Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Real Babe

As part of our country's ongoing attempt to forget everything that ever happened before last week, a fevered columnist for declared that Michael Phelps' week of glory means Phelps is the greatest U.S. athlete of all time. Whew. How to keep things in perspective, buddy.

Greatest swimmer ever? Hard to argue that. Greatest Olympian ever? Phelps certainly has a strong case, up there with Jesse Owens, Al Oerter, and Eric Heiden. It is noteworthy, however, that the swimmer whose record Phelps plans to beat before I go to bed tonight, Mark Spitz, is seldom if ever included in the list of all-time Olympic heroes. Yeah, Spitz was irritating. That irritating?

But the greatest U.S. athlete of all time remains who it always has been, at least as long as I've been alive. You should have, if you claim to like sports, heard the name.

Let's define terms. By "greatest athlete" we do not mean "most influential and/or famous." The three sportsmen who meant the most to sports history in this country are, in chronological order, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, and Muhammed Ali. Tiger Woods sells more consumer goods than any athlete ever. But I am using a more limited definition. "Greatest athlete" means "person who was best at playing games."

On my terms, that's about as close to a no-brainer as can be found in barroom arguments. There would be statues of this superstar in more cities than hometown Beaumont, Texas if it weren't for one thing. Babe Didriksen Zaharias was a woman. She was a woman in an age of unimaginable sexual discrimination and stereotyping, but even today, that is why Zaharias is more forgotten that revered.

Let's look at the record. Zaharias was an All-American AAU basketball player in 1930-31 who entered the AAU track championships on a lark, qualified for three Olympic events, and won two gold medals and one silver in track and field in 1932 (when there were far fewer women's events than today.) Zaharias then took up golf, won the British Amateur, U.S. Amateur, helped found what is now the LPGA, and won the 1948 U.S. Open. Off the course, Zaharias fooled around playing softball, baseball, and kicking men's butts in sports such as bowling to make some extra dough.

There is no equivalent to Zaharias' domination of so many different sports. The physiological demands of the high jump, basketball, and golf could not be more different, and she mastered them all. Had she been an athlete today instead of in the 1930s-40s, Zaharias would be the biggest star in the world.

Greatest athlete ever? If Phelps comes back from Beijing and wins the Masters, or if Woods medals in the 2012 decathlon, we can talk. Until then, it's the Babe. The Babe we don't remember, but should.


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