Babe was placing herself in a vulnerable position. The personality she had created and promoted during her amateur years was that of a bumpkin who intimidated her opponents by bragging but made every boast come true. Like Muhammad Ali, Babe Didrikson got away with it. Once she began to fail, sports fans were eager to degrade her—and delighted to forget her.
Moreover, the tide of the times was running powerfully against women athletes. In 1923 Mrs. Herbert Hoover had founded a firmly girdled organization called the Women's Division of the National Amateur Athletic Federation. Initially the purpose was to promote what sounded like a good idea: the expansion of sports to reach every woman—"a team for everyone and everyone on a team." But this philosophy ultimately led to competitive sports for women being abolished or reduced to limp exercises. By 1929 the Women's Division was opposing women's participation in the Olympics. Although the organization was unsuccessful in achieving this goal, by the time Babe had arrived at the peak of her skills, competitive sports for women were seriously declining.
In this powder-puff climate, a scuffler like Babe became a pariah. Texas physical-education teachers posted signs on school bulletin boards reading: DON'T BE A MUSCLE MOLL. Dr. Belle Mead Holm, 50, dean of the women's physical-education department at Lamar University in Babe's hometown of Beaumont, recalls her youth: "My mother used to cry when I played soft ball. She'd say, 'I just don't want you to grow up to be like Babe Didrikson.' "
Babe's sex life was the subject of many a snide remark. Even Paul Gallico, who had been her friend, wrote callously about the "muscle molls" of the sporting scene, defining them as "women who made possible deliciously frank and biological discussions in the newspapers as to whether this or that woman athlete should be addressed as Miss, Mrs., Mr. or It."
Her records began to be attacked. A leading debunker was Joe Williams, columnist for the New York World-Telegram. In 1935 he wrote of Babe: "The same year she became the greatest woman athlete in history, a comparative chart showed that she had not equaled one record made by a masculine high school champion of the same period. If the best woman athlete in the country is not as good as some gawky kid in high school, why waste the effort, why invite the embarrassment of mediocrity, why—well, why not get a seat in the stands and make the big male blokes out there on the cinder track believe you are nuts about them?"
Of course, the women vs. schoolboys argument is specious, somewhat the same as saying Sugar Ray Robinson or Henry Armstrong was not as good as Joe Louis because neither was big enough to beat him. Still, Babe herself acknowledged it was easier for a woman to become a champion than a man because fewer women chose sports as their major pursuit.
This shortage of competition forced Babe to become an itinerant athlete, a sideshow exhibitionist. Roy Doan, a sports promoter from Muscatine, Iowa, set her up with a traveling basketball team called Babe Didrikson's All-Americans. The squad included four men. The All-Americans played a killing schedule of one-night stands. Babe made about $1,000 a month touring and she was a great attraction through the Midwest. People were hungry for entertainment. There were 17,000 movie theaters in the country and people went to the movies in droves to see Busby Berkeley musicals and take their chances on winning a set of dishes in the weekly lottery. Everyone listened to the radio, to Amos 'n' Andy, Kate Smith, Fibber McGee and Molly, One Man's Family. Babe's name was well enough known so that her team—usually matched against local townspeople—rarely failed to pull a full house.
In the spring of 1934 she was in Florida and as a gag, and for $200, she pitched an inning or two at the major league camps. She hurled for the St. Louis Cardinals against the Boston Red Sox, and Bucky Harris, the Boston manager, noted with restrained enthusiasm, "She can handle that old apple with some of the boys."
That summer Babe pitched for the House of David baseball team. Again, the travel was numbing, the sites wide-ranging (200 games from Fort Lauderdale to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho). The centerfielder for the House of David, Emory Olive, now living in Eau Claire, Wis., recalls: "Babe wasn't really all that good a pitcher, so we'd have her pitch one or two innings, but we'd fix it so the other teams wouldn't score against her. She could hit pretty good, though. Once at Logan Park in Chicago we were playing before 8,000 people and she hit a long line drive that she turned into a homer; it was the only run scored in the game." Babe drove her own car and traveled by herself across country, showing up in the scheduled town just before the game, pitching an inning or so, then leaving for the next town before the game was over.
She was not the only star reduced to House of David competition. Grover Cleveland Alexander, who had retired from the Phillies in 1930 at the age of 43, also pitched for the team. He was, like Babe, paid $1,500 a month. The other players on the team got between $300 and $500 a month. In 1934 11 million people (out of a labor force of 52 million) were out of work. In the garment sweatshops of New York, women made as little as $2.39 a week. So Babe was doing well.