From the 1930s through her death in 1956, Babe Didrikson was a female sports pioneer. She excelled in track, basketball and golf, but at times was subjected to criticism which attacked her sportsmanship and her gender. In his new book, Wonder Girl, Don Van Natta Jr. explores the many complexities of a woman who, when it came to sports, really could do it all. Bill Littlefield speaks with Van Natta about his new book.
Bill’s Thoughts on Wonder Girl:
Babe Didrikson was an extraordinary athlete. She seemed able to excel at any sport she chose to practice. She was a superb basketball player. In 1932, she won the National AAU Track and Field Championships as a team of one. She won three medals – two golds and a silver – at the 1932 Olympics. She was the dominant force and face of the Ladies Professional Golf Association. Her biographer, Don Van Natta, contends that without Didrikson, there wouldn’t have been an LPGA.
Because Didrikson came along at a time when any woman who was competitive at sports was regarded as odd, she struck lots of people – sports writers included – as a freak. After the ’32 Olympics, some of them wondered in print whether “she” was perhaps a “he,” or even an “it.” The less vicious columnists speculated the Didrikson was excelling at track and golf to compensate for flopping in the only contest that really mattered for women: the competition to catch a man. That theory took a direct hit when she and George Zaharias were married.
Don Van Natta, Jr. finds in Didrikson’s life all sorts of stories worth telling. She was a bully at times, and a miserable teammate. She didn’t like sharing the spotlight, which is one of the reasons she was attracted to golf. But when she contracted cancer, she devoted considerable energy to publicizing the disease and helping to raise money to fight it. Like Lance Armstrong, she came back to win after treatment and helped to inspire hope in others who were ill, though she died young. Didrikson was a national figure when nearly all of the other athletes who achieved that level of prominence were men. Wonder Girl does an excellent job of celebrating her achievements while recognizing her shortcomings. It is a superb biography of a woman who was ahead of her time in lots of ways.