Fans love to debate who’s the best among competitors in various sports. Among female stars, an incredibly gifted athlete from Southeast Texas – Mildred Ella Didrickson Zaharias – inevitably earns recognition by many sports enthusiasts as the greatest of all time.
The story of this super-competitive, multi-sport dynamo, who sadly lost her race with cancer in 1956 after a relatively short, 45-year life span, can be relived and appreciated at the Babe Zaharias Museum and Visitor Center in Beaumont.
“Of her numerous accomplishments, the most significant in my opinion is the number of sports Babe attempted and excelled in – golf, basketball, baseball, swimming and track and field,” says LaTasha Y. Sames of the Beaumont Convention and Visitors Bureau, which operates the Zaharias museum in collaboration with the Babe Zaharias Foundation. “Additionally, the number of medals she won – two Olympic golds and one silver – and the number of golf tournaments she won – 82 – are most impressive.”
Her nickname Babe might be interpreted to connote sweetness and serenity where in reality she was a ferocious competitor in whatever sport or endeavor she pursued. A 1932 TIME magazine cover story called her a “symbol of strength.” When she was born, Mildred Ella was the baby of the Didrickson family, so her Norwegian mother called her “Min Bebe,” which ultimately became Babe.
To permanently recognize Babe’s achievements, Beaumont civic leaders raised money, and the Beaumont City Council made available a 10-acre tract so the dream of a museum could become reality. Grand opening festivities occurred in November 1976.
“The rotunda-style museum occupies 1,300 square feet and houses 118 trophies and 53 historic pictures of Babe,” Sames says. “One special feature of the museum is a kiosk that allows guests to listen to short verbal chapters about Babe’s life. Because of its prominent location on busy IH 10 through the heart of Beaumont, the museum attracts visitors from all over the U. S. Most have some familiarity with Babe and would like to know more.”
Although Zaharias is most often associated with Beaumont, she actually was born 20 miles to the south in Port Arthur, where the Museum of the Gulf Coast also pays tribute to her with an exhibit in its Sports Hall of Fame. She stands out among almost a hundred inductees in an array of sports such as football, baseball, basketball, boxing, tennis, weightlifting, track, wrestling, golf, martial arts, drag racing and horse racing.
Items in the Zaharias exhibit include an American record certificate issued by the Amateur Athletic Union in 1930 in recognition of her javelin throw of 133 feet, 5 ½ inches; the silver cup Zaharias won in the 1938 Eastern Women’s Open golf tournament; and a photograph of her at the Bob Hope Scratch (Golf) Tournament that the host autographed for her.
Like the Zaharias museum in Beaumont, the Museum of the Gulf Coast in Port Arthur has seen a steady stream of visitors from coast to coast as well as from other countries since it opened in July 1994.
“Babe was unequaled by any other female athlete before or after her time,” says Tom Neal, Museum of the Gulf Coast director. “She was able to take on any sport and would learn to compete at a winning level in all that she attempted, often surpassing her male counterparts as well as her female competitors.”
Was she indeed the greatest female athlete of all time? Her numerous successes clearly point to her going down in history as an All-American sports heroine.