SI Vault
William Oscar Johnson
October 06, 1975
She was all there was to cheer about in 1932 with the nation locked in the Great Depression—a bumpkin and a braggart out of a Texas trolley-barn playground. And those glorious feats, at the Olympic Games were just the beginning for...
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October 06, 1975


She was all there was to cheer about in 1932 with the nation locked in the Great Depression—a bumpkin and a braggart out of a Texas trolley-barn playground. And those glorious feats, at the Olympic Games were just the beginning for...

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So eager have people been to magnify the legend that they insist—gospel truth—that she somehow managed to excel at a lunatic potpourri of sports, including canoeing, croquet, archery, skeet shooting, even polo. They swear Babe Didrikson shot a 91 the first day she ever handled a golf club, that she once scored 99 points (47 field goals, five free throws) in a high school basketball game, that she bowled 193 after five minutes of instruction. People swear these things are true, although they are not. Sports statistician-historian Frank G. Menke came up with the shimmering statistic that as an amateur Babe Didrikson Zaharias entered 634 competitions and emerged victorious in 632 of them. This, too, is loving balderdash, but it is the measure of her real accomplishments that people do not doubt such things are true.

If statistics provide the spine of the legend, then its soul is made of memories. These are warm and inexact, a bit surrealistic perhaps. There is an immense vitality in the recollections of those who personally knew Babe. To them she is still a strong and springy young woman, full of foolishness and pranks, of braggadocio and stoic determination. The contrast between the Babe they remember and their own changed looks and lives today can be startling, even sad.

Babe's dearest sister, Mrs. O. B. Grimes (Lillie Didriksen), is now 66, widowed, and for 40 years has resided in a white bungalow set on cement blocks on Roberts Street in Beaumont. Lillie is plump, gray-haired, bespectacled, occasionally absentminded, anxious because "the colored's movin' in over back and sometimes I'm scared." Her glasses cloud and she wipes her eyes fairly often when she speaks of Babe. "You know what she loved more'n almost anythin'? Ridin' on the Ferris wheel. Oh, my, we would ride 'em by the hour, Babe and me. That was after she come into money; we couldn't afford rides before. But, oh, how that girl would work for things she wanted. When I was livin' with her in Dallas, I wasn't but 20, 21, I don't think, and she was two years younger'n me, she was just learnin' golf. Babe, she'd hit and hit the balls until she had to put tape over her hands, they was so tore up, but Babe wouldn't stop. I'd be out there with her and I'd be so hungry. It'd be gettin' dark, and I'd beg Babe to go in, but she'd say, 'No, I got to hit just a few more, Lillie.' And she'd hit 'em so far and she'd ask me where they went and I'd say, 'Babe, I don't know where. It's dark. I ain't no Indian, Babe.' "

Babe's husband, George Zaharias, was once an exuberant giant who won a certain fame of his own as a villainous wrestler who would turn so cowardly when his acts of transparent treachery were discovered that he was billed as The Weeping Greek from Cripple Creek. Today George Zaharias is feeble, confined to bed or wheelchair in a small house in Tampa. He is crippled from a massive stroke, a new pacemaker was recently installed, his eyesight is fading.

George Zaharias seems to revive when he talks of his late wife. They first met in 1938 at a golf tournament in Los Angeles. "It was a beautiful sunny day and we teed off early in the morning. She was in a light brown sweater and a pleated skirt with pockets. We didn't shake hands or anything. I put my arms around her in a wrestling hold for the photographers. She said, 'This is great.' I said, 'You're mine, you know that.' She said, 'That's right.' We teed off and we chitchatted during the round, you know, athlete to athlete, and we really got along. I finished with an 80, she had an 81. I told her, you're eating dinner with me tonight and we did. She loved champagne. She liked it all sugared up, and she'd stir it around and stir it around until she got the champagne to sing. We got engaged but we never found time to get married. I kept telling her it would only take five minutes. We were living together in St. Louis and finally I said, 'Babe, we can't go on like this. You're too famous for us to be living together.' So we got married just before Christmas in 1938."

Ruth Garrison Francis Scurlock, 81, was a pretty young English teacher at Beaumont High School when Babe was a student in the 1920s. Ruth Scurlock knew Babe well then and even better in later years, for her husband, the late Bill (Tiny) Scurlock, who weighed 300 pounds, was the sports editor of the Beaumont Journal and Babe Didrikson was Tiny's sports-page prot�g�. Ruth Scurlock gets about on two canes now in her spacious Beaumont home. She is a cultured, articulate woman who has collected many shelves of books on Texas history. As she speaks about Babe, ceiling fans spin slowly to make a breeze in the heat of the night. "Babe came to dinner here at our home one time and she parked a magnificent long tan Auburn in our driveway. It was a gleaming thing with exhaust pipes outside the hood. The children in the neighborhood heard she was here and gathered outside, chattering and rubbing the fenders of the car as if it were some kind of idol. They kept clamoring for Babe to come out and after dinner she did. That woman spent two hours with those children, teaching them how to hold their bats, their rackets, their golf clubs. She was there with them till dark. The next day she left for a tournament somewhere in Arkansas. She loved to drive fast and just across the Texas line she hit an old man coming out of his driveway in a wagon. She killed him, I think. There was some litigation over it, but Babe had good lawyers and she got out of it all right."

Peggy Kirk Bell, 53, was one of Babe's friends on the golf tour. She remains a fine golfer, and with her husband Warren owns Pine Needles, a Southern Pines ( N.C.) country club. Peggy first met Babe at a golf-tournament in 1945. "I was so excited, here I was going to meet Didrikson, the great track star. Well, she looked pretty tough to me. Then after the first round, we met in the locker room and Babe said, 'Come on, kid, I'll play you some gin rummy.' I said I didn't know how and she said, 'That's O.K., I'll show you.' The next thing I know, she is madly adding up something on a piece of paper and she informs me that the game is over and I owe her $12. For years I teased Babe about how she hustled a green kid out of $12. She always said, 'Oh, I never did that.' But she did. She was always entertaining us, and always laughing. We'd sit down to eat, she'd balance a spoon on her hand, whack it and jump it into a glass. When she was dying in Galveston, I went to visit her and she said, 'See that Coke bottle over there?' And she flipped a cigarette into it. Impossible. She was always doing the impossible. If she missed, no one remembered. But when she made it work, it became legend."

Wherever she went, Babe made the champagne sing and the children laugh. She was a hustler, a bit of a huckster, too, and if she made the tales about herself a little taller than the truth in the interest of enlarging the legend, who cared?

She was born Mildred Ella Didriksen in Port Arthur, Texas, on June 26, 1911. The year of her birth was something she obscured. Today the obfuscation is evident at the very edge of her grave. On her tombstone, carved in marble, it says her life-span was 1911 to 1956. On an official Texas historical marker, stamped in steel, at the entrance to the plot, it says the year of her birth was 1914. This is the date she gives in her autobiography. On the official application form to enter the 1932 Olympics she wrote 1913 in a penciled girlish scrawl. By the early '50s she was claiming to have been born in 1915. And once on a visa application she declared the year to be 1919. There is no birth certificate on file at the Jefferson County courthouse in Beaumont, but a baptismal certificate indicates that the correct date is 1911.

Thus Didrikson was not 19 but 21 when she became the gold-medal darling of the 1932 Olympics. There is a small, but somewhat diminishing difference between being a bouncing teen-ager and a legal adult performing the wonders she did. But no matter. There is also a discrepancy in the fact that she always spelled her last name with an "s-o-n" while her parents and three sisters and two of her three brothers spelled the family name "s-e-n." That does not matter, either.

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