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—brett sokol | November 1, 2011 | Lifestyle
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
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)