one of the greatest athletes in American history. A woman who qualified for the 1932 Olympics by competing – and winning – as a one-woman team at the AAU Championships. Zaharias entered eight competitions, won five outright and tied for the lead in the sixth.
She’d go on to win two gold medals at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, though many believed it should’ve been three after a judge ruled she’d used an improper technique on the high jump.
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The brash Babe grew to become not just a sports star, but a bona fide American celebrity, even dazzling on the vaudeville circuit.
A late-bloomer when it came to golf, Zaharias competed against the men in the Los Angeles Open in 1938. She missed the cut but wound up marrying her partner in the event, George Zaharias.
Mildred Babe Didrikson throws the javelin to win the gold medal at the 1932 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles,
Zaharias regained her amateur status and dominated the women’s circuit. It wasn’t a scene in which she was easily accepted.
Golf historian Rhonda Glenn writes in her book, “The Illustrated History of Women’s Golf,” that had Zaharias been a golfer of ordinary skill, her lack of refinement might have been ignored. But her talent was such that gossip followed.
“It wasn’t ladylike to be muscular,” Zaharias’ friend, Roberta Bowen, told Glenn. “Of course, there’s where her courage came in. I never understood how she had the strength to overlook the snubs and slights and the downright venom of a lot of women. She never talked ugly about anybody and she had every reason to. In many cases people would try to keep her out, really keep her out. But she never held a grudge. She was really too busy to be bothered.”
On the pro tour, the Babe was also not universally loved, though no one could argue that she was a publicity machine. It wasn’t just that Zaharias brought out the crowds, she connected with them.
But players felt like Zaharias was only in it for herself, taking large appearance fees and making under-the-table deals. In his book “The Wonder Girl, the Magnificent Sporting Life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias,” Don Van Natta Jr. noted that during a three-year stretch in the 1950s, Babe played in 656 exhibitions, earning $500 a round and $600 on Sundays. Babe confided in friends that she was nearing the $1 million career mark, and her agent confirmed that she’d become the first female athlete to bring in six figures annually.
Fellow LPGA founder Shirley Spork spelled out how many on the LPGA felt about the Babe in her recent autobiography:
She never doubted her own abilities and because of that, she offended some people. She would walk up to us and say, “Well, The Babe is here! Who’s going to be second?” She had tremendous self-confidence!
Babe also played the harmonica and sang. Betty Dodd played the guitar and performed with Babe when we would entertain guests during some our Tour stops. Babe performed on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1953 and recorded songs on the Mercury Records label that were sold in stores. Her biggest seller was a record with “I Felt a Little Teardrop” on one side and “Detour” on the other.
Babe Didrikson Zaharias won the 1954 Women’s U.S. Open Golf Championship in Massachusetts by 12 shots, all while wearing a colostomy bag and recovering from cancer surgery. (Getty Images)
One of the greatest comebacks in golf came in 1954 when Zaharias, who the year before had been diagnosed with colon cancer, won the U.S. Women’s Open by 12 strokes while wearing a colostomy bag. She even played 36 holes that final day in the summer heat. It was the stuff of legends, though few modern-day players likely know of it at all.
The cancer returned shortly thereafter, taking Zaharias’ life in 1956 at the age of 45. She’d won 41 LPGA titles, including 10 majors and sparked a tour that today gives female athletes the world over a chance to inspire.
President Barack Obama once described the Presidential Medal of Freedom as “a tribute to the idea that all of us, no matter where we come from, have the opportunity to change this country for the better.”
Mildred “Babe” Didrikson was the sixth of seven children born to Norwegian immigrants. From humble beginnings, Zaharias rose to not only challenge what people thought possible from a female athlete, but forged on in what can be a cruel world to help lay the groundwork for generations to come.
The great Herbert Warren Wind had this to say of her:
“When the rough, rugged girl from Texas had first skyrocketed to prominence in the 1932 Olympics, erudite critics were of the opinion that she was probably the finest woman athlete who ever lived. If there were any dissenters then, the Babe’s subsequent performances in golf cured them of their heresy. In fact, remembering her unapproached ability for becoming a champion in every sport she tried, an ever-increasing number of fans and writers believe that the finest athlete of the twentieth century was The Babe.”