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The first to call Babe Didrikson the greatest woman athlete of all time was Grantland Rice. After her performance at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Granny enthused, "She is an incredible human being. She is beyond all belief until you see her perform. Then you finally understand that you are looking at the most flawless section of muscle harmony, of complete mental and physical coordination the world of sport has ever known. There is only one Babe Didrikson, and there has never been another in her class—even close to her class."
Dispensing on-the-spot immortality was not unusual in those days but Grantland Rice was the most effective among the many writers building and gilding heroes. American sports pages were full of bedtime stories, of living legends who answered to names such as Galloping Ghost, Sultan of Swat, Manassa Mauler. Readers, it seemed, could scarcely wait for the next miracle. Rice believed in the 21-year-old, in fact bragged about her almost as if she were his daughter. One day in the Olympic press box he was rhapsodizing over her as the big names of sports journalism—Westbrook Pegler, Paul Gallico and Braven Dyer—listened. Dyer, now 75 and retired, recalls, "Granny told us he simply could not think of a sport that Babe couldn't master. Pegler was skeptical and said, 'O.K., what about golf?' Granny said, 'All right, golf.' And he sent word down to the field for Babe to come and see him. She trotted up to the press box and Granny said, 'When can we play golf?' She said, 'Tomorrow?' We made the game for the next morning."
Years later in her autobiography Babe insisted that she had never played a round of golf before that morning, that before teeing off she had gotten Olin Dutra, the club pro at the Brentwood course, to show her how to grip the club. However, all the reports of that day (including her own quotes in clippings) indicate that this was the 11th round of golf in her life. In truth she had played a great deal of golf, beginning as a high school student in Beaumont and continuing in Dallas, where she often hit 1,000 balls a day while working as a basketball star and stenographer for an insurance company that supported a lavish sports program.
In any case, the Didrikson myth got another plating of gold, for, as always, Babe delivered when she had to. That morning, using a baseball-style grip, she slugged drive after drive 250 yards, her power and liquid coordination producing a commendable performance from tee to green. But she was a disaster putting. Her score on the front nine was 52; on the back, 43. Had it been anyone else, the round would have been forgotten. With Babe, fame begat fame. When that ordinary round of golf was finished, the writers pronounced her game astonishing. Rice once more led everyone in hyperbole: "She is the longest hitter women's golf has ever seen—for she has a free, lashing style backed up with championship form and terrific power in strong hands, strong wrists, forearms of steel."
In the afterglow of the Olympics, Babe Didrikson was one of the most famous people in America. She was reported in training to become a marathon swimmer, her intention being to cross the English Channel and the Hellespont. There were reports of movie contracts, of offers to become a bullfighter in Mexico, a fashion model in London, a professional basketball player for $65,000 a year. These reports were not true, but Babe's celebrity was such that the papers printed almost anything said about her. Babe met Amelia Earhart, who was then planning one of her long-distance flights—not her fatal one. The aviatrix pleaded with Babe to accompany her, in part because she believed the Didrikson name would add luster to her record attempt.
Then, suddenly—almost as suddenly as it had risen—Babe's comet fell. Two years after the Olympic Games, the New York Evening Post, in a column devoted to headliners of the past, stated that, "At an age when most people are wondering when the first break is going to come, Mildred Didrikson is one of our most illustrious has-beens." At the time, she was touring Depression America with the bearded House of David baseball team. It was a swift, far fall from the hymns of Grantland Rice.
Babe Didrikson's decline to obscurity began when the AAU questioned her amateur status, the object of investigation being a red Dodge coupe she got in the fall of 1932. It was an $835 car: Babe was reportedly making $90 a month as a stenographer for Employers Casualty Company. She had said she bought the car without a down payment and had arranged payments of $69 a month—which left her $5 a week to live on. That sounded unlikely enough. However, it was not until her photograph and name appeared in a Dodge advertisement that the AAU ruled she had violated her amateur status. She was suspended indefinitely. Babe responded to the charges, saying they were "hooey," that she had never given permission for her picture or her words to be used in the ad. The automobile company said that was true and that an employee had merely taken down verbatim Miss Didrikson's enthusiastic comments when she first looked upon the Dodge. The words she burbled, if the ad or the auto company were to be believed, were these: "Speed—unyielding strength—enduring stamina—that's the stuff that makes real champions, whether they're in the athletic arena or in the world of automobiles." Within a couple of weeks the AAU reversed itself. It was agreed that Babe was a victim of charlatans in advertising. Babe professed to be delighted her suspension had been lifted. But just days later, without a real explanation, she turned professional.
She went to work for the Chrysler Corporation, maker of the lovely little red Dodge coupe she admired so much. She appeared at an automobile show in Detroit standing by a display booth signing autographs and playing the harmonica. She did a fine imitation of a locomotive leaving a station, complete with labored puffing and a hooting whistle.
Babe next got an agent, who booked her into the Palace Theater in Chicago where she did an 18-minute act with a piano player and mimic. No Olympic champion ever put on a weirder performance. After her partner warmed up the audience with imitations of Eddie Cantor, Babe came striding down the aisle in a Panama hat and a green swagger coat. She sang I'm Fit As a Fiddle and Ready for Love. She played the harmonica. Then she threw off hat and coat to reveal red, white and blue satin shorts. Next she laced up a pair of track shoes and began jogging on a treadmill—faster, faster, faster—to show her Olympic running form. Hurdles were placed on the stage and she leaped over them. The act ended—mercifully—with her driving plastic golf balls into the crowd. After a week in Chicago, there was discussion about Babe joining the RKO vaudeville circuit; this was not as bizarre an idea as it sounds, for she was an excellent harmonica player, but the plan apparently was scrapped.
She headed for New York with her future in doubt. She was a professional all right, but a professional what? She called a press conference to announce that she hoped to spar with Babe Ruth at McGovern's Gym. "I never met the Babe, but gee, I'd like to put the gloves on with him for a while," she said. The following day Babe Didrikson was at McGovern's Gym, but Babe Ruth was not. A couple of weeks later she played her first game of professional basketball. About 2,000 people turned up in a Brooklyn dance hall to see her score nine points for the Brooklyn Yankees, who defeated the Long Island Ducklings 19-16. She earned $400 for 40 minutes' work. Within the week, she took on Ruth McGinnis, a billiards champion, in a series of well-publicized matches. This was a miscalculation, for McGinnis had spent her childhood practicing in her family's pool hall. She annihilated Didrikson.