In celebration of the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the Women’s National Basketball Association profiled Beaumont native Babe Didrickson Zaharias in a story posted on its Web site, WNBA.com.
Signed into law by President Richard Nixon on June 23, 1972, Title IX refers to the portion of the Educational Amendments of 1972 prohibiting gender discrimination in all educational programs, both academic and athletic. Title IX ensures that males and females have equal opportunities to receive financial aid, academic tutoring, athletic training and other benefits.
Babe Didrickson Zaharias was changing the face of women’s athletics long before Title IX was drafted. Born Mildred Ella Didrickson in Port Arthur in 1911, “Babe” excelled in every sport she played, according to Beaumont city councilman and Babe Didrickson Zaharias Foundation president W.L. Pate.
“She literally could do anything athletically,” Pate said. “Babe came along and was an All-American in high school basketball three years in a row, and then she went to the Olympics in track and won two gold medals and tied for the third. The only reason that she only won three is that’s all they would let her enter as a woman. When she walked out of the Olympics in 1932, they referred to her as Wonder Girl. Then, of course, she took up golf.”
It didn’t take Zaharias long to rewrite the record books in her most famous sport. She claimed more than 40 LPGA tournaments wins, several of which came after she was diagnosed with colon cancer.
“She’d won the Babe Zaharias Open, which was played right here in 1953 at the Beaumont Country Club,” Pate said. “Then she had surgery for colon cancer and came back literally the next year and won the U.S. Open, probably the greatest athletic event for women at that point in time. Babe won it by 12 shots, playing with a colonoscopy bag. I mean, literally, she lapped the field — and it wasn’t like somebody missed the putt on 18 just so she could win. Nobody was even in the game.”
Zaharias’ accolades shine even brighter when one considers that she earned them at a time when women were still struggling for equality in everyday life, never mind in sports, Pate said.
“It’s hard to believe that she was born at a time when women could not even vote — and then literally years later, everybody knew who she was,” he said. “She did it at a time when there was nobody encouraging women to be out there competing. She didn’t have any women that she could look up and say, ‘I want to be like her.’ But there’s a whole lot of women since Babe Zaharias was born that could look up and say, ‘I want to be like Babe.’”
Zaharias lost her battle with colon cancer in 1956, still the top-ranked female golfer at age 45. Nearly 70 years later, her name is not forgotten. Zaharias still holds the record for most tournament wins in a row by a female, with 14, and in 2004, she was inducted into the Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame alongside track star Jesse Owens and baseball phenomenon Jackie Robinson. Streets have been named for her in her parents’ native Norway, and the Babe Didrickson Zaharias Museum on Interstate 10 in Beaumont stands as a monument to all she accomplished for women, for golf — and for Beaumont.“Everything about Babe said ‘champion,’ and she reflects greatly on our community, our city, our state and our nation,” Pate said. “No matter how you sliced it, you had to say, ‘Wow, she really was that good.’ There’s never been anybody like her since, and there never will be.”