June 26, 1911 – Babe Didrikson:
It’s not enough just to swing at the ball. You’ve got to loosen your girdle and let ‘er fly.
In attempting to uncover and reclaim closet cases through history, I am running into a peculiar brand of homophobia, folks who insist that certain historical figures would not be pleased by being outed posthumously; that honoring their lives requires honoring their closets and perpetuating the fictions they so carefully constructed during their lifetimes.
Babe Didrikson was a tomboy who won trophy after trophy for a variety of sports in high school, even trying out for the football team. Recruited for an amateur basketball team in Dallas while still in her teens, she made such a name for herself, she was invited to try out for the 1932 Olympic track team.
At the Olympic trials, in order to get around the three-event limit for individual athletes, Didrikson registered as a team, a team of one! In two and a half hours, she won five events: shot put, javelin, long jump, baseball throw, and 80-meter hurdles, setting a world record in the hurdles and javelin. She tied in the high jump, setting another world record, and finished fourth in discus. She scored eight points higher than her nearest competition, a 22 women team.
At the 1932 Olympics Games held in Los Angles, Didrikson was bound by the three-event limit, so, she scored two gold medals, breaking her own world records in both, and took the silver in the high jump.
Didrikson was too focused on winning to give much attention to her image, although she did lie about of her age. Claiming to be 18 instead 21, she may have been thinking about the public’s acceptance of tomboy behavior when a girl who is still in her teens.
Didrikson attracted a lot of attention, not all of it was positive. She made several enemies, and one of them was writer Paul Gallico (The Poseidon Adventure. Mrs ‘arris Goes To Paris). Gallico, a vehement protector of traditional gender roles, believed women should only be allowed to compete in six sports: archery, shooting, fishing, ice skating, swimming and equitation, you know the pretty sports.
In a piece published in Vanity Fair, The Texas Babe, Gallico wrote ” …this strange girl-boy child would have been right at home in a men’s locker room”. He used the word ”boy” to refer to Didrikson, attributing her athletic prowess as an over-compensation for her inability to attract men.
After the Olympics, sportswriter Grantland Rice arranged a friendly game of golf to introduce Didrikson and Gallico. His support for her was a major factor in Didrikson’s success. She challenged Gallico to a footrace in the middle of the golf course, and Gallico idiotically accepted the dare. She beat him at the race and won the game of golf.
Then the humiliated Gallico wrote an even more homophobic piece for Vanity Fair. Ostensibly a short story, it was clear that the central character, a butch Texas athlete named ”Honey”, was a thinly disguised stand-in for Didrikson. There was a full-page photo of her on the opposite page. Gallico depicts his Honey as a genetic freak, filled with self-loathing despite her gold medal, sobbing because she cannot get a man. This was 1933.
Didrikson began to wear dresses, girdles, lipstick, and nail polish, and within five years, she was married to George Zaharias, a professional wrestler, not the star of West Side Story. Zaharis was a caricature of manliness: 400 pounds of tough, ferocious, powerfulness. Photographed next to her husband, Didrikson appeared more feminine.
She began playing more golf, refusing to discuss her Olympic achievements, insisting that her sports career was always about golf. There was no such thing as women’s professional golf for women at that time. Playing meant a membership in a country club.
Marriage to Zaharias worked. Didrikson was so successful at presenting herself as a traditional housewife, that, several years later when she began a relationship with a woman, the press took to calling the woman as Didrikson’s ”protégée”. Her name was Betty Dodd (1931 – 1993). A fellow pro golfer, Dodd and Didrikson roomed together on the Ladies Professional Golf Association circuit and lived together the rest of the year. Zaharias accepted the situation. When Didrikson was in the hospital dying from cancer, Dodd moved in with her, pushing the beds together.
Didrikson was one of the greatest all-around athletes of all time. Named as the Woman Athlete of the Half Century in 1950 by the Associated Press after their constant selection of her as their Woman Of The Year.
She was born Mildred Ella Didrikson in Port Arthur, Texas to parents both immigrants from Norway (POTUS’s favorite country for immigration).
My main idea in any kind of competition always has been to go out there and cut loose with everything I’ve got. I’ve never been afraid to go up against anything. I’ve always had the confidence that I was capable of winning out.
After attracting a coach’s attention while playing basketball at her high school, she quit school and got a job at the Employers Casualty Company in Dallas so she could play for their team, the Golden Cyclones. She led them to the national championship for the next three years and was selected as All-American.
She started playing golf in 1931 and joined her first golf tournament in 1934. She didn’t win but made the qualifying round. In 1935, she won the Texas State Women’s Championship golf tournament. She became the first American woman to win the British Ladies’ Amateur Championship in Scotland. Within that same year, she turned professional and dominated women’s golf for the next decade. She won 82 tournaments from 1933 to 1953.
In 1938, she was the first woman to enter the all-male Los Angeles Open but missed the 36-hole cut. She was a founding member of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA).
In 1953, while undergoing cancer treatment, she was still able to compete, winning the United States Women’s Open in 1954, and she pitched an inning for the St. Louis Cardinals playing against the Philadelphia Athletics during an exhibition game.
Before she died, she founded the Babe Didrikson Zaharias Fund for cancer clinics and treatment centers. Then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower paid tribute to her, saying:
Babe put up one of the kind of fights that inspired us all.
Gallico wrote 41 books and 100 short stories, 20 screenplays, 12 made-for-television movies, and had a television series based on one of his stories. He died in 1950, taken by a bad case of homophobia and sadly missed the Didrikson/Dodd years.
In 1975, Alex Karras portrayed Zaharias in the television film Babe, (opposite his future wife, Susan Clark), which is not about a talking pig, but the story of Didrikson, minus any reference to Dodd, of course. He promoted wrestlers, ran a cigar store in Denver, managed a women’s sports clothing shop in Beverly Hills and a golf course in Florida. He died in Tampa, having outlived Babe by 28 years. He married actor Betty Burgess in January 1960 and then married one of Didrikson’s oncology nurses a few years before his death in 1984.
Didrikson lost her battle with cancer in 1956. She was 45-years-old.
Didrikson and Dodd were a couple for 20 years. When Didrikson was gone, Dodd told the press:
I had such admiration for this fabulous person. I loved her. I would have done anything for her.
Tid-bit: In 1937, the two Babes: baseball great Babe Ruth and Didrikson played an exhibition game of golf, a charity match with 10,000 tickets sold, at a dollar apiece.