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A biography of Babe Didrikson, who broke records in golf, track and field, and other sports, at a time when there were few opportunities for female athletes.
The "Texas Tomboy" Captures National Headlines
On a sultry July afternoon in 1932, Babe Didrikson, glistening with sweat, grass stains on her satin shorts, sprinted across the low-cropped grass to where the judges awaited her. She had just set a world record by throwing a baseball more than 272 feet. When it finally came down out of the sky the crowd had gasped—then burst into cheers and wild applause. Two hundred and seventy-two feet! Babe pushed her bangs off her forehead, squinted, and punched her fists in the air. She felt loose, strong, in control.
She waved to the crowd and headed directly for the dirt track. There her five competitors in the 80-meter hurdles were stretching and crouching, awaiting the pistol shot to start the race. Babe dug her toes into the turf.
She was too excited to notice her fatigue. Her heart was pounding in her chest. She flexed her muscles and tried to relax her breathing. All the hours of grueling practice—the uphill runs when she felt her lungs would burst, the sprints that made her legs burn—were for this. Those memories only fueled her fierce determination. She truly believed she was unbeatable. Her sense of physical power intoxicated her. She had brought all of this desire with her onto the track.
She crouched down, using her toes and fingertips to balance her weight. At the gunshot, she surged forward, propelled by her own adrenaline. "It's just like hurdling the hedges on Doucette Street," she told herself as she leaped over each hurdle flawlessly. She bent her knee, just as she had practiced in her neighborhood to allow for the thick sharp foliage of the hedges. She kept this style today at the race, even though the wooden hurdles were narrow and smooth. Floating across the top, she gained the perfect rhythm. "Just one more hurdle."
Her chest broke the tape stretched across the finish line. The crowd's praise exploded in her ears. "Twelve point one seconds!" the announcer's voice boomed through the stadium. "A new world record!"
It was her fourth win in four events. "Four events to go." If only her mother, Hannah, and father, Olé, could be there to see her. "Mine Babe!" she heard her mother's soft voice. "Mine Babe! We are so proud of our girl!" Thinking about her mother's affectionate nickname, Babe smiled and turned toward the cluster of reporters.
Although she was of average size and weight—5 feet 6 inches and 140 pounds—there was nothing average about Babe's presence. Indeed, she seemed larger than life. She was lithe, muscular, and as quick with a quip as she was quick on her feet. Her chestnut hair was close-cropped, her bangs uneven, and her brown eyes piercing. She posed for photographers with her hands on her hips, square jaw thrust out confidently, her arms reenacting a throw. She playfully swatted reporters' arms, laughed often, and grabbed a pencil from one sports writer. "Make sure you quote me right!" she teased him.
Neither shy nor unassuming, she loved being the center of attention and regaled the reporters with tall tales and "Texas talk" that had them scribbling down her every word. She beamed as she spun yarns about foot-racing a mad bull in a local cow pasture. Sure, that's how she'd developed her speed and agility. She also said she ran alongside the train as it passed through town—and darn if she hadn't outrun it, too. She claimed she had not thrown the javelin much at all, but it came to her so naturally that she had set the world record when she first picked it up in 1930. She accomplished all this at the age of only nineteen, she assured the writers.
She was actually twenty-one. But she thought the world would view her as even more of a phenomenon if she were still a teenager. The reporters could not know that she had also been practicing javelin with grueling regularity. She worked the press like a skilled carnival pitchman lures spectators in to see sideshows.
Reporters immediately took notice of her unusual physical attributes. She was lithe, lean, and strong, and it was obvious that she was uninterested in feminine styles or mannerisms in clothing or gestures. There was no doubt about her origins, since she exaggerated her Texas accent, delivering one-liners with a broad twang. Her outgoing personality appealed to the reporters, who were always hungry for a good quote.
Most of all, the press was enthralled because Babe had come to Evanston as a one-woman team. It was a stunt her coach, Colonel McCombs, devised. For the past two years, she had been playing basketball for McCombs' Employer's Casualty Insurance Company in Dallas, Texas. Hired officially to do secretarial work, Babe winked when she told reporters, "I can type 180 words a minute." In reality, she was rarely asked to sit at a desk. She was a paid athlete who competed for Employer's Casualty in the popular national Women's Industrial League.
Babe had led that semipro basketball team to its second consecutive national championship. But at the close of the season, McCombs worried that his star was becoming restless. So he suggested she represent Employer's Casualty at the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) National Championships by participating in every event—a one-woman team. This unheard-of ploy would publicize Babe and her employer simultaneously. Babe readily agreed. She loved the chance to show off her skills in diverse sports.
The stunt worked perfectly. Before the meet began, the announcer called out each competing team and each group ran onto the field, welcomed by the spectators' applause. When Babe's "team" was called, a reporter wrote, "She ran onto the field all alone, waving her arms wildly, carried along by the roar of the crowd." Babe was pitted all by herself against 250 outstanding women athletes on teams with as many as twenty members. The challenge seemed insurmountable. She entered eight of ten events. She had to scramble to get from one event to the next on time, and more than once, officials delayed starting so she could catch her breath. They also allowed her time to rest between events.
Before the afternoon was finished, she had accomplished what most would have thought impossible. By nightfall, she had won four of her eight events outright: the shot put (an Amateur Athletic Union and United States record); javelin toss (breaking her own world record); 80-meter hurdles (also bettering her own world record); and the broad jump. She tied for first place in the high jump (an AAU record) and placed fourth in the discus, even though it was not an event in which she normally competed. She had won six gold medals (including the 272-foot baseball throw world record) and had broken four world records. Her performance earned her thirty points. The second-place team, the Illinois Athletic Club, earned only twenty-two points.
It was an incredible record, one that the sporting press broadcast to the nation. In the space of three hours, Babe had catapulted from anonymity to superstardom. On that singular July afternoon in 1932, Babe adroitly demonstrated two lessons she had learned as a young girl. First, attention justifies storytelling. Second, practice without mercy and excellence will follow. For Babe, winning and attention were sweet and seductive rewards.
As she stood on the track surrounded by awed admirers, Babe realized she had always been right: her destiny was to be the greatest athlete who ever lived.
Texas: Living between Two World
Mildred Ella Didriksen was a rambunctious mischief-maker even as an infant. Her mother, Hannah, greeted her birth on June 26, 1911, with a mixture of joy and worry for her baby's future. She and her husband were poor Norwegian immigrants, and the birth of their sixth child seemed like it would only make hard times harder.
Mildred Ella's family was unlike most others in their working-class Port Arthur, Texas, neighborhood; 95 percent of those surrounding them were American-born. Most Norwegians who immigrated to the United States lived in ethnic enclaves in farming country, where they wore traditional clothing from their homeland, held on to their oldworld religious beliefs, and relied upon extended family and Norwegian friends. The Didriksens did almost none of these things.
Babe's mother, born Hannah Marie Olson, was the daughter of a Bergen, Norway, shoemaker. She was 5 feet 4 inches tall and blessed with the natural grace of a born athlete. As a girl in her homeland, Hannah had been a skilled skater and skier. When Babe had achieved fame, she liked to brag that her mother had been a champion. While that was a fanciful concoction, Hannah nevertheless was a gifted athlete in her youth.
Babe's father, Olé, (pronounced O-lay) was born in Oslo, Norway. Although his own father was a cabinetmaker by trade, Olé was too adventurous to follow immediately in his footsteps. As a young man, Olé signed on as a merchant seaman aboard transatlantic oil tankers. Olé was tall and lean, with dark hair that framed his ruggedly handsome face. His drooping mustache added a rakish touch to his looks.
Babe never tired of hearing her father spin yarns about his life. Her earliest memories were of sitting cross-legged on the floor of their rambling, paint-chipped house in Port Arthur, transfixed by Olé's voice inflections and dramatic hand gestures. They could rarely afford paid entertainment. Nighttime storytelling was a family ritual and an art to be mastered. Babe clearly remembered her father's yarns and the hushed audience he commanded with exotic tales.
In her autobiography, This Life I've Led, Babe detailed her love of his stories. "He'd describe one trip where they got stranded on an island," Babe recalled. They "kept themselves alive by eating monkeys and things." In another favorite tale, which she begged him to retell time and again, "his ship broke up in a storm and he clung to a rope by one hand for hours, holding another guy up with his other hand." She adored his tales of derring-do and heroism. "What a bang we used to get out of his stories.... We'd huddle around him and listen like mad.... It could all be true. Things like that happened to these old seafarers."
Those stories made him a hero in his children's eyes, even though he was frequently unemployed. He placed himself at the center of every story. He crafted an image of himself as a footloose, roguish adventurer who scratched out a living in the rough and unpredictable working-class realm of the waterfront.
The Didriksens, like many other Norwegians, cherished storytelling—often more so than book knowledge. Entertaining a rapt audience with vivid and graphic detail allowed you to control your listeners at "tongue's end." No harm was done if the tale was exaggerated. It was most important to satisfy yourself and your listeners. This lesson Babe embraced as a young girl: better to be a storyteller than an ordinary and overlooked face in the crowd.
Her father's example served her well. She used the very same tactics in describing her own accomplishments and life history. She mimicked her father's embellishments and his vivid verbal style. Later, she would also replicate her father's unorthodox methods of earning a living by performing daring stunts.
Hannah and Olé met and were married in Oslo. While living in Norway, Hannah gave birth to three children—Dora, Esther Nancy, and Olé Jr. They might have remained in Scandinavia, but on one of Olé's tanker voyages, he happened to land in Port Arthur on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. He found the area's economic opportunities appealing and decided to bring his family there.
First, though, he had to prove to American authorities that he could provide for his family. For three years, from 1905 to 1908, Olé lived in Texas, building a nest egg as a merchant seaman and cabinetmaker. Then, combining the money Olé had saved in America with earnings Hannah had saved in Norway, the couple was able to reunite. Hannah and the three children finally joined Olé in 1908 to build a new life in Texas. In Port Arthur, four more children were added to the brood—first the twins, Lillie and Louis, then Mildred Ella ("Babe"), and finally Arthur, whom everyone called Bubba.
It took some doing for the young couple to adjust to the way of life in Port Arthur. Norway had been cool and clean. Snow and long, dark winters had dominated life for most months of the year. By contrast, the Gulf Coast's hazy sunshine was relentless. Often oppressively humid and hot, Port Arthur's unpaved streets clattered with the sounds of horse and carriages, steam whistles from the docks, and clanging boxcars being unloaded by sweaty dockworkers. The air was usually filled with industrial fumes. Flames leapt high into the sky from refineries in the distance, and the mechanical sway of roadside oil drills was ever present. For these reasons among others, Hannah did not share Olé's enthusiasm for Port Arthur.
Perhaps to counter the gritty, polluted environment that surrounded them, Olé made a point of wearing a clean and pressed white shirt every day along with his overalls. When there were jobs available refinishing furniture, Olé returned to the craft of his father, fashioning beautiful items from wood with his slender fingers. His broad shoulders revealed his other job—eking out a living on ships that docked in Port Arthur's foul-smelling harbor.
Early on, Olé made a conscious decision to reject his cultural roots and rapidly assimilate "American ways." Unlike many Norwegian Americans, Olé displayed an American flag from his rooftop on every holiday. "I'm Norwegian," he liked to tell people, "but nobody's a prouder American than I am." Hannah preferred to savor traditional ways and share them with her children. Through food, songs, stories, and an occasional friendship with other Norwegians, she shared her heritage with her children. Babe tended to adopt her father's approach: downplaying her ethnicity in an attempt to belong to the new American society. This greatly contributed to Babe's own lack of identification with other Scandinavian Americans.
Mildred Ella was the family's baby until her younger brother, Bubba, was born. During the years before Bubba's birth, Hannah used to call Mildred Ella "Millie" or "Mine Babe." In Norwegian, baden meant "baby," so hers was an affectionate broken-English nickname for her daughter. As a youngster, Babe loved to brag that her nickname was derived from Babe Ruth, the legendary baseball slugger. Since she, too, walloped the baseball when at bat, she converted Hannah's term of endearment for her "baby" into the Herculean "Babe." She told this story so often that it stuck, even though it wasn't true. In later years, sportswriters helped embellish the legend attached to her nickname.
The growing family expressed their love for one another—indeed, all their emotions—frequently and effusively. This too was unlike most Norwegian Americans, who tended to be more reserved. However uncharacteristic, her family's emotionally open household meant that her parents, whom she once described as "sweetly strict," offered praise and love in greater proportion than discipline or criticism.
Babe's earliest memories bore witness to this harmony at home. "We all just loved Momma, and Poppa too," she said. "We were forever hugging them and all that. I'd go lie in bed with Momma when I was little. She'd say 'Mine Babe, my best girl.'" As the children grew, the bond intensified. Thus, by the time Babe was an adult, her family was her anchor in a world where she was frequently misunderstood and not accepted. "Some families don't show their love for each other," Babe explained. "Ours always did. Momma and Poppa lived on for their kids, and they had that love from their kids all their lives."
Despite their isolation from Norwegian ways, the Didriksens did hold on to some important ethnic connections. Babe was quite proud when she was able to defeat other Scandinavians—Swedes or Danes—in athletic contests. There was a distinct rivalry between Scandinavians. Her favorite poem began, "Ten thousand Swedes ran through the weeds/pursued by one Norwegian." And at times the family celebrated cultural holidays. They were, like many other Norwegian immigrants, hard working, patient, honest, strong, stubborn, and frugal. They enjoyed smoking and drinking and did not always observe proper rules of etiquette, such as ladylike behavior or prohibitions against swearing or showing off.
Babe's childhood itself was an interesting mix of the distinctly American and the decidedly Norwegian. The house's interior, given Olé's woodworking skills and years at sea, resembled a ship with its fine craftsmanship and polished woods. It was crafted with items and know-how reminiscent of Norway.
Their languages also straddled the two worlds. Lillie, Babe's favorite sibling and Louis' twin, later recalled that all the children could speak Norwegian and "understood nearly everything our father and mother used to say in their native language." They fooled Hannah and Olé, who thought their Norwegian was incomprehensible to the children and who used it when they wanted privacy. Babe, Lillie, and the others delighted in their secret. In fact, both languages were used interchangeably in the home. Hannah, in particular, merged the two and her playful children teased her about it good-naturedly.
Excerpted from Babe Didrikson by Susan E. Cayleff. Copyright © 1995 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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Foreword by Susan Stamberg
ONE The "Texas Tomboy" Captures National Headlines
TWO Texas: Living between Two Worlds
THREE "Not Nobody's Ordinary Girl"
FOUR Searching for Belonging: On and Off the Field
FIVE Unprecedented Opportunities
SIX Olympic Gold
SEVEN America's Newest Hero
EIGHT Lessons Learned
NINE Stunts and Sideshows
TEN Eager to Be a Proper Lady Golfer
ELEVEN Domestic Bliss?
TWELVE Superman's Sister
THIRTEEN Choosing Family
FOURTEEN A New Kind of Hero