STAYcation: Babe lives on in Beaumont museum
By Chris Moore
High gasoline prices and an economy still struggling to fully reboot means that Greater Port Arthur people may enjoy “staycations” this summer, reveling in the tourism sites within easy driving distance. The News will highlight some of these this summer, places we’d all do well to visit.
BEAUMONT — The days of legends depicted in sports stories have passed.
In an age with instant video and Internet access, great stories of athletic feats go viral instantly — or are disproven. Gone are the days of the stories that are spread by word-of-mouth and blur the lines of mythology and reality.
One needn’t look far, though, to hear stories of Southeast Texas native Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias, one of the greatest athletes in American history. Within view of Interstate 10 lies a museum dedicated to the Port Arthur native.
The museum opened Nov. 27, 1976 and holds dozens of memorabilia items of Zaharias. Just like the Wonder Girl herself, the museum is not big but packs a wallop.
President of the Babe Zaharias Foundation Wilbur “W.L.” Pate said that there has never been an athlete to match Zaharias.
“She won a golf tournament by 12 stokes with a colostomy bag,” Pate said.
On June 26, 1911, Zaharias was born in Port Arthur and moved to Beaumont when she was 4 years old. Zaharias played every sport available to girls at the high school.
In basketball, she was Beaumont High School’s leading scorer, earning her a spot on the Employers Casualty Co. Golden Cyclones, which was an AAU team in Dallas. The museum features a display with a pair of Zaharias’ basketball shorts along with some of the trophies she won while playing for the Cyclones.
“She was such an outstanding basketball player,” Pate said. “Back then, the AAU was much bigger than the NCAA. She was a three-time All American.”
In 1932, women were allowed to participate in track and field.
“The AAU had its national meet,” Pate said. “Employers Casualty thought it would be a great publicity stunt for the company to send one person to compete in all the events, and she won the whole thing all by herself.”
Zaharias tallied 30 points and the second place team consisted of 22 athletes and totaled 22 points.
“She ran the table,” Pate said. “The AAU nationals, then, was really like the Olympic trials. Everyone that left there ended up qualifying. Babe actually qualified for five events but they only allowed her to compete in three.”
Zaharias won two gold medals (80 meter hurdles and javelin throwing) and tied in the third event (high jump).
“In the high jump, the girl she was jumping against had the same height and the same number of misses,” Pate said. “Then they said that her technique was illegal and they made that decision after talking to the other player’s coach. That’s bizarre.”
Pate said Zaharias came out of the Olympics with the nickname Wonder Girl.
“This is six years before Superman,” Pate said. “She was a superhero before the superhero.
In a life filled with many athletic accomplishments, Zaharias was mainly known for her triumphs on the golf course.
She is still the only woman to qualify for the Los Angeles Open, which was a men’s professional tournament in 1938.
Zaharias was the first American to win the British and U.S. Women’s Amateur in 1947.
She was the first woman to win the Western Women’s Open three times (as an amateur and professional).
The Associated Press voted her the World’s Greatest Woman Athlete of the First Half of the 20th century.
She is the only athlete to be named Woman Athlete of the Year six times (1931, 1945, 1946, 1947, 1950 and 1954).
She won 82 golf tournaments as both an amateur and professional and was the leading money winner for the LPGA for four years in a row (1948-1951).
In the museum, a display case dedicated to her golf accomplishments holds multiple awards and trophies that Zaharias won over her career along with golf clubs she used.
Zaharias was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1953.
“The Babe Zaharias Open, which was an LPGA tournament, was in Beaumont in 1953,” Pate said. “She was already here so she went to the doctor after the tournament and discovered she had cancer.
“They went in and did all they could. The doctor told her that she wasn’t ever going to play golf again. She sat and stared at the golf clubs in the corner and prayed to play golf again.”
Pate said she worked herself back up to compete in the U.S Open.
“She won by 12 shots playing with a colostomy bag,” he said. “She won a tournament by 12 strokes, which is an accomplishment by itself. She did it with a colostomy bag, and at that time most people with one didn’t go out in public.
The museum has a display dedicated to Zaharias’ husband George, too.
“Before WWE ‘wrasslin,’ he was a ‘wrasslin’ celebrity,” Pate said. “Back then, of course, it’s all scripted; he was one of the better-known celebrity wrasslers.”
Zaharias was also one of the first international celebrities to openly talk about cancer, Pate said.
“She did a fundraiser for cancer,” he said. “It was her and two other guys who were on the radio. ‘We’ve got to find a cure for cancer so send your money for cancer research through your local post master,’ they would say. They would send the money in and bundle it up and send it to the Cancer Society.”
Zaharias died of colon cancer on Sept. 27, 1955 at the age of 45. She is buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Beaumont.
Pate said Zaharias had the personality to make a lot of money in today’s sports landscape.
“Can you imagine the endorsements she’d get today? It wouldn’t be called Nike, it’d be called Zaharias’,” Pate said. “There would just be a ‘Z’ instead of a check. It wouldn’t be ‘Just do it.’ It would be, ‘I did it.’”
Babe Didrikson Zaharias Museum
1750 I-10, Beaumont
Open Monday-Saturday, 9-5