Although the women's movement has begun to have a substantial impact on sports, some of its partisans still are finding the going too slow to suit them. Part of the problem may be the paucity of heroines in the history of American sport. Almost everyone has a repertoire of favorite tales about Babe Ruth, but who has just one about Helen Wills Moody? And how many can discourse on Babe Didrikson Zaharias?
"She was unquestionably the greatest woman athlete we've ever had," says Senior Writer Bill Johnson, who along with Writer-Reporter Nancy Williamson spent two months combing the country to research the three-part series on Babe that begins on page 112.
The idea for the series was Williamson's. "I had been reading her name more and more in the course of my work on other stories, and realized that nobody seemed to know very much about her," Williamson says. "I was only vaguely aware of her myself, even though she was alive when I was in high school and I was very interested in sports."
Johnson readily agreed that the idea was worthwhile, and thus the Johnson-Williamson team mustered for its sixth combined effort since 1969. During that period they have joined forces on articles ranging from a five-part series about the impact that television has had on sports to a story on a barnstorming women's basketball team called the All American Red Heads.
Williamson began their latest project by going to Tampa to interview Babe's widower, George Zaharias, who had just been released from a hospital after heart surgery. Zaharias provided a vivid introduction to Babe. "Even though he was bedridden and told me he feared he would never get up again, George was still vigorously promoting Babe," says Williamson. Meanwhile, Johnson was finding that the existing body of literature on Babe was of little use. "Most of it is overblown myth and legend," he says. "Babe's autobiography is a bomb. It's a perfect press-agent job, written in 1955 for the Saturday Evening Post. Beyond that you have to go to newspaper clips that pay little attention to fact, and children's books that present Babe as a female Horatio Alger character: 'How I listened to everything my parents said and grew up to be a heroine.' "
But after more than 40 interviews with people who knew Babe, the truth was separated from the legend and a profile of a remarkable personality emerged. Among Johnson's and Williamson's more revealing finds was a cache of Babe's letters that had been stored for years in the attics of two of her closest friends. "Some weren't dated, but from the information in them we could tell to the day when they had been written," says Williamson. Another discovery was a collection of Babe's trophies. They were more or less on display in the back of Finger's Furniture Store in Beaumont, Texas. "You had to sneak by lamp salesmen to see them," Johnson says.
"We really came to like Babe," says Williamson. "If she were alive and healthy today, she would be in her 60s and still be playing in golf tournaments. I don't know if she'd be a standard-bearer for Women's Lib, but I guarantee she'd be as much of a celebrity as Billie Jean King."