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BABE
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

Babe

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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It was Babe's second gold medal and the press was in a frenzy over the possibility that she might win three. This was something no woman had ever done in Olympic track and field. Babe's main opponent in the high jump was Jean Shiley. The U.S. women's team was all but unanimous in its desire. "We were very high-strung and we put a lot of pressure on Jean to beat this obnoxious girl," says Evelyne Hall.

All the competitors except Babe and Jean had dropped out by the time the bar was raised to 5' 5�". Both girls cleared that height, a new world record, and moved on to 5' 6�". On her first jump Babe flew over the bar with more than an inch to spare. She fell triumphantly to the pit—and one foot kicked a stanchion and knocked the bar from the pegs. The judges dropped the bar back to 5' 5�" to see which of the competitors would get the gold medal. Jean made it. Babe made it. Another tie? No. The judges ruled that Babe had "dived" over the bar, an illegal jump—her head went over before the rest of her body. The rule no longer exists, but on this technicality the gold medal was given to Jean Shiley, the silver to Babe; both were eventually recognized as co-holders of the world record.

That gold medal has always been a tarnished prize for Jean Shiley Newhouse—the medal Babe Didrikson lost, rather than the one she won. "Babe was awful about it. She never admitted she was beaten," Jean says. "But she would have lost earlier if I had done what I should have done. Both a Canadian girl and a German girl who went out at 5'3" kept telling me I should claim a foul against Babe, that all of her jumps over 5'3" were illegal dives. Our team coach, George Vreeland, even sent a note down to me from the stands saying that I should ask the judges to disqualify Babe for diving. I couldn't do that. I knew that with Babe's mouth, she'd clobber me if I caused her to lose by claiming a foul."

The Olympics over, Babe Didrikson, once more under the wing of Employers Casualty, flew home to Texas in an airliner. By contrast, Jean Shiley exchanged the train ticket the U.S. Olympic Committee gave her to get home to Philadelphia for a much cheaper bus ticket so she could afford to buy gifts for her family, and Evelyne Hall drove back to Chicago in a car that a finance company had informed her (by collect telegram) it was going to repossess.

And Babe? Life was an undiluted triumph. After the speeches and the music at Love Field, she was ushered to the gleaming red limousine of the Dallas fire chief. The tonneau was brimming with roses. Babe's sister Lillie was standing by the car, beaming through tears, and suddenly Babe yelled at her to climb into the car. "I got up there with her," says Lillie, "and there was roses all over us. I didn't know if I should be there but Babe said it was O.K. I was with her. My Mama and my Poppa and I had ridden to Dallas in my brother's car with a rumble seat and we was so dirty and so sweaty when we finally found the landin' field. We had two flat tires on the way and the big shots was all lookin' at us country folks, but we didn't care. Babe didn't care. We had our parade right through Dallas—confetti fallin' on the cars an' everythin'—and the Adolphus Hotel was full of flowers and beautiful lights for lunch. After the lunch, my Mama, she walked out of the Adolphus carryin' a napkin from the table. She was so ashamed—it was a big white napkin—and she was so embarrassed she wanted to take it right back in, but they said, no Miz Didriksen, keep it, you keep it for a memento. My Mama did. She took it home and washed it and ironed it and kept it in a drawer till the day she died."

Lillie pauses, remembering that golden day in Dallas, and then she says, "Babe had to buy us some tires to get us home to Beaumont. Did you know that?"

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