SI Vault
Paul Gallico
October 08, 1956
Babe Didrikson Zaharias, the greatest woman athlete of modern times, died last week of cancer. Here a longtime friend and admirer recalls her life and her deeds
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October 08, 1956

Farewell To The Babe

Babe Didrikson Zaharias, the greatest woman athlete of modern times, died last week of cancer. Here a longtime friend and admirer recalls her life and her deeds

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Two weeks later the Babe went to the Olympics in Los Angeles. Allowed to participate in only three events, against the best women of every nation she won two of them, setting world's records in each, the javelin throw and the 80-meter hurdles. She was languaged out of the third, the high jump. After she tied with Jean Shiley for first place, at a world-record height, Babe cleared the bar in the jump-off but was ruled to have dived over. Thus she lost the record and the event. The roll that she used, incidentally, is legal today.

But prior to these events this wonderful little girl, the sixth child born to a poor Norwegian cabinetmaker and his wife who emigrated to Port Arthur, Texas, later moving to Beaumont, had already been a star basketball player named three times on the women's All-America team, a high scorer who in one game is recorded to have tanked the ball for an individual total of 106 points. And she was likewise a home run hitting star in soft ball, a crackerjack at pool and billiards and good enough at swimming and high diving to appear in exhibitions.

All this, however, was only the beginning of a career that was to take her to an alltime record as a golf champion, including the distinction of becoming the first American girl to break the jinx and win the British Women's Amateur championship.

Much has been made of Mrs. Zaharias' natural aptitude and talent for sports, as well as her competitive spirit and indomitable will to win, with both of which she was endowed in full measure. But not nearly enough has been said or written about the patience and strength of character expressed in her willingness to practice for endless hours, and her recognition even as a child that with all her natural ability she could reach the top and stay there only by means of incessant drill and hard work.

"Ah'm gonna whup yo' "

The hours of practice the Babe devoted in her life to various games ought to be made compulsory reading for every fresh kid who can swim, skate, run, ski a little or is handy at sports and thinks that all he or she needs to do is get out there and the opposition will swoon away. When the Babe leveled on a sister athlete and husked, "Ah'm gonna whup yo' " it wasn't brag (though an element of games-womanship and psychological attack was involved). She had put in the necessary hours of slavery to perfect her form and to be able to deliver the goods; and she just knew she could.

At 16, preparing for her first track and field meet, she would work two hours in the afternoon with her teammates and then go out alone after supper and practice from two to three hours more until darkness enveloped her, working on her step-timing for the jumps, her balance in the weight events and her starts in the sprints.

She learned golf the same way. The first full game she ever played followed the 1932 Olympics when she paired with Grantland Rice against Olin Dutra and the writer at Brentwood. She had a fine natural swing and could paste the ball as far as a man, but that isn't golf and the Babe knew it. When she decided to go in for the game seriously, she took lessons, drilled and practiced for hours on end until her hands were a mass of blisters. She taped and bandaged them and kept on, stopping only when the bandages became soaked with blood.

In the spring of 1935 while she was working for her old friends, the Employers Casualty Company in Dallas, this was her schedule:

Up at 5 in the morning and practice from 5:30 to 8:30. Report at the office at 9. During the lunch hour, putt on the carpet in the boss's office and chip balls into his leather chair. After work, back to the golf course hitting balls until dark. Thus it went, until the pain in her hands made another shot impossible. At night she would go to bed with the rule book.

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