On March 20, 1934, Mildred “Babe” Didrikson, perhaps the greatest female athlete of all time, pitched one inning of baseball for the Philadelphia Athletics in an exhibition game against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Babe allowed one walk and no hits (though she did accidentally nick one player with the ball.) The Dodgers ended up winning 4-2. In other exhibition games she served up strikes to the likes of Joe DiMaggio.
Babe was born Mildred Ella Didrikson in Port Arthur, TX, the sixth of seven children, so her family nicknamed her Baby — until the day she hit five home runs in a baseball game. With that, and with a nod to the New York Yankees’ “Sultan of Swat,” Baby was instantly shortened to Babe.
An athletic prodigy with enormous talent, she was named an All-American in basketball when she was only 16. Babe made her professional basketball debut in 1933 with the all-girl team, the Brooklyn Yankees.
She excelled in many sports, including softball, baseball, swimming, figure skating, billiards — even football.
She mastered tennis, bowling and basketball with incredible ease. She was also one of the finest track and field performers of all time. She gained her first national attention at an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) meet in 1930 in Dallas by winning the baseball throw and the javelin. Her second place in the long jump was good enough to top a world record.
Babe explained her athletic prowess simply enough: “I can run and I can jump and I can toss things and when they fire a gun or tell me to get busy, I just say to myself, ‘Well, kid, here’s where you’ve got to win another.’ And I usually do.”
In 1931 Babe continued her record-breaking performance in the Jersey City AAU meet. She threw a baseball 296 feet to set a world record and won the 80-meter hurdles and the long jump.
This turned out to be just a warm-up for the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. She was proficient in the javelin, shot put, high jump, long jump and hurdles, but only entered the last three events. Babe threw the javelin 143 feet, 4 inches for a new Olympic and world record. She whizzed over the 80-meter hurdles for another Olympic and world record. And she did the same to the high jump, but was penalized for “diving” over the bar and ended up finishing in second place.
The reigning figure in women’s track and field for a decade, she later became a world champion golfer.
Babe married professional wrestler George Zaharias in 1938, six years after she began playing golf casually. (She and George had been paired in a golf tournament.) In 1946 she won the U.S. Women’s Amateur, and in 1947 she won 17 straight golf tournaments and became the first American winner of the British Ladies’ Amateur. Turning professional in 1948, she won the U.S. Women’s Open in 1950.
A spectator, watching one of Babe’s spectacular drives, commented, “She must be Superman’s sister.” But Babe had another explanation for the secret of her success on the fairway: “I simply loosen my girdle,” she once quipped, “and let the ball have it.”
She was named Female Athlete of the Half-Century by an Associated Press poll in 1950. And in 2000, Sports Illustrated named her Female Athlete of the 20th Century.
In one of the greatest comebacks in sports history, Babe recovered from a cancer operation in 1953 and won the 1954 Women’s National Open.
Her autobiography This Life I’ve Led was published in 1955. Sportswriter Paul Gallico once asked her if there was anything she did not play. “Sure,” Babe shot back, “Dolls.”
She succumbed to cancer in Galveston, TX, on Sept. 27, 1956.