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Martin Fennelly Columns

Happy 100th to trailblazer Zaharias

Staff
Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 01:59 PM
TAMPA -

TAMPA One hundred years ago Sunday — June 26, 1911 — Mildred Ella "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias, the daughter of Norwegian immigrants but an American original, was born in Port Arthur, Texas. She quickly decided she was going to dream what she wanted to dream and do what she wanted to do. And no man or woman was going to stop her.

"My goal was to be the greatest athlete that ever lived," she once wrote.

Babe died 55 years ago, a long time, and it's hard to find a 30-year-old who knows who she was. But she was a superstar just the same. At the end of the 20th century, list-makers got around to athletes and Babe was always first or second greatest for women and still Top 10 when they threw in the fellas, like Jim Thorpe, Jim Brown and that other Babe, the baseball one.

Babe belongs to Tampa, too. She lived in the Forest Hills area with her husband, George Zaharias, after they purchased a golf course there in 1950, the course that now bears Babe's name. They built their dream house near it, but cancer took Babe's happily ever after in 1956. She was 45. Babe fought cancer three years, like there was another Olympic medal in it or something, just like she competed against anything and anyone.

Today, the city and Babe Zaharias Golf Course ("The Babe") throw a 100th birthday party for Babe. There will be a tournament, morning and afternoon shotgun starts, with proceeds going to Moffitt Cancer Center. There will be bands and a book signing by Don Van Natta Jr., whose exhilarating biography of Babe, "Wonder Girl," just hit stores. Tampa mayor Bob Buckhorn will proclaim it Babe Zaharias Day.

It's hard to tell whether Babe's course meanders through Forest Hills or Forest Hills meanders through the course. There are plenty of folks who've been living and playing golf in this neighborhood for decades. Everyone knows everyone, and they're all crazy about Babe.

Flo Reynolds is 88 and lives close to the course, as she has for 61 years. She played in a ladies league with Babe Zaharias. Flo can still see Babe loping into the clubhouse, still hear her laugh, or that Texas drawl telling George to fix her up a mashed potatoes and onion sandwich, Babe's favorite. Sometimes Babe would play her harmonica or fetch her fiddle.

"Strictly mountain music, hillbilly," Flo said. "Babe was fun — just pure fun. God bless her."

"My dad golfed with her," said Tony Winters, 67, who lives near the course and who'll play in today's tournament. "I watched her last round of golf here. She had cancer, but got out one last time. There were 50 or 60 of us who walked with her. The Babe was one of a kind."

The Tampa home that Babe built, one story, cedar, ranch style, is on Rome Avenue, still sturdy and strong. Babe and George called it Rainbow Manor. The current owners, Barbara and Paul Lien, gladly showed you around.

There's a picture of the Babe in their office. Barbara led you to a corner of the driveway and pointed to where Babe and George scribbled their names before the cement hardened. Babe helped design the house, all the details, just what she wanted. Paul pulled out the original blueprints and showed you Babe's name on them.

"She must have been something," Barbara said.

Babe was 21 when she arrived at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932, 5-foot-61/2, 130 pounds, out to show the world. She won gold medals in the hurdles and javelin and took silver in the high jump. No one had ever seen a woman like her.

Babe was a one-person Title IX. She played everything. She played against men. She tried anything, excelled at it: basketball, baseball, softball, bowling, tennis. But Babe was more than that. She was for the show. After the Olympics, she toured vaudeville, singing and playing her harmonica, running on a treadmill, before packed houses, for big bucks.

And when she turned to golf, she became the best at that, too, winning 10 major championships and helping create the LPGA.

"You've got to loosen your girdle and let it rip," Babe would say.

Debra McCormack, president of the Forest Hills Neighborhood Association and a driving force behind Babe Zaharias Day, says we should remember Babe:

"I think every little girl playing soccer and baseball or anything owes her slightly. She was an American trailblazer. She was willing to stick her neck out there when people didn't want her to."

And there was the Babe's personality, rambunctious, rollicking — a braggart. She was a shameless, but nevertheless endearing promoter, so Texas boastful. George, a former professional wrestler, was a trip by himself. "Wonder Girl" author Van Natta noted that Babe said she was the greatest decades before Muhammad Ali did.

"But the most extraordinary thing about her story is her whole life was just a quest to find a place to play," Van Natta said. "She just wanted to be an athlete when there weren't many opportunities for a woman to play sports, either as an amateur or a professional. She kept moving from sport to sport because she just was just looking for places to play.

"She had such a strong desire to succeed, to make something of herself and prove people wrong, people who told her she couldn't be who she wanted to be. Her will, that drive, you even see it more after she gets cancer."

The doctors told Babe in 1953 that her colon cancer would end her golf career. She won her third U.S. Women's Open 15 months after that. She toured hospitals, striding into children's cancer wards to tell all the little ones to keep fighting.

Janell Lowe has been playing at The Babe for 10 years. She's a physician's assistant at Moffitt Cancer Center. She has played all sorts of sports, including college water polo. In third grade, she did a book report on Babe. She was amazed — and she was hooked. Janell loves Babe's course.

"It's like playing basketball on a court named for Michael Jordan," she said.

And now they'll play a birthday tournament for Babe. Everybody let it rip.

It's hard not to think of all the great women who've come through doors Babe helped open.

There are more of them all the time.

"I'm sure Babe would be proud," Janell Lowe said. "I'm also sure she'd want to come down and kick their butts."

Happy 100th, Babe.

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