Ella Didrikson, the greatest woman athlete of the twentieth century,
was the sixth child born to Norwegian immigrants Ole Nickolene and
Hannah Marie Olson Didriksen, in Port
Arthur, Texas, in 1911.
"Babe" Didriksen received her nickname while playing pickup baseball
games because playmates said she batted as well as Babe Ruth. She
changed the spelling of the family name because that was the way
East Texans insisted on spelling it anyway.
The Didrickson's moved to Beaumont,
in 1915, where she was graduated from Beaumont High School. Babe
Didrikson was a natural athlete who could compete successfully with
male athletes in any game featuring skill more than strength. Basketball
was the primary high school athletic competition for girls, but
when she graduated in 1930, Didrikson began to take part in a variety
of competitions in industrial leagues, which were quite popular
in the 1920s and 1930s.
Didrikson first played basketball for the Employers Casualty Company,
then track. She represented the company as a one-woman team in the
Amateur Athletic Union championships in 1932, competing in eight
events and placing in four of them. Later that year she won gold
medals in hurdles and javelin, and the silver medal in women's high
jump in Olympic competition in Los Angeles.
The AAU disqualified Didrikson as an amateur after her name appeared
in a commercial advertisement, so she accepted the name as the same
as the game and became a professional. Didrikson appeared in vaudeville,
and participated in exhibition baseball games featured bearded members
of the House of David, a religious sect.
Then Didrikson found golf, and eventually won every tournament available
to women. She was one of the founders of the Ladies Professional
Golf Association and the Association's leading money winner in 1949
Didrikson met and married George Zaharias, a professional wrestler,
in 1938. In the fashion of the time, The Babe added "Zaharias" to
the end of her name, but also retained the "Didrikson" in the middle.
The Babe began to battle cancer in 1953, a fight she lost in 1956.
A museum in Beaumont
celebrates Didrikson's life and career as the greatest woman athlete
of the twentieth century.
Things Historica November
20, 2006 column
A syndicated column in over 70 East Texas newspapers
This column is provided as a public service by the East Texas Historical
Association. Archie P. McDonald is director of the Association and
author of more than 20 books on Texas.