Which U.S. athlete earned three Olympic medals in track and field, barnstormed the country as an all-American basketball player and won more consecutive LPGA golf tournaments than anyone since? It's not a trick question. There is such a person, and her name -- yes, it's a woman -- is Babe Didrikson Zaharias.
That Babe (born almost 100 years ago in Port Arthur, Texas) has faded so completely from our collective memory is a shame. She was a trailblazing athlete and fierce competitor who withstood withering attacks to become one of the greatest athletes the world has ever known.
Happily, New York Times reporter Don Van Natta Jr. discovers the woman behind the outsize accomplishments with "Wonder Girl."
Born on the wrong side of the tracks to Norwegian immigrants, Babe learned to tell tales from her father, whose "genially preposterous" stories were often a blend of fact and fiction. She knew how to give spectators a show, and at a time when women's sports were considered an amusement, Babe's killer instinct was the stuff of legend. Some bristled at her big talk; others knew she was trying to psych them out. Friends say she used cockiness like armor against attack.
But her hubris came in handy because wherever she turned, Babe had a fight on her hands: against the Olympic official who fought to ban women from the 1932 games; against the country-club crowd that tried to disallow her from golf tournaments; and against syndicated columnists who questioned everything from her physique (too mannish) to her style (nonexistent) and haircut (too short).
Although the early stories of Babe's life can feel episodic, Van Natta Jr. hits his stride when golf enters the picture, creating a full-bodied and honest portrait of Babe, who eventually met and married George Zaharias, a professional wrestler and another larger-than-life character.
When Babe was stricken with rectal cancer in 1952, she continued to blaze her own trail, admitting her illness publicly at a time when cancer was shrouded in mystery and seldom discussed.
Among Babe's many record-breaking feats, none is as implausible as this: Barely 15 months after undergoing major surgery -- and with a colostomy bag strapped to her side -- Babe won her third U.S. Women's Open in a grueling three-day competition, playing 36 holes on the final day.
Although cancer turned out to be the one battle Babe couldn't win, it did serve to mellow her. For the first time in her life, she shared credit (with her doctors) for her success.
Babe's gravestone reads: "It's not whether you win or lose, but how you played the game," words she neither said nor believed. "Wonder Girl" offers the definitive account of Babe's life, ignoring the legend for the real story -- one that needs no embellishment.
Colleen Kelly is a features designer at the Star Tribune.