On March 20, 1934, Mildred “Babe” Didrikson pitches one inning of exhibition baseball for the Philadelphia Athletics in a game against the Brooklyn Dodgers. She started the first inning, and allowed just one walk and no hits. Though Didrickson was not the first woman to play baseball with major league ballplayers, she had attained national-hero status with an unprecedented performance at the 1932 Olympics.
Mildred Didrikson was born on June 26, 1911, in Port Arthur, Texas. As a child she earned the nicknamed “Babe,” after Babe Ruth, for her ability to hit a baseball farther than anyone else in her town. In 1930, after excelling in basketball and track at Beaumont High School, she was hired by the Employers Casualty Company of Dallas to play for its Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball team. Because her amateur status would end if she were hired as an athlete, the company hired her as a “secretary” and then put a basketball in her hand; she also competed for the company in track and field. At the 1932 AAU championships, which was then the only real qualifier for the Olympics, Didrikson won five of the eight events she entered, setting world records in the javelin throw, 80-meter hurdles, high jump and baseball throw.
At the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, Didrikson won two gold medals. She had qualified to compete in five events, but women were restricted to three events at the Olympics. A day after setting the world record in the javelin throw, she set a new world record in the 80-meter hurdles, beating Evelyn Hall of Chicago by a few milliseconds. She was held to a silver finish in the high jump in spite of tying with the declared winner because the judges did not approve of her head-first style. Post-Olympics, Didrikson took advantage of her new celebrity status, touring the country with basketball and baseball teams and playing the harmonica on the vaudeville circuit. That year, she was named Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year for the first time.
In 1933, Babe took up golfing. She went on to so thoroughly dominate the sport that she would win the AP Female Athlete of the Year Award five more times, all for playing a sport in which she didn’t compete until she was in her 20s. Throughout her golfing career, Didrikson was unwilling to “pretty up” for the cameras as the press requested. When asked at the National Celebrities Tournament how a girl could hit a ball so far, Babe replied “just take off your girdle and swing.” Didrikson won 82 tournaments as a golfer, winning 21 straight in 1947-48 and 19 in a row in 1949, the same year she helped to found the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA). Despite her impressive play, Didrikson’s requests to enter the National Open–put on by the United States Golf Association (USGA), the ruling body of men’s golf in America–were repeatedly denied. Although the USGA’s rules did not at the time specifically forbid women from participating, the rules were soon re-written so that only men could enter USGA tournaments.
In 1950, Didrikson was named female “Athlete of the Half Century” by the Associated Press. She died of cancer on September 27, 1956.