In honor of Women’s History Month, here’s a look at the accomplishments of Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias, who just might be the greatest American athlete who ever lived — regardless of sex or gender.
An All-American in high school basketball, Didrikson found her first job after graduation with a Dallas insurance company…who hired her as a ringer for the company’s all-female basketball team, the Golden Cyclones. Playing as part of the Amateur Athletic Union, Didrikson led the team to an AAU national championship in 1931. Shortly thereafter, she competed in the AAU track and field championships. Competing in eight out of ten events, Didrikson won five. That gave the Golden Cyclones a team championship…even though Didrikson was the team’s one and only member.
Just a year after championship seasons in basketball and track, Didrikson caught the world’s attention…in multiple and varied track and field events. At the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, she tied the world record time of 11.8 seconds in her first heat in the 80-meter hurdles event. In the final, she topped it with an 11.7, and won a gold medal. Over in the javelin throw, she tossed the pole 43.39 meters — another record-setting, gold-medal-winning performance. In the high jump, she leaped more than five feet, enough for a silver-medal finish.
Didrikson played big league baseball, too. In 1934, she played in Major League exhibition games for both the Philadelphia Athletics and the St. Louis Cardinals, and then pitched for the minor league New Orleans Pelicans against the major league Cleveland Indians. In her two innings on the mound, she didn’t give up any runs.
Didrikson then became one of the most accomplished golfers of all time…despite not even playing the sport until 1935, when she was in her mid-twenties. With all of her athletic accomplishments, Didrikson was unable to secure amateur athlete status, so in 1938 she turned pro and competed in the PGA’s Los Angeles Open. (That’s where she met her husband, George Zaharias.) She continued to compete in PGA events until she regained her amateur status and cleaned up, winning three Women’s Western Opens, and becoming the first to win both the U.S. Women’s Amateur and the British Ladies amateur. She won 17 straight tournaments as an amateur, and when she turned pro again she dominated the Ladies Professional Golf Association…which she helped found. Zaharias won the “grand slam” of women’s golf and a total of 82 tournaments, which ties male golfer Sam Snead’s 82 PGA victories. She even qualified for the men’s U.S. Open in 1948, but she was denied entry because she wasn’t a guy.