Babe Didrikson at a desk she was probably pretty unfamiliar with, 1932
by Paula Bosse
Mildred “Babe” Didrikson has been called the greatest athlete of the 20th century — male or female. She was an All-American basketball player, she set a number of world records in a wide variety of track and field events (she was so good at all of the individual sports that she was entered at least once as an entire TEAM — a team of one!), she won two gold medals and one silver (which should have been three gold medals…) at the 1932 Olympics, and she was, perhaps most famously, a champion golfer who was a founder of the LPGA. She was also highly proficient in softball, bowling, diving, swimming, roller skating, and tennis, and she dabbled in hockey, skeet-shooting, billiards, and even football. There was no sport she didn’t try — and even if she had never tried it before, she was probably pretty good at it. And she spent an important period of her life in Dallas.
Babe Didrikson was born in Port Arthur, Texas in 1911 and grew up in nearby Beaumont. She excelled in sports in school, especially basketball. In the late-’20s, a man named Col. M. J. McCombs, who was the head of the women’s athletic program for an insurance company, saw Babe in action and recruited her to play for his company’s basketball team in Dallas. She was offered a job to do vague secretarial work for the Employers’ Casualty Company (which had offices in the old Interurban Building downtown), with the understanding that she was really being taken on in order to play on the company team. With the blessing of her Norwegian immigrant parents, she interrupted her high school education in Beaumont to accept the $75-a-month job and was moved into a Haines Avenue rooming house in Oak Cliff.
Babe soon became the star of the Golden Cyclones, her company’s championship-winning team which participated in an “industrial” league governed by the national Amateur Athletic Union (the AAU). In the off-season she was introduced to track and field events by McCombs, and she quickly mastered them all.
Flying the company colors
Before she knew it, it was the summer of 1932, and the Olympics were being held in Los Angeles — the 21-year old won three medals, emerged as the star of the games (she was frequently referred to as “the wonder girl from Dallas”) and began her climb up the ladder of celebrity.
After the Olympics, the city of Dallas gave her a victory homecoming, with a parade, a luncheon, and various presentations, all covered widely in the local press. The Dallas Morning News described it as “a demonstration the magnitude of which has never before been accorded a son or daughter of this city” (DMN, Aug. 12, 1932), bigger even, they said, than the reception that had greeted Charles Lindbergh on his Dallas visit.
Babe’s post-Olympics parade through downtown Dallas — Aug. 11, 1932
After the celebrations had settled down, Babe Didrikson, sports superstar, was back at “work” — at least long enough to have photographs of her taken at the most uncluttered desk imaginable. (Though to be fair, Babe did claim to have been a typing champion in high school. Even if that were true — and she was known to be something of an exaggerator — it’s still almost impossible to imagine this world champion athlete typing up an afternoon’s dictation on insurance matters.)
Employers’ Casualty Co.’s casual employee — Oct. 21, 1932
Babe eventually turned pro, left Dallas, married wrestler George Zaharias, and became an incredibly successful golfer. She died from cancer in 1956 at the early age of 45, but her legacy lives on as one of the greatest and most versatile athletes of all time (…who, for a few short years, also happened to do a bit of light secretarial work for an insurance company in Dallas).
Below are a few of my favorite random Babe-related tidbits.
Babe was often ridiculed by male sportswriters for her bearing and physique, which they thought were not feminine enough for their tastes. This criticism — ridiculous though it was — must have stung, because she occasionally made efforts to placate them, some of which seemed very awkward, such as this. The caption of the above photo: “Mildred (Babe) Didrikson (left) and her chaperon, Mrs. Henry Wood, are pictured above as they appeared Monday afternoon just before boarding a train for Chicago, Ill. for the national AAU track and field championships in which Babe […] hopes to carry off high honors and win a berth on the American Olympic team. This is the first picture ever taken of Babe with a hat on. She has never worn one before.”
Aug. 11, 1932
Aug. 11, 1932 — ad inset
Above, an ad taken out by the Dallas company Babe worked for, welcoming her back home from her Olympic triumph. Drawing by Jack Patton. (Even though Babe had buckled to pressure with the whole hat thing, I can’t quite picture her wearing gloves.)
Babe and the other Babe, August 12, 1947. I love this photo.
Fantastic photo of Babe in her prime by Lusha Nelson, from the January, 1933 issue of Vanity Fair.
Sources & Notes
The two photos of Babe Didrikson at her desk, the photo of the parade in Dallas, and the photo with Babe Ruth are from the huge selection of photographs of Babe at CorbisImages. See a lot of photos of her throughout her career, here. The photos of her training and in action are exhilarating, but it’s nice seeing her looking so happy and relaxed in her later golfing days. She definitely smiled a lot more after she started making more than the measly $75 a month she was making in Dallas.
An interesting article from 1975 about Babe in which former co-workers and teammates from Employers Casualty remembered their time with her can be found in the Dallas News archives: “Friends Recall Babe’s Prowess” by Temple Pouncey (DMN, Oct. 26, 1975).
For more on Babe’s time in Dallas and Oak Cliff, she writes about it in her autobiography, This Life I’ve Led (1955), here. (The entire book can be read for free at the link.) Also, check out this article by Gayla Brooks that appeared in the Oak Cliff Advocate.
A really well done, comprehensive overview of Babe Didrikson Zaharias’ career (with lots of great photos), can be found at Pop History Dig, here.
One of my favorite weird Babe things is the record she made with her “golf protege” Betty Dodd. Betty sings (not very well) and is accompanied by Babe on harmonica, an instrument she loved all of her life and which she taught herself to play as a child. The song — and a bit of backstory on Babe and Betty’s relationship — is here (click the arrow at the left of the strip beneath the record label to hear the song “I Felt a Little Teardrop”). Babe’s solo starts at about the 1:06 mark.
And, lastly, newsreel footage of Babe over the years, from the early track meets and the Olympics, to her later career as a golf superstar can be watched here and here.
Several images are larger when clicked.
Copyright © 2014 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.