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Babe Didrikson Zaharias: The Colorado woman who was 'the greatest athlete, male or female, who ever lived'

She was an Olympic champion, won 82 golf tournaments, and pitched four innings for three major league teams. Meet one of the most versatile athletes in history.
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Posted at 10:18 AM, Mar 28, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-29 08:24:57-04

Triple threat doesn’t even begin to describe Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias, a pioneer for women’s sports in Colorado and nationwide.

“[She] was, in my opinion, the greatest athlete – male or female – who ever lived," Betty Heid, the executive producer of the Great Colorado Women film series, told Denver7. "She was proficient in 17 different sports. She won Olympic medals. She won U.S. medals. She won all kinds of awards for her Olympic prowess. Again, in 17 diverse sports. So I think she's the greatest athlete that ever lived."

Zaharias was born in Texas but spent much of her life in Colorado, according to the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame. She began to rise to fame when she won two gold medals at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, California,according to the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame.

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She made her way to the top of the podium in80-meter hurdles and the javelin that eventually led her to the first of six Female Athlete of the Year awards, the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame reports.

After succeeding in track and field, Zaharias took up golf. She won 82 tournaments, 17 straight during the 1946-47 seasons playing for Park Hill Country Club, the Colorado Women's Hall of Fame said.

“She had to work hard at it. It's not an easy sport. And she would practice from sunup to sundown. She had that determination,” Babe’s niece Penny Zavhiches said.

One of her most lasting impacts for women athletes was her joining forces with12 other women to form the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) in 1950.

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Zaharias became the first American to win the British Women's Amateur tournament in 1947, according to the Colorado Women's Hall of Fame. When she and her husband returned to Denver from the competition in Scotland, she was given a "250-pound, 15-foot-tall key to the city. Some dubbed her 'Denver's Queen of the Fairways,'" the Colorado Golf Association said.

She won her third U.S. Open Championship in 1954 after undergoing major cancer surgery. But she died from the disease two years later, the Colorado Women's Hall of Fame said.

She was named Female Athlete of the Half Century in 1950,according to the Colorado Women's Hall of Fame. Fifty years later, she was voted the Associated Press top female athlete of the entire 20th century, according to the Colorado Golf Association.

Zaharias was inducted posthumously into theColorado Sports Hall of Fame in 1974 and the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1976. She was also honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in January of 2021 by President Donald Trump,according to the Colorado Golf Association.

She was also a member of the inaugural class of the Colorado Golf Hall of Fame, inducted in 1973.

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While she rose to professional status in track and field and golf, "she also was an All-American basketball player, earning her nickname after hitting five home runs in a single baseball game in the style of home run king Babe Ruth,” the LPGA said.

According to baseball statistics database Baseball-Reference, Zaharias pitched four innings for three major league teams across three spring training games in March of 1934.

“One of the things that Babe Didrikson could do is have transferable skills,” Ceal Barry, the former deputy athletic director at the University of Colorado, told the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame. “She could throw a baseball, she could hit a baseball a mile, [and was] able to transfer that skill into hitting a golf ball.”

Zaharias is also said to have been skilled in tennis, bowling, billiards, swimming, diving and roller skating, according to several historical accounts. She even tried Vaudeville, a style of theater performance that became popular in the early 1900s, according to Baseball-Reference.

“Short of the Kentucky Derby, she won everything on the athletic horizon,” golf writer and historian Charles Price said, according to the Colorado Golf Hall of Fame.

Remembering Mildred 'Babe' Didrikson Zaharias