Friday, March 20, 2009

This Day in Baseball History (Babe Didriksen Hurls Scoreless Frame Against Dodgers)

March 20, 1934—Demonstrating yet another quiver in her amazing repertoire of athletic skills, 23-year-old track-and-field sensation Babe Didrikson took the mound for the Philadelphia A’s, as only the second—and, at this point, still the last—woman to pitch in a major league exhibition game. (The first woman was the “Queen of Baseball,” Lizzie “Spike” Murphy, a dozen years before.)

The first Brooklyn Dodger (yes, Dem Bums!) that Didrikson faced walked; the second was hit with a pitch. Then, displaying a skill that thousands of male pitchers wished they had to this day, she bore down and induced the third batter, Joe Stripp, to hit an easily manageable line drive in an inning-ending triple play.

Her day at the diamond over, this second Babe (do I even have to name the first?) wasn’t even done yet, as she headed over to a nearby golf course and put on a driving exhibition for fans there.

The next day’s headline in the Washington Post was the kind that would have made many a proud male major leaguer groan, then drown his sorrow at the bar: “Brooklyn Fails to Hit or Get Run Off Girl in One Inning.” Good God, how can you endure being beaten by someone who not merely throws like a girl, but is one?

A year or so ago, remembering a mutual friend who had died, someone from my high school marveled at the vibrant woman’s athletic skill. “You know, she could outrun every guy in our class,” he said, still stunned that someone so healthy could die so soon.

Our friend possessed, on a small scale, the skills of Mildred Didrikson Zaharias (the last name came several years after her marriage to professional wrestler George Zaharias). Equally applicable to the two women was Annie Oakley’s song in her faceoff with Frank Butler in the musical Annie Get Your Gun: “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better.” When it came to a feat of skill, they could do virtually anything they turned their attention to.

In the magnitude of her accomplishments and the complexity of her character, Didrikson should be a sports biographer’s dream. I would say she also would make a terrific subject for a big-screen Hollywood film. Someone like writer-director Ron Shelton (Bull Durham, Cobb, Tin Cup), who is as fascinated by women as he is by sports, would know how to convey her unrelenting hunger to succeed, her brashness, her intelligence, and the vulnerability she dared not show the world.

Baseball fans like myself marvel that Babe Ruth excelled as a hitter as well as a pitcher. Well, imagine someone who could do everything that he—or, for that matter, Jim Thorpe—could do, but on an even wider scale: not just baseball, but basketball, track, golf, tennis, swimming, diving, boxing, volleyball, handball, bowling, billiards, skating, and cycling.

Just typing these tires me out! And you can imagine what sportswriters of the time must have felt. One day, she was asked if there was anything she didn’t play.

The two-word reply—fast and smartass—is the kind that made her a dream to cover: “Yeah, dolls.”

Movie fans will recall Didrikson’s cameo in one of the best-loved entries in the entire Spencer Tracy-Katherine Hepburn oeuvre, Pat and Mike (1952), about a female golfer and the male manager who takes her under his Runyonesque wing. That appearance brought to the surface a less attractive quality, albeit one shared with Ruth, Reggie Jackson, Muhammad Ali, and other male athletes too numerous to mention: competitive cockiness.

As reluctant to lose onscreen—in fiction, mind you—as she was in real life, Didrikson persuaded screenwriters Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon to rework their script so she would not choke in a head-to-head matchup with Hepburn’s character.

That maneuver was one that her many opponents on the golf course would have appreciated, as The Babe was known to survey a lockerroom before a tournament and ask, in her East Texas drawl, “What’d y’all show up for? See who’s gonna finish second?”

Over the past decade, biographers of Didrikson and Hepburn have suggested that the two shared something besides screen time and superb athleticism—i.e., an exceptionally shrewd awareness of how to manage the media, as well as tomboyishness that might have shaded into sexual ambivalence. Some of these contentions, I think, ring truer than others, though, which we’ll see in a minute.

Both Didrikson and Hepburn entered the business of image management in the mid-1930s. They found out the hard way that they had to.

Shortly after Didrikson came into the public’s consciousness during the 1932 Olympics by winning the first women’s javelin event and setting a record in the first Olympic 80-meter hurdle, not-so-subtle insinuations began in the media about the athlete’s sexuality—something that her short hair and tomboy exploits did little to quash.

For every Grantland Rice, who marveled that she was “the most flawless section of muscle harmony, of complete mental and physical coordination, the world of sport has ever seen,” there was someone like Joe Williams of the New York World-Telegram, who made no secret of his belief that “It would be much better if she and her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up and waited for the phone to ring.”

It was phrases such as “that ilk” that must have nettled Didrikson, who was bent on attracting notice any which way she could. Why else would a person considered sane challenge the winning horse in the Kentucky Derby to a foot race? Why else would someone so accomplished already insist upon stretching her exploits in ways both small (listing 17 consecutive golf tour wins instead of 13 at her memorial museum) and large (claiming she could type 186 words per minute as a secretary, when her typewriting skills were—shall we say—not even remotely close?) (Her biographer, Susan E. Cayleff, claims that this propensity toward exaggeration derived from her seafaring Norwegian father, but I’m convinced these creative embellishments indicated at least a drop of Celtic blood.)

Her earthiness made her a veritable quote machine (her explanation of how she possessed so much power in so lithe a frame: “You’ve got to loosen your girdle and let it rip!”). But Didrikson recognized she could not win the public’s affection without changing how she was viewed.

In time—strongly encouraged by a friend who actually chased her around the house in an attempt to get her to look more feminine—Didrikson submitted to an extreme makeover involving new clothes, makeup, hairdos, hosiery, and slips. She even married Zaharias, who gave up his wrestling career as “the Weeping Greek from Cripple Creek” to manage her career.

Likewise, Hepburn made an adroit early adjustment that kept her future prospects within view. After a big splash with the first of her four Oscar-winning films, Morning Glory (1933), Hepburn hit a rough patch.

As explained in an October 2006 article in Vanity Fair and at greater length in his book Kate: The Woman Who Was Katharine Hepburn, William J. Mann shows how audiences were particularly confused by her gender-bending film Sylvia Scarlett (1935), in which her character disguised herself as a boy to be with Cary Grant. That film’s failure awakened concerns in Hollywood about her close relationship with BFF Laura Harding, an aristocratic friend who accompanied her when she first came to Tinseltown.

In short order, Hepburn righted herself, taking up more traditional romantic comedies. More attractive than Didrikson, she really did not have to stress her allure as much.

More controversially, Cayleff and Mann delve into their subjects’ sexuality. Of the two biographers, the circumstantial evidence would seem to support Cayleff more.

After a decade, Didrikson and her husband grew more emotionally distant, even as she achieved one triumph after another on the golf tour (including helping to found the LPGA). In the last half-dozen years of her life, that loss of emotional intimacy was made up to some extent by the athlete’s increasing closeness to Betty Dodd, another Texas golfer nearly 20 years her junior. Dodd even came to live in the Zaharias household and to sleep on a hospital cot by her friend’s side when Didrikson contracted the cancer that would kill her.

It’s impossible to say with absolute certainty at this stage, with all the principals dead, whether the Didrikson-Dodd relationship became overtly sexual. Lending at least some support to the notion is Zaharias’ resentment over being supplanted by Dodd, and his refusal to grant Didrikson a divorce.

Mann, I believe, is on somewhat shakier ground in presenting evidence for Hepburn’s bisexuality, partly because the actress had more male lovers than Didrikson (in addition to Spencer Tracy, there was also Howard Hughes and John Ford) and partly because he claims that not only was Hepburn bisexual, but also, on far flimsier evidence, Tracy.

By the time of her death, Didrikson had come a long way from the young woman who had shut out the Dodgers. In one sense, any discussion of her private life will lack nuance, in that notions of sexuality in that pre-Stonewall age are far murkier than we could understand today.

At the same time, such discussions can’t be entirely foregone. Like Hepburn’s, Didrikson’s career was built on defying stereotypes and forging an independent path in a male-dominated world. Infinite craft was involved in that process, and more than a little bravery.

And here is where I admire Didrikson the most: She displayed that same courage in defying the opponent she couldn’t defeat, cancer.

Only 14 weeks after an operation to remove cancerous lymph nodes, Didrikson played in a tournament again, and within another year she had won five more titles, including her third U.S. Open. As one of the first celebrities to admit openly to having cancer, she proved a powerful fundraiser in the fight against the disease in the few years she had remaining before her death in 1956.

1 comment:

bjn2727 said...

That is a strange photo. You can see that its two different ones pieced together. Wonder why they did that?