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  • Lauren Wood

Babe Zaharias: A Pioneer in Women's Sports

Mildred Ella “Babe'' Didrikson Zaharias was one of the greatest and most accomplished American sportswomen of her generation, dominating the field in a period where sports were largely reserved for men. Although she had experience in nearly every area of athletics, her most notable contributions to the world of sports were in golf. 

Zaharias had humble beginnings as the daughter of two working class Norwegian immigrants, but that didn’t stop her from participating in activities such as neighborhood baseball, where she earned the nickname “Babe” for her resemblance to hall of fame player Babe Ruth. Throughout her childhood and early life, she also dabbled in sports such as basketball, track, figure skating, softball, swimming, and football. 

Zaharias first achieved fame as a member of the women’s All-America Basketball team, but she quickly found her place in track and field. After winning the 1932 Women’s Amateur Athletic Association competition as her own team, Zaharias set her sights on the 1932 Olympics. She won gold in both the 80-meter hurdles and javelin throw, but was deprived of a third medal in the high jump for her use of the unorthodox Western roll. 

After her success at the Olympics, Zaharias moved on to the game of golf. In 1943, she was awarded amateur status and went on to win the 1946 U.S. Women’s Amateur tournament. The following year she won 17 straight amateur tournaments, including a victory at the British Ladies Amateur, the first American woman to do so. Her accomplishments led her to pursue a professional career, and in 1948 and 1950 she won the U.S. Women’s Open. Because there were limited golf opportunities for women at this time, Zaharias co-founded the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) in 1950, and served as president from 1952 until 1955. With her skills, she quickly became the LPGA’s star player, earning 41 professional victories and awards such as the 1954 Vare Trophy for the season’s lowest scoring average. 

In 1953, Zaharias was diagnosed with colon cancer, and underwent surgery the same year. Despite her illness, she continued playing golf, and even won the U.S. Women’s Open for a third time in 1954. Tragically, her resilience could only go so far, and she passed away in 1956. 

Zaharias’ legacy as an athlete was profound, demonstrated in her induction into the LPGA Hall of Fame in 1951, World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974, the PGA of America Hall of Fame in 1977, and the Texas Golf Hall of Fame in 1978. She also won the 1954 William D. Richardson Award, 1954 Ben Hogan Award, 1957 Bob Jones Award, and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2021.

Despite her plethora of accomplishments, Zaharias faced blatant discrimination throughout her career. From her medals in the Olympics to her tournaments as a golfer, Zaharias was mocked and criticized by the press as too masculine to be a proper woman and too feminine to be competing in men’s sports. Even with this criticism, she dominated several sports at a time when athletics were regarded as a male activity, and earned her place in the history of sports. 


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