Saturday, July 3, 2010

July 3, 1954: The Other Babe

PEABODY, Mass. - Babe Didrikson Zaharias was one of "those" athletes, the kind that could play any sport at any time and be immediately good at it. Those kinds of pure natural athletes often inspire both jealousy and awe, and when they enter a competition, people often think it's over before it begins.

Known first as Babe Didrikson, then as Babe Zaharias after she got married, she got her first job as a secretary for an insurance company in Dallas. In reality, though, she was hired so she could compete on the company basketball team, leading them to the AAU national championship.

Zaharias first gained national prominence at the 1932 AAU track and field championships, where she won six of the ten events. She was so dominant that she won the team championship despite being the only member of her team. She continued that success at the 1932 Olympics, winning three track and field medals in Los Angeles.

After the Olympics, she made money playing on travelling baseball and basketball teams, also dabbling in billiards. In 1935, she started playing golf for the first time, and by the 1940s had become America's first female golf celebrity.

She won 41 professional tournaments in her golf career, including 10 majors. But it was her last major win, at the U.S. Open in 1954, that might be her most impressive athletic achievement. The president of the LPGA at the time, Zaharias entered the Open despite being only a month removed from colon cancer surgery. Despite being physically weakened by the cancer and chemotherapy, Zaharias dominated the field. Her final-round 75 on July 3 was her low round of the tournament, and she won by 12 shots, her largest margin of victory in a major.

Zaharias won three more tournaments in her career before finally succumbing to cancer in 1956. When she died, America had lost its first true female athletic superstar. She is still mentioned as among the best female athletes of all time, despite playing in a time when women were often discouraged from competing, if not flat-out banned. Had she competed in the modern era, with women being encouraged to compete without the negative stigma that Zaharias had to deal with, she might have become even more of a celebrity.

As it stands, her legacy remains impeccable. She'll always be remembered as an Olympic gold medalist, as a founding member of the LPGA, and as the type of athlete who could beat anybody in anything at any time.

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