Anyone who has been to Beaumont or driven through on I-10 may have noticed a round building with a figure on its front. This building serves two purposes, one as the Beaumont Visitor’s Center, and two, as a museum dedicated to Mildred Ella “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias. Widely regarded as one of the greatest athletes of all time, she was born in Port Arthur on June 26, 1911, and moved to Beaumont with her family at age 4. In her lifetime, she excelled in golf, basketball, baseball, and track and field.
Birthed to newly immigrated Norwegians, Zaharias would later claim she was nicknamed after Babe Ruth. After leaving high school to excel at basketball, she focused on track and field. During the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, Zaharias set four world records, winning two gold medals and one silver medal. Then came baseball: on March 22, 1934, Zaharias pitched and played in the first inning of a major league baseball exhibition game between the Cardinals and the Red Sox. Three days later, she played for the Pelicans against the Indians, pitching two scoreless innings and lining out in her only plate appearance. She is still recognized as the world record holder for the farthest baseball throw by a woman.
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Didrikson began playing golf by 1935, a relative latecomer to the sport with which is she most famously connected. In January 1938, she competed in the Los Angeles Open, a PGA tournament. No other woman would compete against men in this tournament until nearly six decades later. She missed the cut, but there was a silver lining; in this tournament, she was paired with George Zaharias, who became her husband 11 months later.
She won the 1946 U.S. Women’s Amateur and the 1947 British Ladies Amateur, the first American to do so, and three Women’s Western Opens. Having formally turned pro in 1947, Didrikson ruled the Women’s Professional Golf Association and later on, the Ladies Professional Golf Association, of which she was a founding member. She won 17 straight women’s amateur victories. By 1950, she had won every golf title that was possible to win. Counting her amateur and professional victories, she won 82 golf tournaments. In 1951 she was inducted into the LPGA Hall of Fame.
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In 1953, Zaharias was diagnosed with colon cancer. Four months after surgery and while wearing a colostomy bag, she made a comeback, winning her 10th and final major with a U.S. Women’s Open championship. In the last six years of her life, Zaharias shared her home with husband George, and fellow golfer and partner Betty Dodd. The cancer returned in 1955, and Zaharias died on September 27, 1956. She has also established the Babe Zaharias Fund to support cancer clinics and served as a public advocate for cancer awareness.
Zaharias was honored with awards long after death: induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, a U.S. Postal Service commemorative stamp, named the 10th Greatest North American Athlete of the 20th Century by ESPN, and the 9th Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century by the Associated Press, ranked the 17th greatest golfer, and the second-greatest woman player by Golf Digest magazine, and was inducted into the Legacy Walk, an outdoor public display celebrating LGBT history.