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Friday, September 28, 1956

Babe Zaharias Dies; Athlete Had Cancer

Special to The New York Times
GALVESTON, Tex., Sept. 27 -- Mrs. Mildred (Babe) Didrikson Zaharias, famed woman athlete, died of cancer in John Sealy Hospital here this morning. She was 42 years old.

Mrs. Zaharias had been under treatment since 1953, when the malignant condition was discovered after she had won a golf tournament. The tournament was one named for her -- the Babe Zaharias Open of Beaumont, Tex., where she was reared.

Mrs. Zaharias had fought valiantly against cancer for the last several months. She remained confident almost to the end that she would get well. Her final weeks were relatively free of pain, although the malignancy was general. Physicians here had performed a cordotomy -- a severing of certain nerves -- to relieve her of pain.

A funeral service is scheduled for tomorrow afternoon at the Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Beaumont.


Greatest Female Athlete

From the time she made the headlines during the 1932 Olympic Games at Los Angeles, winning the javelin throw and 80 meter hurdles, Mrs. Zaharias reigned as the world's top all around woman athlete. In 1949 she was voted the greatest female athlete of the half century by The Associated Press, a selection that surprised no one.

The athletic career of Mrs. Zaharias was an unusual one. As a youngster -- she was born on June 26, 1914, in Port Arthur, Tex. -- she excelled in running, swimming, diving, high-jumping, baseball and basketball in addition to being adept with the javelin and at going over hurdles.

She was a success at any sport she undertook and gave conclusive proof of this with her prowess in golf -- a game she began to play in 1935.

At least part of Mrs. Zaharias success could be attributed to her powers of concentration and diligence. When she decided to center her attention on golf, she tightened up her game by driving as many as 1,000 golf balls a day and playing until her hands were so sore they had to be taped. She developed an aggressive, dramatic style, hitting down sharply and crisply on her iron shots like a man and averaging 240 yards off the tee with her woods.

She began winning golf titles in 1940. In that year she captured the Western and Texas Open Championships. These victories were forerunners of many to come. By the end of 1950 she had the distinction of having won every available golf title. Asked whether she had any idea of retiring, Mrs. Zaharias answered in characteristic style:

"As long as I am improving I will go on, and besides, there's too much money in the business to quit."

Mrs. Zaharias was an athlete almost from the time she was strong enough to lift a baseball bat. She beat the boys at mumblety-peg, outsped them in foot races and outshone them in basketball and baseball. Her nickname of "Babe," after Babe Ruth, was acquired after she had hit five home runs in a baseball game. Instead of "wasting time with dolls," she conditioned herself by using a backyard weightlifting machine built of broom sticks and her mother's flat irons.

The athlete from Texas was a constant source of colorful stories or newspaper men. She once pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals in an exhibition baseball game. She toured the United States giving billiard exhibitions and showed her true versatility with a demonstration of needlework and typing. She could type eighty-six words a minute.

She met her future husband on a golf course in 1937. They were married a year later and eventually set up house in Tampa, Fla., just off a golf course they purchased in 1951. There Mrs. Zaharias designed a modern push-button kitchen and spent considerable time making chintz curtains.

In April, 1953, she underwent an operation for cancer in Beaumont, Tex. By July she had recovered -- to play tournament golf again. Then months after the surgery she won the $5,000 Serbin Women's Open Tournament at Miami Beach.


Won 1954 Women's Open

She regarded her comeback as complete when she won the 1954 Women's United States Open. Mrs. Zaharias' margin was twelve strokes at Peabody, Mass., as she recaptured the title she had held twice previously.

"It will show a lot of people that they need not be afraid of an operation and can go on and live a normal life," she commented shortly after this triumph.

Early in 1955, however, a hip pain sidelined Mrs. Zaharias. After an operation for ruptured spinal disk, her physicians found that she was again suffering from cancer.

She was in and out of the hospital repeatedly after that, undergoing X-ray treatments for the disease, and early this year she successfully pulled through a siege of pneumonia.

But last July it became necessary to operate to relieve her pain from cancer, and the next month to operate again to bypass an intestinal obstruction. Her condition steadily became worse.

Mrs. Zaharias accepted stoically the news that the disease had returned "Well, that's the rub of the greens," she told her husband. Together they established the Babe Didrikson Zaharias Fund to support cancer clinics and treatment centers.

Her autobiography, "This Life I've Led," as told to Harry Paxton, was published late in 1955. And last July while critically ill, she established the Babe Didrikson Zaharias trophy to be awarded annually to the American woman amateur athlete who had done the most during the year for women's sport.

During the latter stages of her career as a golfer it was estimated she was earning more than $100,000 a year for exhibitions, endorsements and other activities connected with sports. She drew a considerable salary from a sporting goods company that manufactured equipment bearing her name. Mrs. Zaharias also dipped into the journalistic field, writing instructional articles and a book entitled "Championship Gold."

While she captivated many with her versatile stunts as a youngster, it was her achievements and deportment later in life that gained for her the most popularity. As a young girl she had disdained lipstick, plastered her hair back and talked out of the side of her mouth.

But as a top player and drawing power in golf, her attitude and demeanor changed. The once lonely tomboy became a social success. She developed into a graceful ballroom dancer and became the life of many a social gathering. She was too skillful at gin rummy for most and at times, to change the pace at a party, she would take out a harmonica and give a rendition of hillbilly tunes she had learned as a youngster.

This change was the cause of a more convivial feeling toward her by rivals. In her younger days her desire to win had served to toughen her as far as any opponent was concerned. But in her later days, instead of greeting her rivals with, "Yep, I'm gonna beat you," she began encouraging the younger girls on the golf circuit.

Mrs. Zaharias was the sixth of seven children born to Mr. and Mrs. Ole Didrikson. Her father was a Norwegian ship carpenter who had sailed nineteen times around Cape Horn before setting down at Port Arthur.


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