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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It was the same story when in 1940 Babe took up tennis during the probationary period in which she was regaining her amateur golf status. Married by then to George Zaharias and living in California, she took lessons, played matches and practiced against a backboard from morning until night, for a year and a half. Had she continued, nothing could have kept her from the national championships.

But entangled as she was in the flypaper of the most ridiculous set of amateur rules ever devised, Babe quit tennis when the sportsmen running-the game advised her that because she had been ruled a pro in golf she was likewise a pro in tennis. So she devoted the same long hours to bowling and became good enough to bowl major league teams in California.

Golf, however, was where Babe Didrikson reached her greatest heights. Who will ever duplicate her most impossible feat of winning 17 major golf tournaments in a row, including the National Women's Amateur, Tam O'Shanter Ail-American, North and South, Augusta Titleholder tourney, Broadmoor, Texas Women's Open, and finishing the sweep by capturing the British Women's Amateur championship? Only a golfer who has known the agonizing treachery of which his nerves and body are capable in letting him down in tight corners can appreciate the accumulative tension of extending a winning string of tournaments of match play against the best girl and woman golfers culled from a nation of over 143 million people and crowning this achievement by winning the one that had defied American girls for close to half a century.

Nor must it be forgotten that when the Babe had finished this grueling struggle, she was the darling of the Scots and Britons in the gallery, as well as the pet of the whole village of Gullane. She not only beat the best they had; she made them love her.

And this is perhaps the clue as to why it may be another 50 or 75 years before such a performer as Mildred Didrikson Zaharias again enters the lists. For even if some yet unborn games queen matches her talent, versatility, skill, patience and will to practice, along with her flaming competitive spirit, and manages, let us say, to run an unbroken string of tournament victories in her specialty to 20, there still remains the little matter of courage and character, and in these departments the Babe must be listed with the champions of all times.

Indeed her unique quality has been noted, for in addition to being chosen Woman Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press poll of sportswriters and broadcasters for the years 1932, 1945, 1946, 1947 and 1950, she was named the woman athlete of the half century.

In 1953 Mildred Zaharias was stricken with cancer and suffered one of the most dangerous and excruciating of all operations, a colostomy. Yet just three and a half months after the operation, this incredibly brave and unquenchable girl was back on a golf course again in competition in the Tam O'Shanter All-American championship in killing midsummer heat in Chicago.

She did not win it. The miracle was that she fought her way back that far. Her presence on that first tee was an act of heroism that should have been rewarded with the Congressional Medal of Honor. The value of her example in inspiration to others, and the magnificence of the banner she waved aloft to those of less courage and steadfastness, cannot be overestimated.

Ten months after her operation, the Babe won the Serbin Tournament in Florida, and that same year, 1954, took the National Women's Open and this time, the Tam O'Shanter "All-American" too.

She never spared herself

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