When Sports Illustrated selected its top athletes of the 20th century, Babe Didrikson Zaharias was the only woman listed among the top 10. She was in the elite company of Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Wayne Gretzky, Jesse Owens, Jim Thorpe, Willie Mays and Jack Nicklaus.
After reading Wonder Girl, you'll understand why Babe was an easy choice to be listed about the 10 greatest athletes of the 20th century.
Author Don Van Natta Jr. does a commendable job of bringing Babe to life for the generations of sports fans who are too young to remember her. Babe died in 1956 from cancer at the age of 45.
Growing up in Texas, Babe's goal was to be "the greatest athlete who ever lived." In 1932, Babe single-handedly won the AAU National Women's Track and Field Championships in Chicago. She was the only team member to represent Employers' Casualty. Competing in an unheard of eight events against 20 teams, some with 22 members, Babe tallied 30 points to win the team title. She won gold in five events--broad jump, baseball toss, shot put, javelin and 80 meters hurdles, and she tied for first in the high jump. She qualified for the Olympics in three events, hurdles, high jump and javelin.
In the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, Babe won two gold medals and a silver medal. She was disqualified in the high jump, finishing second. She set two world's records and an Olympic record. Grantland Rice wrote that Babe was "the most flawless section of muscle harmony, of complete mental and physical coordination the world of sport has ever known."
Despite her athletic prowess, Babe wasn't easy for her teammates and fellow competitors to like. She could be cocky, arrogant, selfish, obnoxious, boastful and a media hog.
Invited to play golf with Grantland Rice and a few of his male friends, Babe demonstrated a powerful, precise golf swing and the ability to drive the ball 250 yards or more. Impressed, Rice wrote that Babe was the "world's greatest athlete."
With no professional sports outlet, Babe was relegated to barnstorming with basketball and baseball teams, earning up to $1,000 a month during the Depression when women typically earned $3 a week.
She saw her future was in golf, and for a couple years she practiced 12 to 15 hours a day. She went on to dominate women's amateur golf, being named AP Female Athlete of the Year from 1945-1947. In 1947, she became the first American to win the British Amateur, the most prestigious women's tournament in Europe. She won 14 consecutive tournaments from 1946-47, more than any other female or male golfer in history. She turned pro in August 1947.
Endorsing products and playing in golf and baseball exhibitions kept her in the spotlight. From 1948-1951, Babe gave a staggering 656 golf exhibitions. In 1948, she earned more than $100,000 in endorsements and exhibitions, more than baseball great Ted Williams.
In 1949, the LPGA was formed and Babe was one of four charter members. From 1950-55, Babe won 29 professional tournaments. She was diagnosed with cancer in 1953. In 1955, 15 months after major cancer surgery, Babe won the U.S. Women's Open by 12 strokes. In April 1955, Babe won the last tournament she played in.