Babe Didrikson Zaharias tees up while playing the Weathervane Tournament at the Normandy Isle Country Club in 1952.

“Hey girls, Babe’s here!” Babe Didrikson Zaharias was known to shout as she strode into a golf course’s clubhouse before competing in a tournament. “Now who’s gonna finish second?” If Babe was feeling particularly saucy that day, she might even add, in her Texas drawl, “Why are you girls botherin’ practicing?” Spirited trash talk was the least of it. Tempers were likely to have been frayed even before Babe entered the room—there was a good chance she’d been prank phone calling her competitors the night before, the better to rattle their nerves.

 
   

Whatever sport she threw herself into—whether shattering records in golf, basketball, baseball, swimming, or in track and field, where she won two gold medals at the 1932 Olympics—“coming in second was not an option,” explains Miami-based New York Times national correspondent Don Van Natta Jr., author of the new Babe biography, Wonder Girl: The Magnificent Sporting Life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias (Little, Brown and Company; $27.99). “She wasn’t very likable, and I found that to be a great challenge, to tell the story of someone who was a great athlete, but wasn’t always a great person.” Still, Van Natta adds that Babe had good reason to be prickly, right from her emergence onto the national stage in the 1920s. Male chauvinism, he says, was only one of the obstacles Babe had to overcome— some of her bitterest opposition came from other female athletes, who looked down on her modest upbringing and brusque manner. “She came from the wrong side of the tracks, and the country club world was not about to make room for her,” Van Natta says of the women’s golf set back then. “This book is as much about class as it is about sexism. When you see how she was mocked, not just by the press, but also by her competitors, you can give her a bit of a pass for being so mean at times.”

Even after being diagnosed with rectal cancer in 1953, Babe was still breaking boundaries. These days, we take such a diagnosis as the cue for an athlete’s carefully choreographed press tour. But in Babe’s day, the word “cancer” was rarely uttered in public; cancer patients were quickly ushered out of the media’s eye. By contrast, Babe not only kept competing—winning the 1954 Serbin Open at Miami Beach’s Bayshore Golf Course even after her colostomy operation—she appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show to openly discuss her medical condition.


At the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, breaking a high-jump world record

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