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It is now close to 25 years since I first laid eyes on Babe Didrikson in the lobby of the Chapman Park Hotel in Los Angeles upon the occasion of the 1932 Olympic Games. She was then a rawhide kid of 18 with short-cut, sand-colored hair, a well-defined Adam's apple and a faint down on her upper lip. I watched her "up" to a big girl who was wearing the jacket of an Olympic competitor, pin her with her gray-green eyes and announce levelly—"Ah'm gonna whup yo' tomorrow."
We sportswriters thought that this was cockiness. There was no way for us to know at the time that it was just a simple declarative sentence spoken by a simple declarative person. It took all of us some time to find out that this lithe girl from Port Arthur, Texas who was apparently not made like other little girls of sugar and spice, but instead, of whipcord, steel springs and Monel metal, enclosing the heart of a lioness, had also the makings of an extraordinary woman.
None of us who watched this unknown and unheralded youngster foresaw that she would become the greatest woman golfer that ever lived, a champion of champions, and then thrill a nation with the courage and gallantry of her battle against cancer.
There were many sports in which the Babe excelled superlatively—all track and field events, basketball and golf—but there was hardly any game at which she could not perform creditably, or at which she could not have become a champion, and these included swimming, diving, billiards, lacrosse, bowling and tennis. But she also invaded the men's fields. Her record for throwing a baseball still stands. She could pitch, hit and cover a bag. She could peg a football and kick left-footed. Once she even thought of boxing. Nothing came of it, but it is recorded that when she threw a punch it wasn't a roundhouse or a fly-swatter like a woman, but straight down the old trolley wire a la Ruby Goldstein, a sharpshooter of our era.
While it is true that none of the Babe's track and field or Olympic records, with the exception of the baseball throw, are still on the books today, no girl before or since has matched her record of events won in a diversity of sports. Nor had any other woman even approached her in the number and caliber of golf championships captured, some of them played while suffering from pain, illness and physical handicaps that would have seen most grown men laid up in the hospital.
Competitively, the record she brought to Los Angeles in 1932 has never been equaled. I refer to her performance on July 16, 1932 at the National Women's AAU Track and Field Championships and Olympic tryouts at Evanston, Illinois, in which she was entered by herself as a one-woman team representing the Employers Casualty Company, of Dallas, Texas.
Singlehanded the Babe won the team title with an aggregate of 30 points. In second place was the famous Illinois Woman's AC, with 22 points, collected by a full complement of girls.
Now consider that in such comprehensive competitions as pentathlons or decathlons, the entrants usually excel in one or two events, are good in several more and do the best they can in the others. Thus there is a balance and the battle tends to even out. But in this incomparable performance, the girl, barely turned 18, was pitted against the best specialists in the entire country in each event, never less than half a dozen of them and sometimes two and three from one team.
On that day the Babe staged and won a private octathlon. She entered eight of the 10 events scheduled. Five of these, the 80-meter hurdles, the baseball throw, the shot-put, the broad jump and the javelin toss she won outright; and in the high jump, although she equaled the world record jump of winner Jean Shiley, she was just nosed out of a tie. She placed fourth in the discus throw, picking up another point. During the course of the afternoon she set three world's records and was shut out only in the 100-meter dash, when she was just nipped in the semifinal heat.
I cannot think of any male athlete with the possible exception of old Jim Thorpe who has come even close to spread-eagling a track meet all by himself in this manner.