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A fresh look at the legend of Babe Didrikson Zaharias

Her legend transcends generations. In any collection of "greatest athletes" Babe Didrikson Zaharias is often the only female in the top 10. She dominated every sport she ever played, becoming a pioneer for women in athletics.

But the story of Didrikson is one that is cluttered with misinformation and tall tales and often lacking in details of her battle with cancer.

In his new biography, Don Van Natta Jr. takes a new look at the legend of Babe Didrikson, a woman who changed not only much in sports but much in the way cancer is viewed in American society.

The story begins with an anecdote about Didrikson's vaudeville debut at the Palace Theater in Chicago in 1933. Fresh off her triumph at the 1932 Summer Olympics, Didrikson was doing the only thing female athletes of that age could do to cash in on their success -- take to the stage.

Her storytelling and theatrics earned her a reputation as boastful and a braggart among her fellow athletes. But her penchant for exaggeration was learned at the feet of her father, Ole, who told stories to Babe and her siblings while they grew up in Beaumont, Texas.

As Natta wrote: "Poppa's fables taught Babe a lesson: no matter how improbable a story may sound, if you tell it right, people will savor every word. Tell it enough, and no one will ever doubt even the tallest tale."

While many biographies of Didrikson focus on how she broke gender barriers and then delve into her sexuality, Natta frames his telling of the story around class. The Didriksons grew up poor and many of Babe's decisions revolved around earning enough money to not only keep playing sports but to help support her family. Natta details Didrikson's employment arrangements with the Employers Casualty Co. in Texas and her basketball, baseball and track and field pursuits while working for the insurance company.

Didrikson qualified for three events at the 1932 Olympics, winning two gold medals. Sportswriters fell in love with her performances and were charmed by her harmonica playing and brash statements, but it didn't take long for some to become disenchanted with her and begin to question her femininity publicly.

From there, Didrikson moved to golf, a game which piqued her interest because of its difficulty and its individual nature. While other biographies have framed Didrikson's transformation to a "softer" image as a way to fit more feminine ideals of the age, Natta poses it as an attempt to fit in with a different economic strata. The women who played golf were mostly wealthy wives at country clubs. They snubbed Didrikson, affecting her ability to enter amateur tournaments. Didrikson wanted to play, and mostly wanted to win, and with the help of a friend changed her look and worked to have her amateur status reinstated.

As her golf fame started to increase, Didrikson fell in love with wrestler and promoter George Zaharias. Natta portrays a marriage that started out as mutually beneficial, but hints later at an abusive relationship, both physically and mentally.

With Didrikson at the top of her game, she was given the worst possible news for someone in the 1950s -- a cancer diagnosis. In an era where cancer was not discussed publicly and was considered a death sentence, Didrikson openly talked about her disease. She came back from her surgery and treatment to win the 1954 U.S. Women's Open. She won fans not for her golf, but for her bravery of living with cancer.

After her victory, she gave credit to her doctors and announced her win was for the thousands of people dealing with cancer who had written to her, a most curious move for someone who spent her entire life believing in the power of herself.

As Natta writes: "All her life, Babe had never liked giving credit to anyone for anything she did. That's what made the high hurdles and the javelin and the golf course irresistible to her. You depended on yourself to win. If you set a record, your name went into the record books. Just one name. Yours. Alone. Now Babe shared the glory of the biggest title in women's golf with thousand of strangers. At forty-three years old, Babe had finally grown up."

While the book does not delve deeply into the implications for women athletes, it does give a different portrait of Didrikson, one which looks at the economics of her situation and spends more time describing her battle with cancer and its affect on her public image. It's a well-written and well-researched piece and one that puts some fresh eyes on a tall tale.

Amy Moritz is a sportswriter for The Buffalo News.

***

Wonder Girl: The Magnificent Sporting Life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias

By Don Van Natta Jr.

Little Brown

416 pages, $27.99

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