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Looking back at Babe Zaharias

Looking back at Babe Zaharias
by Don Van Natta Jr.

Babe Didrikson Zaharias
joined the professional golf ranks in August 1947 after becoming the first American to win the British Women’s Amateur Championship in Gullane, Scotland. She became only the eighth female professional golfer, joining a group of pioneering women that included Betty Hicks, Patty Berg and Betty Jameson.

Fred Corcoran, the savvy agent who represented some of the era’s biggest baseball stars, represented Babe Didrikson Zaharias with an eye toward creating a new professional tournament for women. “In England, they call them ‘ladies,’ and in a way it sounded classier than women,” Corcoran said. “We decided to call our tour the ‘Ladies Professional Golf Association.’ ” But to a few of the charter members, that name might as well have been the Lady’s Professional Golf Tour.

Make no mistake: the lady that the tour was created to showcase was Babe Didrikson Zaharias.

And why not? With a glittering all-sport resume that included her stint as an all-American basketball player and an Olympic gold medalist in track and field, Babe ensured that a world-famous woman with charisma to spare would headline the new LPGA.

In January 1949, Corcoran met at Miami’s Venetian Hotel with Babe, her husband, George Zaharias and Patty Berg. An upstart professional women’s golf tour owned by the women golfers themselves named the Women’s Professional Golf Association, had hit hard times and was moribund. The LPGA would embrace a different business model. It would be owned by wealthy corporate sponsor whose goal was to have a tour that promoted its players and its sponsors’ products, and not necessarily in that order.

I.B. Icely, the chairman of Wilson Sporting Goods (and a sponsor of Babe’s), agreed to provide $15,000, the sum total of the prize money won at women’s professional tournaments in 1949. Not surprisingly, Babe won the biggest slice of that pie: $4,300. Corcoran hustled for more sponsorship money, but found it difficult to attract commitments from corporate leaders. “Potential sponsors were polite when I called them,” he recalled, “but you could hear them stifling a yawn over the phone.”

The LPGA’s future looked uncertain until Alvin Handmacher, the chairman of the Weathervane Sports Clothes Company, pledged $15,000 in 1950 for a four-tournament cross-country golf tournament, with a $5,000 first prize going to the low aggregate scorer. “Let’s make no mistake about it,” Corcoran said, “Alvin put the Ladies PGA in business.”

But Babe made sure the LPGA stayed in business. “She was the color, the gate attraction,” Corcoran said. “She was, without a doubt, the greatest woman athlete the world has ever seen – and probably the greatest woman golfer of all time.”

Babe gave people a show. It was similar to the wisecracking act that she had performed on the vaudeville stage at the Palace Theater in Chicago, in early 1933, after her Olympics triumphs.

It wasn’t until the 1950 U.S. Women’s Open, held at Rolling Hills Country Club in Wichita, Kansas, that thirteen women became the founding mothers of what would become the most successful women’s sports association in the world. Patty Berg was elected its first president, but Babe was its first superstar (and, not surprisingly, the tour’s initial leading money-winner).

“Babe was an entertainer,” Marilynn Smith, a Kansas pro and one of the LPGA’s founding members, told me. “She knew you’re not just out there hitting a golf ball. I don’t think we realized it; maybe she was one step ahead of us. She was always entertaining – and that’s what got the people out to see us. Once they came out, they could see we were pretty good golfers.”

The tour’s early years were not easy. Some of those early tournaments were rough, amateurish affairs. Some of the golf courses were in ugly condition, parched by drought or chopped up by overuse. The women stayed in cheap, crummy motels. And no one seemed to be making any money except Babe.

She acted as if she owned the tour, and her competitors noticed. How could they not? Babe showed up in clubhouses before tournaments and bellowed at the women, “Hey, girls, the Babe is here! Now who’s gonna finish second?”

Louise Suggs put Babe’s self-confidence this way: “According to her, the rest of us were spear carriers.”

At an early LPGA meeting, the women confronted Babe about the rumor that she was being paid $1,000 under the table by some tournament organizers just to show up. This Babe-only bonus deeply offended the LPGA’s other founding members.

“If it wasn’t for us pigeons,” golfer Shirley Spork told Babe, “you wouldn’t have a tour.”

Babe just laughed. “You’re right, kid,” Babe shot back. “Let me tell you girls something – you know when there’s a star, like in show business, the star has her name in lights on the marquee. Right? And the star gets the money because the people come to see the star, right? Well, I’m the star and all of you are in the chorus. I get the money. And if it weren’t for me, half of our tournaments wouldn’t be.”

What could the women say? Babe was right, though she would have won more friends (and, perhaps, fewer tournaments) if she had kept such feelings to herself.

It wasn’t until Babe was diagnosed with rectal cancer in the spring of 1953 that she began to have a change of heart about her competitors. Doctors told her she wouldn’t play tournament golf again. Babe believed it, at first; she tried to give away her golf clubs. But within a few days, she began praying to God to let her play again. She didn’t ask God for a victory; she would try to take care of that herself.

She had a colostomy. Fifteen months later, with a colostomy bag strapped to her side, Babe won the U.S. Women’s Open by an incredible 12 strokes at Salem Country Club in Massachusetts. The win was one of the greatest comebacks in the history of American sports. Afterward, Babe thanked her doctors and the thousands of people, many with cancer, who wrote her get-well cards, letters and telegrams. After years of selfishness, Babe finally shared the glory of the biggest title in women’s golf with the men who helped her come back and thousands of strangers.

Jim Murray, the Los Angeles Times sports columnist, called Babe’s 1954 U.S. Women’s Open victory “probably the most incredible athletic feat of all time, given her condition. People all over the country who had been resisting the operation, preferring terminal cancer to it, began changing their minds – and saving their lives.”

As big as Babe’s legacy helping to create the LPGA, an even bigger contribution was in her cancer fight. She was a trailblazer whose courage confronting cancer publicly inspired the nation.

On September 27, 1956, Babe died in a Galveston, Texas hospital, just 26 months after her third and final U.S. Open’s win. “Ladies and gentlemen,” President Eisenhower said at a press conference that day, “I should like to take one minute to pay a tribute to Mrs. Zaharias, Babe Didrikson. She was a woman who, in her athletic career, certainly won the admiration of every person in the United States, all sports people all over the world, and in her gallant fight against cancer, she put up one of the kind of fights that inspired us all. I think that every one of us feels sad that finally she had to lose this last one of all her battles.”

The New York Times editorialized this way about Babe’s legacy: “Her tragic death must spur us to renewed efforts to fight the foe that cut her down. But her own terrific fight against that foe can also be an inspiration to all those who must face and overcome handicaps. It is not only the annals of sport that her life has enriched. It is the whole story of human beings who somehow have to keep on trying.”

Topics: Player Feature, Zaharias, Babe

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