With Babe Didrikson’s — voted a top 10 athlete of the 20th century in North America by ESPN and the Associated Press — 100th anniversary of her birthday (she died in 1956) coming up on June 26th, we decided to review Don Van Natta Jr.’s Wonder Girl: The Magnificent Sporting Life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias, and he delivered with a satisfying and revealing read.
There’s a quote early in the book, and it sums up Babe’s life wonderfully. “Before I was even into my teens, I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up,” Babe wrote near the end of her cancer-shortened life. “My goal was to be the greatest athlete that ever lived.”
The story begins with Babe – a two sport Hall of Famer – just coming off a successful Olympic run, and she’s doing some vaudeville act where she’s being paid $1,000 a week (some women were making just six cents an hour). The crowd eats it up, but it becomes apparent she’s like a caged lion, and the stage can’t hold her.
Von Natta then jumps back in time, delving into Babe’s childhood, where she was already feared, even by the boys on the block. At 7, she practiced for hours, eventually becoming the best marble player around. Her consistent success is recurring theme in the book. Babe was great at practically everything she attempted — basketball, baseball, track and field, swimming, bowling, tennis and golf.
She qualified in track and field for the 1932 Olympics on a lark of sorts. Her track and field coach had sent her to the qualifying meet as a big publicity stunt. She was the only person on her team. Of course, she did what she usually did — she won. Not just one event. She won five. She competed in eight of the 10 events and won the national championship for her team, which of course was just her.
She also help found the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) and won more consecutive tournaments than any male or female in U.S. golf history. Take that Jack and Tiger. Of course, there came love and marriage and a legacy that will be tough for anyone, man or woman, to compete with.
I also enjoyed the eight pages of black and white photographs that really complement Von Natta’s storytelling and help further transport the reader to a different era. After all of Babe’s accomplishments and victories, she couldn’t defeat cancer, though she did survive it off long enough to win a major championship.
Happy 100th Birthday Babe! Don, through great reporting and honest storytelling, made sure your story will continue to awe for generations to come.