Wonder Girl: Babe Didrikson Zaharias
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Author Don Van Natta Jr.
“Some of the previous books about Babe made it too simple,” Van Natta says, reducing her to a one-note feminist icon, or failing to capture her true spirit. Credit his own investigative calling (with three Pulitzer Prizes in journalism to show for it) for a willingness to dig deeper and craft a warts-and-all portrait: “There’s a big crisis in sportswriting—there’s not as much hard-hitting journalism as there should be.” Instead, “Everybody’s got a blog. Everybody’s got an opinion. Twenty-two-, 23-, 24-year-olds— many of them—want to tell you their opinion, as opposed to going out there with a notebook and trying to find out the truth.” Not that he’s blind to where those impulses come from. “They see that people five or six years older than them have started websites and made a lot of money,” he chuckles.
Moreover, sportswriting in Miami carries its own set of special challenges. Van Natta recalls a Miami Heat game this past season: “I was stunned that when P. Diddy showed up mid-game, there was more enthusiasm for his arrival than for what was going on down on the court.” Needless to say, some of the Heat’s promotions, such as discounted snacks for on-time arrivals, leave him nonplussed. “The ‘fan up’ program, where they had to basically bribe people to get to their seats for the tip-off? There’s no other arena or stadium in the country that’s had to do that!”
That contrarian take—and the wider lens that accompanies it—may not win Van Natta any friends among the Heat’s management. But it’s precisely what elevates his Wonder Girl beyond simply a gripping sports tale—even one about a historic figure he considers “America’s greatest all-around athlete, male or female.” Ultimately, Wonder Girl is as much about Babe’s sports skills as it is about American culture’s response to that prowess—not just the evolution of gender roles, but also the push and pull between money and athletics (as charged in Babe’s day as it is in ours), and the barbed nature of newfound status and fame. “The will of this woman to compete, just to find a place to play, it’s really a quest story,” Van Natta concludes. “So many lesser people would’ve said, ‘I’m not wanted here,’ and found something else to do. She didn’t. It was a total test of will, which she passed. She wasn’t likable—but there was a lot to like about her.”
Don Van Natta Jr. reads from Wonder Girl at the Miami Book Fair International on November 19.
photographs by jim arbogast (van natta jr.); bettman corbis (didrikson zaharias, olympics)