Don Van Natta Jr., correspondent for The New York Times and member of two Pulitzer Prize-winning teams, spent seven years researching and writing his biography of the athlete Babe Didrikson Zaharias. He took time out to answer some questions for Women’s Voices for Change.
1. What triggered your interest in Babe Didrikson Zaharias and why did you decide to write a book about her?
In 2004, I had just published my first book, First Off the Tee, about Presidential golf, and I was hunting for a subject for another book. My friend, Rand Jerris, the historian at the United States Golf Association, suggested that I write a biography of Babe Didrikson for readers who may have never heard her name. I then met W.L. Pate Jr., the president of the Babe Didrikson Zaharias Foundation in Babe’s hometown of Beaumont, Texas. W.L.’s love of Babe’s fearless life and monumental sporting legacy is infectious.
Then, on a rainy day in November 2004, I visited Babe’s hometown of Beaumont, where there is this charming little museum, off Interstate-10, just for her. The place contains nearly all the treasure Babe collected during her life – the medals, trophies, silver cups, keys to cities, scrapbooks and telegrams, fan letters and get-well cards sent by Presidents and prime ministers, housewives and school children. And yet, on that rainy day, I was the only visitor to step foot in her museum. As I gazed at all of her loot through the smudged display glass windows, it was obvious that Babe was America’s nearly forgotten sports superstar whose story deserved to be told again for a new generation of readers.
2. In the prologue to your book Wonder Girl, you mention that Babe had “earned a place among the biggest names in sports, right up there with Red Grange, Jim Thorpe, Bill Tilden and Babe Ruth.” Yet in 2011 her name is not mentioned that often when discussions turn to historic sports stars. Why do you think that’s the case? How do you think her feats compare with those of Jim Thorpe and Babe Ruth?
She is a woman. In fact, she is the only woman listed in Sports Illustrated’s Top 10 Athletes of the 20th Century, right up there with Thorpe, Ruth, Mays, Ali and Jordan. She wasn’t just the greatest woman athlete of all-time; I believe she was the best all-around athlete of all-time, exceeding the feats of Thorpe and Ruth. No athlete in American history excelled at as many sports as Babe Didrikson. She was an all-American basketball player, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in track and field, an outstanding baseball and softball player, swimmer, diver, bowler, tennis player. Babe conquered every game she tried – and she tried them all. Her best game and greatest legacy was golf: She was co-founder of the LPGA and the first woman to play in a PGA Tour event and make a PGA tournament cut. She won more consecutive tournaments (14) than any golfer, male or female, in history. And in 1947, she was the first American to win the British Women’s Amateur. Because she was a woman — and women’s sports have never seized the attention and the respect that they deserve — Babe has receded from memory and even become something of a footnote in American sports history. It’s not fair.
3. Because of the times in which she lived and the role of women then, do you think it was easier for Babe to become a star athlete or harder? What were the societal norms she was going up against?
It was much more difficult for Babe to become a star athlete in the ’30s and ’40s when there were far fewer opportunities for women to compete. In her teens, Babe received almost no formal athletic training. As a young girl, she trained for the Olympics 80-meter hurdles by hopping hedges along Doucette Street in Beaumont. Unbeknownst to Babe, there was a strong chance women were not even going to be permitted to compete in track and field events at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, where she won two gold medals and a silver medal.
She spent her life searching for a place to play. After her Olympics success, there were few opportunities for a woman to become a professional athlete. Babe drifted around for a few years looking for ways to parlay her Olympics success, performing on a vaudeville stage in Chicago and playing “donkey baseball” (players rode donkeys around the base paths) with the barnstorming House of David baseball team (made up entirely of men). It wasn’t until the mid-30s that she took on golf, and even then there were only one or two professional women’s tournaments and less than dozen amateur events. The LPGA was founded in 1950 in large part as a way to showcase Babe’s talents.
Babe also had to fight against society’s narrow-minded view of women’s sports in the first half of the 20th century. Many Americans didn’t like to see women sweat; they wanted women to play “lady-like” sports, such as figure skating, archery and equestrian sports. Most male sports writers were sexist and chauvinistic, ridiculing Babe’s looks and manners, saying she was competing because she had failed at the game of “man-snatching.” They wondered aloud whether Babe was a lesbian and they questioned in print whether she was really a woman or perhaps an “it.” So Babe not only had to struggle to find a place to play but she also had to overcome the way many Americans viewed a strong female professional athlete.
4. Where do you think Babe got her competitive drive? Was that drive more responsible for her success than her physical attributes?
Growing up in Beaumont, Texas, Babe learned quickly that she was better at sandlot sports than all the girls. So she played with the boys, who gave her some grudging respect after seeing how well she played baseball and basketball. She even tried to talk her way into kicking for her high school football team. Even in high school, her competitive drive turned heads. As she liked to say, “I don’t see any point in playing the game if you don’t win. Do you?”
Babe’s success is attributable to that drive, even more than her physical gifts. She wanted to be the best at every sport, and she knew the surest way to become the best at anything was practice. She had natural talent, but she spent more time practicing and preparing than any of her contemporaries. When her track and field team’s organized practices ended, Babe remained on the field and practiced until after dark. She swung golf clubs until her hands were blistered and bloodied.
5. She used certain tactics to try to intimidate her competitors — what some refer to now as “the mental game.” Certainly those tactics were not considered to be ladylike. Was she ahead of her time or just too driven by competitive zeal?
She was a pioneer of the mental game, too. Muhammad Ali wasn’t the first great American athlete to proclaim, “I am the greatest.” It was Babe Didrikson, in the summer of 1932, who repeatedly declared her greatness to her teammates on the U.S. Olympic track and field team and to the athletes from other countries she would be trying to beat. Her brash self-promotion not only intimidated and psyched out opponents on other teams but her own teammates (of course, if she was going to win a gold medal, she’d have to defeat her teammates, too). Her chest-thumping probably helped sway the judges during the 80-meter hurdles at the Olympic Games. Babe appeared to finish in a dead-heat against her American teammate, Evelyne Hall. A moment after crossing the finish line, Babe raised her arms as if she had won, a gesture not duplicated by Hall. The judges declared Babe the winner, likely swayed by the athletes’ very different finish-line reactions and the fact that Babe had predicted, repeatedly, that she would win.
When she began playing golf, the galleries and press loved her because Babe was not shy about intimidating opponents. This obnoxious behavior won her few friends, but it helped her win more than a few golf tournaments. Before an LPGA tournament, Babe would show up in the clubhouse and tell the other players, “The Babe’s here! Who is coming in second?”
6. Nowadays Olympic gold medals have a special cachet. Was that the case in Babe’s time? Were her Olympic victories considered her most significant accomplishments? Or was something else considered to be more important? What do you consider her most significant accomplishment?
In Babe’s time, the Olympics were a very big deal but the sheen from her three-medal performance faded much faster than it would have today. Within five months of her Olympic triumph, Babe did a week of vaudeville shows in Chicago, singing, cracking jokes and playing the harmonica, to earn money. She quickly tired of that life because she wanted to compete. But there were few opportunities for a female athlete in the 1930s to make a life as a professional athlete.
I don’t believe her Olympics triumph was Babe’s greatest athletic accomplishment. There are so many to choose from, but I’d have to say two rank as truly extraordinary in the history of sport. At the National Track and Field Championships that doubled as the Olympic trials in July 1932, Babe competed as a one-woman track team, representing Employers Casualty Insurance Company of Dallas, against other track and field teams comprised of as many as 22 women. In an incredible feat of versatility and strength in one afternoon at Northwestern University, Babe won five events within three hours – the broad jump, baseball throw, shot put, javelin and 80-meter hurdles. She tied for first in a sixth event, the high jump. Single-handedly, she won the national track and field championship. The Illinois Women’s Athletic Club, with 22 women competing, finished eight points behind Babe.
Her second great accomplishment was her remarkable comeback from major cancer surgery in April 1953. After her colostomy, Babe was told by doctors she likely would never play competitive golf again. But she would have none of that talk. And just 15 months after her surgery, with a colostomy bag strapped to her side, Babe won the U.S. Women’s Open for the third time by an astonishing 12 strokes. After winning at Salem Country Club in Massachusetts, she attributed her triumph to the millions of fans and cancer patients who had rooted and prayed for her comeback. She said her victory belonged to them, too.
When Babe finally succumbed to cancer in September 1956, President Eisenhower saluted her courage as one of the first public figures to make her cancer struggle public. “She was a woman who, in her athletic career, certainly won the admiration of every person in the United States, all sports people all over the world, and in her gallant fight against cancer, she put up one of the kind of fights that inspired us all.”
7. Babe competed against men in PGA tournaments, something that wasn’t repeated by other women for decades. Did she face any backlash because of that?
Babe’s first PGA tournament was in January 1938 at the Los Angeles Open, the first PGA tournament on the year’s calendar. It was a promoter’s idea to have Babe play with the men (and it’s where she met her future husband, George Zaharias). Some sportswriters remarked that Babe didn’t belong there and that her entry in the LA Open was just a promoter’s stunt. But over the course of her golf career, she earned great respect from the top male golfers of her era, including Gene Sarazen, whom she toured with playing exhibitions in the 1930s. Bobby Jones, in particular, greatly admired and respected Babe’s game. She had so much power off the tee – she could drive it 250 yards with a wooden driver that is not turbo-charged like today’s version. Those powerful drives won over most of the best male golfers, who knew she could play and enjoyed playing with her.
8. She and her husband, George Zaharias, did not have children. Given what you know about the time she lived in, do you think having a family would have derailed her athletic career?
Babe desperately wanted children, but she had several miscarriages. In the 1940s, after her marriage to professional wrestler and promoter George Zaharias, Babe changed her image from a rough-hewn woman from the wrong side of Beaumont to a “good housewife” who loved to cook big meals, clean the house and look after the needs of her husband. Babe and George carefully introduced this transformation of her image to the national press corps. Having a baby was part of those plans, but it wasn’t meant to be. If Babe had had a family, it might not have derailed her career but it would have certainly made it harder for Babe to compete as frequently and as competitively as she did. Several women on the tour who had children took time off from the tour and when they returned, their games were not nearly as sharp.
9. You mention in the book that near the end of her life Babe wrote that her “goal was to be the greatest athlete that ever lived.” Do you think she achieved that goal? How do you think she would compare to today’s athletes?
I love the fact that at the age of 13, Babe didn’t simply envision herself as the greatest female athlete. She wanted to be the greatest athlete of all time. Period. I believe Babe did achieve her goal because no American athlete was as versatile as Babe. As recently as the 1980s and 1990s, athletes who played two sports – Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders – were idolized by the American public. Babe didn’t just play two sports; she played them all and excelled at them all. If she could have accomplished today what she had accomplished a half-century ago, Babe’s stardom would be immense. And she would have a Jordan-sized sneaker contract.
10. What lessons, if any, should today’s female athletes take from Babe?
Babe Didrikson Zaharias’ life was a triumph of will over very long odds. She wanted to win as much or more than anyone else. All it takes is desire and discipline. As Babe said, “The formula for success is simple – practice and concentration, then more practice and more concentration.”
Babe’s lessons are simple and universal: Never give up. Never let anyone tell you that you can’t play or you can’t succeed or you can’t be who you want to be.