Babe Didrikson Zaharias Museum and Visitors Center
1477 N. Martin Luther King Parkway (at I-10)
Beaumont was home to the young Mildred “Babe” Didrikson (1911-1956), one of the greatest athletes of all time. The Didriksons moved here when Babe was a child, after a flood destroyed their Port Arthur home. As one biographer put it, the Didrikson home (at 850 Doucette Avenue) was in an area “full of rednecks and roughnecks, hard-knuckled families living in washboard poverty.” The busy, noisy street had an oil refinery at one end and a trolley line running down the middle. Around the neighborhood, Babe wore boys’ pants, overalls, and athletic undershirts. Her boyish manner made her a social outcast at school, but she later advised that “a girl that wants to become an athlete and do some winning should…start by being a tomboy.”
And she was indeed an athlete who did “some winning.” From 1930 to 1932, Babe held the American, Olympic, or world records in five different track and field events. After her stunning gold-medal victories at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932, one newspaper headline declared, “Babe Breaks Records Easier Than Dishes.” When she returned from her Olympic triumph, Babe’s father built an apartment for her and her sister on the second floor of the Doucette Avenue house, consisting of two small rooms, a hallway, and a bathroom. Her sister called the bathroom “Babe’s Hollywood bathroom…the most beautiful bathroom in Beaumont,” complete with a bright green tub like one that she had seen and admired in Los Angeles.
Babe went on to excel in numerous sports, including softball, bowling, javelin throwing, boxing, billiards, tennis, and diving. But her greatest distinction by far was as a golfer. In 1935, she came under the protective wing of Bertha Bowen, a powerhouse in Texas golf, who not only helped her game but transformed her looks and physical demeanor as well. Babe – whose “masculine” appearance and competence in male sports had given rise to the suspicion that she was a lesbian – went from cross-dressing to cultivating a traditionally feminine look, including skirts, waved hair, rouge, red nails; she even acquired a husband, the wrestler George Zaharias, in 1938. During her short career, the “ultimate Amazon” won 82 professional and amateur golf tournaments; was named Associated Press’s Woman of the Year six times; and was a founding member of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA).
The museum documents Babe’s life and achievements, housing many of her athletic trophies. Don’t be surprised when you don’t find any reference to her bisexuality, or that her intimate companion, the young golfer Betty Dodd, is treated as solely a friend. Babe, Betty, and George all lived together in Florida from 1950 until Babe’s death from colon cancer in 1956. Of Babe’s husband, Betty later said, “We always had a lot more fun when he wasn’t around.”
Babe is buried at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park, 5220 Pine Street, in Beaumont. The state of Texas maintains a historical marker at her gravesite.
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