Babe Didrikson lived for little more than a decade after V-J Day in August 1945. She died of cancer eleven years later at 42, far too young. Yet in that short period she became the most fabled women golfer in history, far outdistancing her competitors while helping establish the Ladies Professional Golf Association and earning the Associated Press nod as the top female athlete of the first half of the twentieth century. Her life mirrored other important cultural benchmarks in postwar America. In many ways she was an original—pushing against the misogynist grain of American life in her own idiosyncratic ways, a tomboy who became in the 1930s what journalist Paul Gallico derided as a “muscle moll,” not quite female and certainly not feminine. Indeed, before marrying wrestler George Zaharias in 1939, Babe seemed to leave female gender norms in tatters wherever she went. Like the baseball hero Babe Ruth, she made a habit of boasting of her athletic prowess, usually made good on her predictions, and kept her brash and quotable persona in the public eye.
At a time when women found it difficult, if not impossible, to find a professional sport to play, Babe did so with verve. She played most of them—photos depict her as a participant in, among others, track and field, billiards, basketball, baseball, boxing, tennis, football—and she could have played them all. But more than any other female athlete (and most men), her name became synonymous with golf and she became a valuable commodity—a saleable item in the burgeoning consumer culture that accompanied postwar prosperity. Without her, writers and competitors agree, the LPGA would not have survived.
But Babe Zaharias was also in important ways an anti-hero, unable and unwilling to embrace proprieties deemed necessary for athletic role models. Certainly in her long, subterranean relationship with sister golfer Betty Dodd, which developed after her marriage soured, she anticipated the alternative sexual lifestyles of tennis stars Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova and many other bisexual, lesbian, and gay athletes who faced censure from defenders of the predominantly masculine national security culture. Because of this relationship, which Babe neither avowed nor admitted, she lived a public life at odds with private reality. But in this culturally imposed choice she was not alone. Many Americans—gay and straight—were not what they seemed in the terrible first years of the cold war. Radicals, dissenters, and free spirits of all sorts had to check their enthusiasms and deny their histories as the anticommunist security state sought to ferret out disloyalty on federal, state, and local levels. Liberal Democrats especially, who joined Popular Front Groups in the 1930s, often found it necessary to disavow their pasts and to inform on their associates in Hollywood and at universities and colleges throughout the country. And gays, lesbians, and independent-minded women also found it necessary to go “under cover”.
Mildred Ella Didriksen (she later dropped the ‘e’ for an ‘o’ to deny her ethnic ancestry) rose from the obscurity of a large Norwegian immigrant family in working-class Beaumont, Texas, challenging on all fronts middle-class ideas of being female. From an early age she “shingled” her hair or ignored it, spoke coarsely, and vanquished the boys in schoolyard games. She developed hurdling technique by leaping the scrawny hedges in her neighborhood and grew stronger lifting weights made by her mother of flatirons tied to broom handles. No dolls for Babe, who inherited her name as the sixth of seven children, and not from the sultan of swat—George Herman Ruth.
From an early age Babe proved an ethnic diamond in the rough who brought to her burgeoning athletic career an outsider’s sensibility of the need to confront and overcome adversity and opponents. Ironically, given her close friendship with journalist Grantland Rice whose poetry touted not victory but “how one played the game,” she anticipated people like the UCLA football coach, Henry "Red” Sanders, and the fabled Green Bay Packer mentor, Vince Lombardi, whose observation that “winning wasn’t everything; winning was the only thing” became a mantra for university and professional athletics and for competitive corporate capitalism after 1950. In rewriting record books, or merely writing them (given the dearth of competitive women’s athletics), she gave no quarter to her opposition, male or female, let alone a penny. She sought to win at everything.
In the summer of 1932, at eighteen, she single-handedly captured the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) national team title while vying as the sole member of the Dallas Employers’ Casualty Company team. A fortnight later she moved on to the Los Angeles Olympics and claimed gold in the javelin and hurdles and silver in the high jump. In the latter event, Babe’s unorthodox head-first technique cost her a tie for first. With this showing, Babe focused national attention as never before on women’s track and field. With her wiry, boyish body, her loose-fitting sweatsuits, and wisecracks that never failed to amuse and offend, he captivated and shocked reporters and fans (often at the same time) with her rejection of traditional femininity. Clearly she possessed the rough edges of her South Texas, working-class background. In that culture women were not protected and more often than not, when they possessed athletic ability, they naturally adopted the hard-nosed muscularity of the region’s dominant masculine culture. In the late 1920s and 1930s, Babe did not sand her rough edges. She might be best described as a “sport flapper”. One journalist, noting that Babe played myriad sports in addition to her wondrous performances in track and field, inquired, “Is there anything you don’t play?” “Yeah,” Babe retorted, without missing a beat, “dolls”.
Women’s track and field was an oxymoron until Babe Didrikson’s arrival. To understand her impact on that and other sporting venues in the 1920s and 1930s, and to appreciate the significance of the abrupt change her life took in the decade before her death in 1956, one need consult a cultural history in which women’s athletic activities were carefully monitored by the spiritual predecessors of the avatars of the cold war security state—the male educators, ministers, and physicians who dominated Victorian America. Critics derided what Frederick Rand Rogers deemed in 1929 the “absolutely prohibitive” costs for women who did compete—the loss of “health, beauty, and physical attractiveness,” and their “fitness for motherhood.” Novelist John R. Tunis, who introduced a generation of adolescent males to the masculine values of field, arena, and locker room, termed the Olympics an “animalistic” experience which, Rogers feared, would create one of “nature’s most hideous deformities, mannish women.”
An imputed linkage between physicality and sexual corruption girded the middle-class exclusion of women from robust sport. The powerful ideology that stressed distinctions between the sexes fed the axiom of separate spheres which allowed men to dominate public venues and relegated women to the domestic realm. Men worked and led interesting lives, while wives bore and nurtured children. Most middle- and upper-class Americans embraced this distinction, and it comes as no surprise that sport developed as it did because those men who organized and controlled it saw sport as a way to erect cultural and social barriers—to exclude not only women, but also blacks, and working-class Americans, including millions of newly arrived ethnics from Southern and Eastern Europe. The amateur code, which governed the Olympic Games from their modern reincarnation through most of the twentieth century, is best understood as a barrier manned by citizens harboring distinct ideas about gender, racial, and class boundaries.
Bourgeois and upper-class American males found sport a site where they might define their essence, as they competed to achieve their ambitions and dreams. Rather than taking cues from normative ideals of rectitude and trustworthiness, these men looked to sport venues to develop what one historian calls their “sense of coolness in the face of danger, ability to give and take punishment, and sensitivity to insult.” Self-avowed “Muscular Christians” in the nascent YMCAmovement also defined their manhood in opposition to so-called feminine qualities, as a way to combat the increasing feminization of American culture, particularly in religion and education. Less pious urban types joined the Victorian demimonde, in which men bonded across class while drinking, gambling, and watching blood sports like cock-fighting and ratting. The sport underworld provided a refuge where males might escape sweethearts, wives, sisters, mothers, and daughters.
By the turn of the century, sport came to figure in assumptions about preparedness for war shared by many leaders. As Western Europeans and Americans worried about a generalized conflict, Britons recalled that the Battle of Waterloo had been won on the playing fields of Eton, the Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin considered the reborn Olympics one way to get his countrymen “fit” to repulse Germany, and President Theodore Roosevelt touted sport and the strenuous life generally as a means to keep pace with the ravages of industrialization and to prepare to meet the threats posed by foreign powers.
The world into which Babe Didrikson was born, therefore, was a man’s world, the character of its producer culture shaped by a milieu of relative economic scarcity. Hence sport became linked with masculinity and both became associated with self-discipline, deferred gratification, resilience and responsibility, and character and integrity. These were male virtues, ascribed by men to men. The “strong, silent type” encapsulated these ideals, and athletics reinforced the social process of “gender attribution”—an alchemy by which men tied their important qualities to power and physical domination. “Feminine” qualities, meanwhile, connected to reproduction and nurturing, were different and generally deemed of secondary value by contemporary experts. Most women, lacking access to the cultural sites where these values matured, acknowledged their inferior station in this bipolar gender dichotomy.
From this distinct female sphere came the basis for gender-based segregation in sport. Most female physical educators embraced the view enunciated by Catherine Beecher in the mid-nineteenth century that women certainly should exercise but avoid competitive sports. These, Beecher warned, exposed females to problematic masculine qualities like pride and aggressiveness. This critical view reinforced the notion of woman’s “moral superiority,” an assertion that squelched debate of gender issues.
Although Beecher aimed her warning at all women, working-class females found her admonition irrelevant. For them, a dearth of time and money, combined with the social disapproval of dominant groups, excluded them from most sporting venues. Golf and tennis in controlled environments (especially private clubs) became respectable female sports because they were non-violent and individually centred. Senda Berenson, director of physical education at Smith College, touted the positive results for women playing a type of basketball adapted from James Naismith’s game to fit women’s physical requirements. Writer Anne O’Hagan lauded the potential of sport to establish “a high general standard of health and vigor, rather than some single brilliant achievement.” Rowing at Wellesley, she noted, was judged on form, not speed. Nonetheless, whether limited by gender-based exclusion or by their own complicity with social norms, most American women did not experience the joys of competitive sport and the chance to test their full range of human attributes. And those who did had to contend with the power of female physical educators who opposed competitive male models. In the early and mid-1930s, Babe Didrikson cruised along, contemptuous of these restrictions. In April 1935 an amazing eagle three, hit from a rut holding an inch of water, propelled her to victory in the Texas Women’s Open, over socialite Peggy Chandler. Chandler had remarked before the event, “we don’t need any truck drivers’ daughters in our tournament,” so the victory was especially sweet. Shortly thereafter, however, she ran afoul of the United States Golf Association’s rules on amateurism. Because of the money she earned in basketball, baseball, and billiards, she had forfeited her amateur status and would have to wait three years to regain it.
Babe moved immediately to hone her tennis game and, under the tutelage of Eleanor Tennant at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club she quickly became a superb player—competing with Hollywood stars like John Garfield and Peter Lorre and teaming with Louise Brough to defeat Pauline Betz and Margaret Du Pont. But tennis also adhered to the adage, “once a professional, always a professional”. So Babe stowed her racket—merely playing a game was not enough; she wanted to win tournaments. To maintain her competitive edge she took up bowling, a popular sport in working- and middle-class America. Here too she excelled, quickly rolling a 268 (300 is a perfect score), and leading her southern California King’s Jewelry team.
Bowling served psychological purpose of keeping Babe focused. But golf remained her passion. She wanted to get back into the game. She won the Women’s Open in San Francisco in 1941, continued to play uncountable practice rounds (scoring a 64 at Brentwood), won an alternate shot tourney with Sam Snead at Inglewood, and entertained galleries with her quips. During one round, while paired with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, her play caused Hope to remark, “There’s only one thing wrong about Babe and myself. I hit the ball like a girl, and she hits it like a man.” Babe also played rounds with, among others, Mickey Rooney, Johnny (“Tarzan”) Weismuller, Sylvia Annenberg, and Babe (‘the big Babe”) Ruth. But the war made it hard for her to find competition and exhibitions. As American women moved into public-sector, defense-related industry, country clubs proved less hospitable. Hence during the war Babe did other things, including a stint working with juvenile delinquents in Denver, after Judge Philip B. Gilliam decided that her status as an athletic icon might help redirect wayward youth back toward virtue. With hundreds of thousands of moms working, the spectre of juvenile delinquency haunted the Republic during the War, becoming even more troubling after 1945.
Babe’s marriage to wrestler George Zaharias in 1938 marked a large step away from her image as a “muscle moll” and independent woman, and rumors about her sexuality. In the public realm, at least, she would play the game of life according to the rules. She met George, also known as “the Crying Greek from Cripple Creek” at a Los Angeles golf tournament. Zaharias—large, outgoing, and above all ambitious—moved immediately to control Babe’s life, her finances, her endorsements, and her schedule of appearances and exhibitions. As her dutiful husband, he promised to do it all. And, as Babe spent money as quickly as she won it (most going to family members back in Texas), this was not altogether a bad thing. From the beginning, despite unmistakable affection on both sides, the marriage was as much business arrangement as love match. Their deferred “honeymoon” to Australia six months later became an extended string of his/her exhibitions of wrestling and golf. Babe quickly became frustrated as George ascribed to her—and she seemed to accept—the role of the “little woman”. This designation underscored George’s perception of Babe and their relationship. In fact, she chafed under the new regime, and her irritation increased as injuries cut short George’s wrestling career and dramatically increased his weight and his desire to manage her affairs. He became needier, friends noted. “He just wanted to be seen with her,” said one. Previous Zaharias enterprises, including a Beverly Hills haberdashery and Denver cigar store, which grossed over $100,000 annually in the late 1930s and early 1940s, gave way by 1947 to weekly jaunts to Denver to promote wrestling matches. George was often “absent” in Colorado; and when he was with Babe, he kept tabs relentlessly.
If Babe’s decision to let George look after her finances and career marked an interesting twist of a key postwar social norm, her decision to reacquire amateur status echoed with a dominant cultural cue. Independent, wage-earning women had created anxiety about the family and domestic harmony during the Great Depression. This concern diminished during the war, as Rosie the Riveter lessened the stigma attached to female work—now deemed a patriotic duty—but re-emerged after 1945. The many women who remained in the work force jettisoned blue for pink riffs.
In cold war America, Babe confronted a society dominated by male experts coming off the high of victory in the greatest conflict the world had known. The national (in)security state after World War II featured a rough consensus—fashioned by intersecting feelings of invulnerability (the atomic bomb) and imminent nuclear annihilation (again, the atomic bomb). This tension and the anxiety it generated reverberated through the culture, especially after the Soviet Union dropped its own nuclear weapon in 1949, China fell to Mao Zedung and his communists, and a seemingly unwinnnable war began a year later in Korea. By 1950 the cold war had become a zero-sum ideological contest. By publicly deferring to her husband, Babe escaped the sort of censure that single career women faced. By re-embracing the amateur code, she accorded tacit acceptance to narrowing cultural definitions of acceptable womanhood. She would not rock the boat.
If Babe in her earlier career demonstrated the potential of women’s sport to encompass several variations on womanhood, gender roles after 1945 reflected a sharp polarization between acceptable feminine behaviors and their masculine counterparts. The image of the mannish athletic female, which so bothered newsmen like Gallico and Westbrook Pegler in the 1930s generally stopped with idiosyncratic wisecracks and short-lived feuds. Now that image became a negative reference point for leaders of the national security state. The reaffirmation of gender (and other) norms became for the second time in a quarter century a key to understanding national culture. In the decade following World War I a similar quest for separation emerged, helping fuel the Red Scare and providing the 1920s its peculiarly schizoid character.
But as had the Great War, the Second World War changed the republic irrevocably. The obligation to restore “normalcy” was at once essential and unattainable. As elites wrestled to identify and remove “communists” from the body politic, female athletes at all levels found it increasingly difficult to combine athletic prowess and socially acceptable versions of femininity. While the nuclear family—Dick, Jane, and Spot in the schools, and the Nelsons, Cleavers, and Donna Read on TV—mirrored the new norms (clean bathrooms, wholesome meals, big cars, and “better things through chemistry”), women's athletics underwent significant narrowing.
Women’s physical educators at all levels, who had called curriculum shots for a half century to accommodate female needs and interests, found themselves increasingly marginalized. Women who touted the values of competitive sport fared even worse. The physical allure of high school girls and their ability to master the rudiments of home economics (getting ready to achieve their Mrs. Degree), outweighed their ability to dribble or shoot a basketball. One of the overlooked cultural developments of the first decade of the cold war was the national defense culture’s triumph over regional cultures that valued women’s play.10 Physical education classes—which in earlier years underscored the utility of girls “sweating off” their corsets, now fretted lest gym shoes enlarge a young woman’s feet or swimming wreck a hair style. Postwar physical education classes became, in one historian’s phrase, “a forum not for the development of skills, but for the display of what was seen as charming awkwardness.”11 Puberty now heralded marriage and motherhood; fashion displaced talent; and female athletes left court and field to wield pom-pons and lead yells in support of their virile male classmates. Only in Iowa, Texas, and Arkansas, did competitive sport for high school females survive the war.
A Texan in spirit wherever she traveled, Babe sensed the realities of the new cultural milieu. She and George recognized the need to strengthen her feminine image in a culture that touted the importance of appearances. Despite (or because of) her brilliance on fairway and green, her golf career required public fidelity to gender norms. Despite (or because of) her physical prowess and sharp tongue, she worked hard to disavow her tomboy image. Her Olympic medals went into a cookie tin, never to be acknowledged again. In 1947 she asked a reporter to call her Mildred, and she answered others as “Mrs. Zaharias”. As she aged, her bosom grew, “getting in the way of a spare” in one bowling frame, and she often fussed with her hair, lipstick, high-heels, and nails.12 At the British Woman’s Amateur Tournament in 1947 she lamented several times a “bad hair day”. Here was a way to invent a heterosexual past. Certainly, as one adversary noted, she had affirmed the “veneer” of femininity.
Babe and George also paid public homage to the ubiquitous theme of “togetherness” that so cloyed the marital landscape of the late 1940s and 1950s. “Babe Didrikson” disappeared, as both referred to her married name. They were, as both reaffirmed ad nauseam, a team. And significant affection between the two was unmistakable. When Pete Martin of the Saturday Evening Post observed that George had put on weight and at 300 lbs. “wasn’t much of a glamour boy,” Babe riposted, “He’s a glamour boy to me, Mr.”13 She also reiterated her dream—the American dream—to buy a nice little house in the suburbs, with all modern conveniences and located, naturally, near a golf course, where she and George might settle down and she could plant flowers, make curtains, and cook wonderful meals.
Babe and George talked often about the dream house, but her burgeoning career—as player and key founder of the LPGA—made settling down impossible. George compounded the problem, as he pushed relentlessly through the decade for more tournaments, exhibitions, and appearances for his wife. Here, at least one cold war gender canon did not apply. Increasingly after 1945 Babe became George’s meal-ticket.
And what a meal ticket she was! She did not merely swing at the ball—she hit it. Beginning in the mid 1930s she had practiced, practiced, and practiced—to the point where her hands bled. She possessed equal parts of stamina, co-ordination, and competitive flair, and she became to postwar sport culture what Davy Crockett and Paul Bunyan had been to antebellum oral tradition. Babe could do anything. Myth had it, repeated in her last days, that she had hit one drive 408 yards. That never happened—she routinely hit drives only 250 yards.
Babe followed a path blazed by Eleanor Randolph Sears at the turn of the century and Glenna Collett in the 1920s. Sears, in fact, in her disdain for fin de siecle decorum, anticipated Babe. Descended from Thomas Jefferson she was a gender-bender who wore men’s clothes and beat boys and men at everything she tried—golf, tennis, squash, riflery, and automobile and boat racing. Collett, meanwhile, was no rebel. She lived an impeccable life and played a conventional game as the wife of Edwin H. Vare of the Pine Valley Country Club. Yet despite these exceptions, proving that women could play golf without bringing anarchy, golf clearly remained a game for wealthy white men—and these lions fiercely defended their turf and social pedigree from interlocked corporate and country club bastions. Cracks about women golfers abounded, rivaling japes at women drivers. The U.S. Golf Association kept women out of national decision-making, relegating them to activity at state and local levels.
Babe changed both the game and its rules. Twice she lost her amateur standing; twice she regained it. The gate-keeping distinction between amateur and professional was nowhere more pointed than in the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) ruling in 1932 that Babe forfeited her amateur status by accepting money for a newspaper ad she did for the new Dodge 6. The year-long suspension prevented her from playing in AAU- sanctioned basketball leagues and track-and-field competition. Three years later, shortly after Babe defeated Peggy Chandler in the Texas State Open, the USGA declared that it too had banned Babe after Mrs. Willard Sullivan of Ashland Virginia, complained when she signed up for the Women’s Southern Championship. This rationale echoed that of the American Olympic Committee only six months after the 1912 Stockholm games, when the organization stripped Jim Thorpe of his Olympic gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon. The AOC had learned that Thorpe, a native American, had been paid for playing minor league baseball three years earlier. The point was clear: golf was a game for the well-heeled. Americans who played golf at the country club level had money. They wanted nothing to do with the hoi polloi.
In the 1930s and 1940s Babe exploded this Victorian canon. She mastered the game as no woman before her. If she appeared to disdain golf’s rule book, she venerated its precepts and, after her marriage, probably slept with it more than she did with George. Most of all she wanted to win—whether at golf, or cards, or whatever. In one writer’s view, she possessed the same cold-blooded approach to golf as heavyweight champion Joe Louis exhibited in the boxing ring—“a cold indifference to what people think or say about her”14 Above all Babe was a consummate performer who never failed to excite a gallery. When she had a bad day she might lament vocally that she “couldn’t hit an elephant’s ass with a bull fiddle”. On one hot day at the 1951 women’s open in Philadelphia, she gathered a group of women around her on the fairway, removed her petticoat, and tossed it to her caddy. She did it all—teeing off a cigaret and catching it in her mouth; driving five golf balls off a tee before the first one landed; or captivating a full house at Fenway Park by driving balls over the “green monster” during a rain delay at a Red Sox Game.
In 1945, one of her best years, she triumphed in, among other contests, the Western and Texas Women’s Opens, initiating, she wrote later in her autobiography, This Life I’ve Led (1956)—the first of seventeen straight major tournament triumphs. She was also named AP Women’s Athlete of the Year, an award she won first in 1932, and would capture six more times. In fact, however, Babe did not win seventeen consecutive competitions—she won thirteen, before little-known Grace Lenczyk knocked her out of the first round of the Spokane National Open on August 26, 1946. Patty Berg won that tournament, but Babe kept her mythic streak alive (which did not endear her to rivals), and then won four more events.
At this point Babe might have taken a rest. But urged by George and pro Tommy Armour, she headed for Scotland and the British Women’s Open. The famed Robert Trent (“Bobby”) Jones had finished his grand slam year (1930) with a victory in Britain, and the great American players—Ben Hogan, Walter Hagan, Gene Sarazen, and Sam Snead (with all of whom Babe had played)—also had won the British title. But no American woman had won the woman’s tournament since its inception in 1893. Babe’s competitive instinct prevailed. Her appearance, she recalled, “put her on more front pages that the other fifteen.” Time reported that although “a few tweedy old ladies were horrified” by Babe’s high spirit, overall she captured the hearts of onlookers as she had in America. Babe donned a Stuart kilt for a couple of days, then traded it for cords and slacks (a “siren suit”) as she became a de facto American diplomat, delighting the sedate British with her mighty drives and intelligent shot selection. The swelling crowds that followed the “spectacular” and “phenomenal” American increased her desire to win and helped her ignore a chipped thumb-bone incurred in a practice round. En route to the finals in tournament match play, Babe despatched Frances Stephen, 3-2, her closest match, and Scots champion Jean Donald, 7-5, after which she joined Donald for a version of the Highland Fling. In the final, eschewing her siren suit in favor of a more feminine chartreuse skirt, Babe came from behind to defeat Briton Jacqueline Gordon. She did not resist letting the British press know, when reporters inquired how she could hit the ball so far, she merely loosened her girdle and “let the ball have it.” But the victory photographs showed a demure American, undeniably female.15
Babe returned to the United States in style, on board the Queen Elizabeth. The proverbial conquering hero gave her husband a very long and public kiss, and then played the press for two hours. In the following weeks she met with Fred Corcoran, in charge of promotions of for the PGA and also an agent for baseball stars Ted Williams and Stan Musial. They discussed a Women’s golf association, with Babe turning pro and playing a key role. Babe and George also visited her old friend, sportswriter Grantland Rice, frail now but still capable of noting for public consumption the happiness of “two wonderful kids who I feel constitute an unusually warm and wonderful American love story.”16 The homecoming concluded with a parade in hometown Denver, highlighted by a float for each sport Babe had played, and a 250 lb. key to the city which George had no trouble hoisting into the mile-high city’s thin air.
On August 14, 1947, Babe turned pro. With Corcoran taking over as her agent and mentor, she took a large step toward legitimizing women’s golf. She also took a large stride toward economic independence in a marriage whose character—Grantland Rice’s paean to marital bliss notwithstanding—had grown increasingly cool. Equally troubling was the dearth of prize money in women’s golf—almost non-existent in 1947 and a pittance for most competitors for years to come. As golfer Betty Hicks noted wryly, several years after the incorporation of the LPGA in New York in 1950, pro golf for nearly all women was impossible. In an article subtitled “Next to Marriage, We’ll Take Golf,” Hicks noted that a woman golfer required a husband with a good job in order to go on the tour. In 1953 during four months’ play, Hicks banked $3750 in winnings, and spent $3335 “on hotels, meals, tips, airplane tickets, automobile tires, caddies, and cab fares.”17
The new organization did not openly challenge postwar gender arrangements. It was not a “women’s” association—it would be the Ladies’ Professional Golf Association. In this decision it followed closely Phillip K. Wrigley’s wartime All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. That organization took the preservation of femininity to great lengths—insisting on bare legs, pastel skirts, and charm school with Helena Rubenstein. “No freaks, No Amazons, No boyish bobs,” in historian Susan Cahn’s words, were allowed on the field.
The new LPGA, with Wilson Sporting Goods and Weathervane Sports playing key financial roles, supplanted a short-lived Women’s PGA, which existed from 1944-47. Patty Berg became president from 1949-52; Babe took her turn from 1953-55; and Louise Suggs followed in 1956. The new group, as its first commissioner noted, “touched off a national storm of indifference,” while a member likened the word “ladies” to “the stuff that comes out of the insides of a lobster.”18 Nevertheless, despite financial uncertainty, the LPGA grew, albeit by nickels and dimes. By 1950, it had grown from six to eleven members—all strong personalities, the better to survive in a fiscal desert—and began to attract support, such as the $15,000 donated to the tour by Helen Lengfeld, publisher of National Golfer. Not surprisingly, Babe quickly established herself as the LPGA linchpin, winning two-thirds of the tournament and $14,800 in prize money. No competitor came close.
But problems remained. George viewed the LPGA as a “racket” not unlike “wrasslin’ and boxin’,” and he wanted control, alternately fighting with Corcoran about association matters, and then withdrawing emotionally from Babe. Babe, meanwhile, determined to hog the limelight, even though several sister competitors (especially Louise Suggs) abhorred her behavior, resented her neediness, and detested George. Nonetheless, as Suggs admitted, the women’s game needed Babe Zaharias. As Corcoran noted, she “made the woman’s tournament go. She was the color, the great attraction.” Here was a simple dynamic—the key to the LPGA’s future. Babe produced paying customers; other players did not. Babe also continued to detail her feminine veneer, but as Betty Hicks noted, she remained in fact “back-alley tough and barroom crude, seemingly with determined effort and obviously with uninhibited repartee.”19
Babe’s desire to win kept alive her earlier dubious image as not quite female. She did not know how to lose, gracefully or otherwise. On one occasion, in 1950, she headed a team of six American women who with Corcoran’s lead challenged any team of six British male amateurs to a match. Babe asked for former British Walker Cup star and current golf writer, Leonard Crawley. “Save him for me, son,” she told Corcoran. The American team demolished the British, 6-0, with Babe and the other women hitting from the same tees as their male adversaries. Babe outdrove Crawley every time. The Americans, including Babe, Betty Jameson, Peggy Kirk Bell, Patty Berg, Betsy Rawls and Betty Bush, thus incorporated golf within postwar cultural diplomacy. In so doing they took another step forward for female athletes, women’s golf, and the LPGA.
If prize money remained scarce for nearly all women golfers, Babe did not notice. Indeed, she anticipated such male megastars of the 1980s and 1990s as Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan by parlaying her talents and instincts as a promoter into big money. Babe excelled again in 1951, winning seven of twelve tourneys and amassing $15,087 in prize money. But “Mrs. Golf” (Newsweek) did far better outside the schedule, with exhibitions and public appearances earning her the title of "Big Business Babe” (Time). Biographer Susan Cayleff tallied 656 exhibitions and appearances in one three-year stretch, roughly one every other day. Babe made $500 per appearance on weekdays, and $600 on Sunday. Her earnings amounted to approximately $250,000 per year.
But Babe’s incessant forays into the public realm exacted a toll on body and spirit. She still longed for her own home, missed emotional intimacy in her marriage, and sought a sense of balance in her life. She could not have children (the marker of female patriotism in the 1950s), but otherwise she seemed to have it all. Yet her spectacular career—which produced sparks between George and Fred Corcoran—made her life increasingly hard and lonely. She worked for a time as a pro at Grossinger’s fashionable resort in New York’s Catskill Mountains; she also served in the same capacity at Sky Crest CC outside Chicago. George, meanwhile, was increasingly absent, attending to his “investments”—the wrestling scene in Denver, or merely gone off to “places unknown”. Even when present, he grated—dunking a hard roll in a glass of milk to “soften it” while dining at an Orlando country club, dribbling gravy on his shirt, resting his elbows on the table, and all the while, putting on more weight. When he drank alcohol, he also could be loud and abusive.
The public image of their marriage remained one of wedded bliss, a few small fissures in the picture window notwithstanding. In a telling comment about the relationship, Betty Hicks noted that George possessed a big and tender heart who in fact fulfilled the role of “wife” for Babe until things deteriorated. George was her main helpmate—and few female golfers had such assistance in the early 1950s. Male pros, Betty Hicks noted in 1954, had their wives to wash, iron, and do other “slave labor”. Unless married, women professionals had no one—and Hicks added as an aside, underlining the dominance of heterosexuality as a cultural value—that most of the single women players kept “one eye on the ball and the other peeled for a likely prospect to lure them from the circuit to the altar.”20
Bone-tired by the end of the 1951 tour and bothered by recurring hemhorroids, Babe wanted to go home, she told a friend, to her “pots and pans”. But no place yet existed to call home. Increasingly upset at seeing George control the money she earned (a reversal of a sacrosanct 1950s dictum), she thought long and hard about her future, about separation and divorce. Another reason for these thoughts—both cause and effect—was a young, freckle-faced redhead whom Babe met at a 1950 amateur tournament in Miami. Betty Dodd was a fresh presence on the tour, the daughter of a general, and Babe quickly became her friend and outwardly, her mentor. For Dodd, Babe was an idol to adore; for Babe, Dodd provided the emotional and physical warmth lacking in her marriage. In the 1950s, however, with lesbians appearing in national security state literature as near cousins of communists, the relationship remained clandestine—something that everyone on the tour knew about—but which did not reach the public eye. A lavender scare of signal intensity—narrowing sexual possibility and gender diversity after the freedom of the war years—accompanied and even outstripped in longevity and intensity the better known Red Scare and its star performer, Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin. Early cold war homophobia had numerous manifestations—including purges of gays and lesbians from the military and the federal civil service, loyalty oath investigations and firings a state universities, and harassment of men and women who did not toe dominant gender lines. In one conservative rendering of woman’s proper place, Modern Woman: The Lost Sex (1947), psychologists Marynia Farnham and Ferdinand Lundberg called for a renewed commitment to motherhood, total dependence upon men, and “natural” sexual passivity to counter changes in women’s status wrought by industrialization. Women who sought to compete in the world of men labored under a phallic penumbra and risked through their neurosis becoming “aimlessly idle,” “parasitic” and “frigid” housewives, or, worse, “oversolicitous, overstrict, or rejecting” mothers who would produce a generation of neurotic children confused about their sex roles and longing for leadership. Something like this had happened in Nazi Germany, with calamitous consequences.
The relationship between Betty and Babe deepened after Babe and George moved to Tampa to occupy not Babe’s “dream house,” but a converted club house on the Tampa CC course. There Babe worked on Betty’s game and Betty massaged Babe’s psyche. Betty provided Babe the companionship and warmth for which she yearned. She moved in and the two built a happy life. They traveled on tour together, cooked together, and, Dodd noted, “always had a lot more fun when George was gone.”21
Current historiography shows great interest in what Babe and her contemporaries kept private. The 1950s were probably the last decade in which what one did privately did not immediately count on the public scoreboard of reputation. Whether Babe and Betty Dodd consummated their relationship remains moot. Susan Cayleff and other biographers find no evidence to prove the point. But Cayleff, in her meticulous reconstruction, suggests that they did. Echoing historian Susan Cahn’s point, she notes that one may edit silences to garner vital information about women’s lives. Blanche Wiesen Cook makes a similar point in her assessment of Eleanor Roosevelt’s long-standing relationship with her secretary, Lorena Hitchcock. Indeed, scholars have known for decades that many women, satisfactorily married, formed strong homosocial, extramarital unions—both platonic and carnal—to secure those most human of human needs—emotional and physical fulfillment.
Betty Dodd became the latest in a line of friends who nurtured Babe, a line that included Melvyn J. McCombs, who guided her career at Employers’ Casualty, her husband George, and Fred Corcoran. Dodd replaced George, who maintained his large presence around the house but ended his intimate relationship with Babe. In 1953 one journalist penetrated the crack in the couple’s picture window, when he noted that the original marriage bed, an eight-foot square arrangement that resembled a wrestling ring, had given way to two beds—a double for George and a single for Babe—located in separate rooms. Friends of the Zaharias’s noted that George did not seem upset by Dodd’s presence.
Indeed, Betty gave Babe the shot at the domesticity she desired. The subtext of the Zaharias marriage, which Americans did not see, was two happy women golfers living together in unwedded bliss. Betty later related that Babe never taught her anything about golf. And Babe always got her way when she wanted something. Betty was more a buddy and partner than a protégé. In this way Babe carved out a creative private life at odds with the normative view of the 1950s as an era of unmitigated female angst. Her unobserved, rewarding life with Betty Dodd provides further evidence that this conventional wisdom is at best partial truth. As historian Joanne Meyerowitz notes, beneath the apparently placid surface and hypocrisies of postwar domesticity lay much latent female affirmation and dissent. Popular magazines carried numerous articles praising women such as Babe—not as happy housewives but as successful public figures. Many women did lead secret lives to get what they needed. Betty Friedan, soon to author the most significant canon in the second wave of twentieth-century feminism, The Feminine Mystique (1963) hid her labor union, leftist record of the 1930s and 1940s to feign the manner of a bored suburban housewife afflicted by “the problem with no name”. Novelist Grace Metalious found several proto-feminist pots boiling in Peyton Place, her fictional representation working-, middle-, and upper class psychosocial and sexual activity in small-town New Hampshire.
Yet the popular media’s focus on public accomplishment notwithstanding, defenders of the security state reminded all women, even hugely successful ones, of the need to preserve traditional gender distinctions. Hence Babe embraced the accoutrements of hearth and home—the desire to have a home, with a rose garden, and where she might cook meals, make her own clothes and curtains. And she played the public role of a good wife—making certain that her lipstick and hair were just right, and that the clothes she wore fit the occasion.
Still at the top of her game in 1952, Babe noticed that she lacked the stamina that had carried her so far, for so long. She experienced serious swelling and pain on her left side, so much so that she finally saw a doctor. She had developed a strangulated femoral hernia at the top of her left thigh—a condition that if left untreated might have cost her her leg or her life. She returned to win the Texas Women’s Open in Fort Worth, but finished the year taking only four of the twenty tournaments she entered, and ranking fifth on the money list with $7503.25. Six months later she tried again, and in March at the Beaumont Open named for her, she defeated Louise Suggs with a birdie on the eighteenth hole. And she was exhausted.
Here was the curtain for the final act in an uncommon life—a serious and inexorable slide into declining health, the sort of thing that in a flash renders mortal anyone, even a superstar like Babe. She had found blood in her stool for several months, had discussed the problem with Betty (not George), but—as with so many Americans in similar circumstances—had put off visiting her physician. The fear was too great. Far more than communism or lesbianism, cancer was a topic people avoided. The word struck terror everywhere—to contract the disease so often equalled a death sentence. Euphemisms abounded—a “long illness,” a “lingering illness,” a “neoplasm,” usually accompanied by the obit phrase, “after a courageous battle,” all cloaking the grim reality of the last weeks.
The day after her triumph Babe saw Dr. W.E. Tatum at the Hotel Dieu Hospital in Beaumont. The test proved positive, an operation and colostomy took place on April 17, 1953, and Drs. Robert Moore and Tatum got most, but not all the cancer. Dr. Moore told both George and Betty the grim prognosis. George responded emotionally, as he often did. Betty determined to do her best for her dear friend. No one told Babe—again, a common practice as late as the 1950s—and she had a rough postoperative fortnight. But she determined to get better—it would take some time, of course—and she would carve out yet another heroic accomplishment, this time for all Americans as a gallant warrior against a dread disease. She would return to play golf, she promised, and she would assist the American Cancer Society in its attempt to educate Americans about a topic that few would bridge.
The road back was interesting. More than any other force in her life, including her own attempts to become womanly, cancer feminized Babe. The disease imbued her with the image of a victim, romanticized her achievements, and added connotations of classic tragedy to her heroic aura. As literary critic Susan Sontag suggests, illness amounts to far more in cultural terms than mere sickness. The disease made her a homebody—she had no choice. Cancer also allowed her to continue the ongoing configuration of her life, the purging of what Cayleff terms “the last vestiges of her freakish image.”22 Babe’s views on competition also softened. Young women, she noted, might go easy on basketball and track-and field, even tennis. They were too severe and might hinder proper development. Tomboys should accept, not contest the arrival of puberty. To do otherwise would thwart nature. Betty, meanwhile, moved to Babe’s Tampa home to help with her colostomy (George would not), a move the Reader’s Digest interpreted as proof that the couple had “virtually adopted” Dodd. Other observers were less kind, and rumors of a lesbian relationship swirled anew—although these prurient whispers missed the important emotional bond that had ripened between the two women. Given Babe’s stature, and the dominant culture’s sanction of female caregiving, however, these murmurs soon quieted.
With Betty providing Babe basic emotional support, the two women visited New York, and appeared together on Ed Sullivan—Babe on her harmonica, Betty on the guitar. Highly placed with the American Cancer Society, Sullivan gave them a warm welcome, and the “great stoneface” even smiled. Babe also appeared on the popular TV shows, “What’s My Line?” and “Masquerade,” and earned $6000 for her appearances—enough to open her own bank account, a sure sign of her growing independence from George. A year earlier, she became known to filmgoers when she assayed a cameo role in “Pat and Mike,” in which Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy played the roles of Babe and George. Babe played a golfer, herself, with numerous pros as extras, and she caused a stir (and a change in script), when she refused to let Hepburn beat her. When Hepburn tried to unnerve her, Babe also kept her cool—as on the day Humphrey Bogart rolled onto the set in his Cadillac, and Hepburn announced in stentorian voice, “Look, it’s Bogie, Bogie, Bogie!” “Never use that word on the course, sister,” Babe retorted, as she blasted a drive 275 yards.23 Ironically, “Pat and Mike” bent accepted gender boundaries, masculinizing Hepburn and feminizing Tracy, but for the moment neither woman cared much for the other.
Despite illness and increased marital tensions, Babe worked to keep alive the picture of a happy union with George. She never mentioned her Olympic triumphs. Seldom, if ever, did she use her maiden name. She was “Mrs. George Zaharias.” And if George resented Betty’s presence and raged at both women privately, especially when intoxicated, he too needed Betty. She became an emotive go-between, a de facto member of the marriage. Of course, with her “un-American” relationship with Betty, Babe needed George.
Still very much in control, Babe returned to competition fourteen weeks after her surgery. For those who thought her career over she had a surprise. The woman whom the Associated Press had named the greatest female athlete of the first half of the twentieth century finished third in the Tam-O-Shanter Tournament in Niles, Illinois, and began her march toward becoming AP Comeback Athlete of the Year. Betty seldom left her side during the recuperation period, and the two celebrated her first tourney victory in February 1954, at the Serbin Women’s Open. Babe also appeared at the White House, sporting Mamie Eisenhower lookalike “new look” bangs, to accept from President Dwight Eisenhower the American Cancer Society’s Sword of Hope. Ike was a dedicated golfer, and he and the First Lady forged a fast friendship with Mrs. Z. Babe went on to capture five tournaments in 1954, finishing second in winnings with $14,452, and greeting anew several sponsors who dropped her after her operation. Apparently Babe had done it again—quashing her illness. She won the Vare Trophy in 1954 for the lowest average score. She also earned the William D. Richardson Trophy for her continuing contribution to golf (which that year included squelching a rebellion in the LPGA after sponsors attempted to dump Fred Corcoran). She amassed 301 points to win the Richardson award, outdistancing President Eisenhower, runner-up, with 288 points. She also became the first recipient of the Serbin Trophy, a creation featuring diamond-studded god, rewarding high tournament finishes.
Babe seemed indestructible. For the historian who revisits the documentary record Babe was indefatigable, her life again a whirlwind of tournaments, LPGA administrative responsibilities, and appearances and hospital visits on behalf of the American Cancer Society and the Damon Runyan Cancer Fund. Perhaps she knew her time was short, however, as increasingly she recognized that she was running on empty. By autumn she felt drained and ill—her flagging spirits buoyed somewhat by George’s approval for construction of the dream home she long desired. The couple built and moved into “Rainbow manor” (across the street from the remodeled caddy shack) the following spring, and Babe again made the nation’s front pages, dressed to kill, laying bricks, planting roses, making curtains. Dodd moved in too, to no fanfare whatsoever. Reports underlined the heterosexual couple’s happiness and the size of the new home—yes, George was a big man.
The end began innocuously enough. The following spring Babe’s car became stuck in sand near Port Aransas, Texas, while she, a sister, and Betty were on a fishing vacation. She hurt her back while removing the vehicle and awoke in the wee hours the next morning in great discomfort. Everyone thought “cancer,” as her pain continued, requiring the beginning of a regimen of painkillers. Even after this Babe played on, winning the 1955 Tampa Open, the Serbin Women’s Open, and the Peach Blossom Betsy Rawls Open, and serving again as LPGA president. As she played, however, she became dependent upon drugs to mitigate the agony that periodically engulfed her. In June 1955, she underwent “surgery,” apparently to repair a herniated disk in her back. At least that’s what the papers said. In fact, doctors did not remove a disk, for they found no disk problem. In early August, though, they did announced the recurrence of cancer in Babe’s pelvic area. She began x-ray treatments, hoping to return to the game she loved in three-to-six months.
Babe Didrikson Zaharias did not return to the golf wars. Rather, from her home and her bed at John Sealy Hospital in Galveston, she etched her final year into the nation’s consciousness. As she had in her early athletic career, and in her relationship with Betty, she ignored a cultural boundary by refusing to retreat from the public eye. As late as the 1950s cancer patients seldom shared information about their disease. Babe used her bed as a pulpit from which to project unflagging optimism in the face of calamity. With good humor and focus she launched the Babe Didrikson Zaharias Cancer Fund from her hospital room on September 12, 1955. The fund would support treatment centers and tumor clinics. In the year remaining she also found time to write her autobiography, This Life I’ve Led, with Harry Paxton, parts of which were serialized almost immediately. The memoir allowed her yet another chance to close the circle on her past, excising its rough edges. Her autobiography, with numerous photos, presents a womanly, thoroughly heterosexualized Babe. The book contains many omissions. It fails to mention, as one glaring example, the depth of her relationship with Betty Dodd. There is no mention of a relationship at all. The memoir revises history in several other instances, especially the assertion that her marriage remained rock-solid to the very end.
There would be another operation—a chorodectomy—after the cancer hit her spine, and several more hospitalizations. Betty remained devoted during Babe’s final year, at significant cost to her own career—points seldom noted in the press. Babe’s public battle against cancer gave hope to many afflicted citizens and it also strengthened further her mythic persona, as did the greetings, awards, letters, and, finally, the obits that followed her death on September 27, 1956.
Babe’s significance for American cold war culture remains protean. From her Olympic stardom in 1932 to her premature death a quarter-century later, she anticipated much in the intersecting sport and entertainment cultures, and the important tensions between public and private lives. On one level, her public career demonstrates anew the importance of appreciating the past as prologue—and recognizing that so much of American life in the 1950s had roots in the years of depression and war. Babe was an original, sui generis in the same sense as Huey Long, Amelia Earhart, and Babe Ruth before her. She lived in provocative and problematic symbiosis with the media, using newspaper and magazine writers at every turn, just as they used her. In her later years she worked diligently to create a mythic image of herself as feminine, even matronly. After her death biographers and film makers embraced this benign view—one that transformed her into an athletic June Cleaver without kids. The 1975 TV production, “Babe,” starring Susan Clark and Alex Karras (the two would marry after finishing the film), transformed their complex and difficult real-life relationship into a Disneyesque love story that featured neither a Betty Dodd character nor mention of Betty Dodd. As with so much in American culture, soap opera triumphed again.
Babe was a prototypical superstar of the sort who became commonplace after 1965. She made huge money, for her day. She also took a large step for women in sport, helping close the gender gap between women and men. In life she was in important ways an anti-hero, marching against dominant cultural cues, having much in common with later pro football player Joe Willie Namath and tennis stars Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova. Like Navratilova, Babe lived a life that did not conform to accepted gender and sexual roles. Both women paid a significant price—Navratilova especially in the realm of the endorsements she might have secured had she lived a heterosexual life. Had Babe “come out” when she became involved with Betty Dodd, or had she left George, her life would have become far more troublesome.
Babe was, withal, a creature of her era. Her 1938 marriage to George accelerated her move away from the freakish image that trailed her after Los Angeles. The first decade after V-J Day witnessed a tightening of cultural standards after two decades of dislocation caused by economic dislocation and war. Hence Babe went underground in her budding relationship with Betty Dodd. But Babe was no crusader for anyone else’s civil rights and liberties. Her attitude toward African Americans and Jews reflected her untutored, Southern, working-class roots. Several incidents in her life reflected latent anti-Semitism and negrophobia. We should not, in the end, accord her proto-feminist status. Even as her drives, approaches, and putts anticipated a new day for women in sport, she had nothing to say about women’s rights generally. Her myriad athletic accomplishments, her role as a founder of the LPGA, the battles she fought and the victories she tallied—all of these were hers alone. Perhaps at bottom Babe Didrikson Zaharias reminds us anew of the pivotal roles of the individual and the idiosyncratic in American culture.
The best book, by more than a two iron, is Susan E. Cayleff, Babe: The Life and Times of Babe Didrikson Zaharias (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1995). Cayleff’s venture into cultural studies provides a sensitive rendering of a complex life, and my essay follows its contours and conclusions. Also rewarding are four books that place women’s sports in general in perspective. Susan K. Cahn, Coming On Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Women’s Sport (New York: Free Press, 1994), which is indispensable (despite being off a year on Babe’s death); Mary Jo Festle, Playing Nice: Politics and Apologies in Women’s Sports (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996); Lissa Smith, ed., Nike is a Goddess: The History of Women in Sports (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998), which contains essays on most sports and achieves at a high level; and Allen Guttmann, Women’s Sports: A History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991). Guttmann is to recent sport historiography what Babe was to earlier sport—indefatigable and effective.
Other studies also proved helpful. On Babe herself, the memoir, This Life I’ve Led: An Autobiography, with Harry Paxton (New York: A.S. Barnes, 1956), must be used with caution, as it attests to its author’s desire to rewrite her past to protect her present. Several other biographies, though containing useful information, end up in the “jock sniffer” category (though Babe did not wear one). The best of these is long-time Sports Illustrated writer William Oscar Johnson and daughter, Nancy Williamson, ”Whatta-Gal: The Babe Didrikson Story (Boston: Little, Brown, 1975).
Studies of gender and sexuality in the cold war are also important to this essay. The author recommends John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997). For the earlier period, one of the best essays I’ve read is Donald Mrozek, “The ‘Amazon’ and the American ‘Lady’: Sexual Fears of Women as Athletes,” in From ‘Fair Sex’ to Feminism: Sport and the Socialization of Women in the Industrial and Post-Industrial Eras, eds. J.A. Mangan and Roberta J. Park (Totowa: Frank Cass, 1978), pp. 282-298.
On illness, the author recommends exercise to stay healthier. Helpful readings which might drive one to the gym include Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1978), and James T. Patterson, The Dread Disease: Cancer and Modern American Culture (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1987).
Finally, the author thanks the estimable Jessica Elizabeth Hamilton for her help in newspaper and magazine resources.