Before Lance and Livestrong there was Babe

My grandmother had plenty of fears in her life, but the most devastating revolved around her health. Hospitals were places were people went to die and cancer, well, that was as dirty a word as there was.

So it should come as no surprise the bargains she made with God when she was diagnosed with uterine cancer. I was just a teenager and didn’t quite understand what was going on, in part because my family avoided talking about uncomfortable situations and in part because Gram was terrified of the “c” word.

I must admit, I never quite appreciated her fear until much older, when I began to understand just a bit about the social history of cancer, how it was a disease people didn’t just fear, they considered downright embarrassing.

Enter Babe Didrickson Zaharias and an upcoming biography by Don Van Natta Jr. titled Wonder Girl: The Magnificent Sporting Life of Babe Didrickson Zaharias.

Long before Lance Armstrong used his athletic fame and yellow Livestrong wrist bands to shine a light on cancer research, treatment and survival, Babe was creating a culture of cancer acceptance in the 1950s.

The Babe’s legacy is usually confined to her ability to break gender norms. She had a boastful and big personality along with the athletic prowess to back up her bragging which earned her enemies among her fellow athletes while charming many sportswriters. Eventually, her brash behavior coupled with her athletic achievements caused speculation about her sexual identity. In fact, her founding of the LPGA is viewed by many scholars as a way for Babe to “feminize” her image in order to become more palatable to the American public.

But this biography frames Babe differently, paying special attention to the financial reality of life in Depression-era Texas and the economic situation of female athletes, who had few opportunities to play or make money. (In some ways, so little has changed for female athletes.)

An interesting read for women’s sports fans, golf fans and American history buffs, I found most profound part of the work in the final chapters, when Van Natta delves into Babe’s illness. At the height of her golfing success in 1953, she was diagnosed with cancer in the rectum, required surgery, rehabilitation and a colostomy. Doctors told her she would never play competitive golf again.

But Babe would have none of it. She was not only going to come back from cancer to play golf, she was going to win tournaments. It can be difficult to appreciate just how secretive a disease cancer was in the 1940s and 1950s. Van Natta describes briefly an American society largely ignorant of the disease and so afraid of it, they would delay doctor’s visits, then choose to quietly die out their days at home instead of undergo surgery and treatment.

Babe was not immune from fears of cancer, putting off a doctor’s visit for several months despite the presence of serious symptoms. But she underwent surgery and recovery and was public about her illness. Mostly, she was determined to play in the LPGA again. She inspired people by talking opening about her cancer and in 1954 ,when she won the U.S. Women’s Open, her victory took on a greater meaning:

“I’m happy because I can tell people not to be afraid of cancer,” Babe said after winning the 1954 Open. “I’ve had over 15,000 letters from people and this victory today is an answer to them — 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.”

My grandmother survived her battle with uterine cancer, but never did fully reclaim her normal life.

In a cursory synopsis of American sporting history, Babe Didrickson is often framed as a great athlete with too much bravado.

But maybe, we all could benefit from a little Babe Didrickson bravado from time to time.

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