cover image Babe Didrikson Zaharias: The Making of a Champion

Babe Didrikson Zaharias: The Making of a Champion

Russell Freedman. Clarion Books, $19 (192pp) ISBN 978-0-395-63367-0

In another exemplary biography, Newbery Medalist Freedman (Martha Graham) turns to Mildred ""Babe"" Didrikson Zaharias (1911-1956), arguably the preeminent woman athlete of the 20th century. He pays ample attention to Babe's extraordinary achievements--e.g., her three world records in track and field at the 1932 Olympics; her record-setting golf career in the '40s and '50s--but his book's greatest strength lies in his portrait of the person behind the athlete, a portrait that hums with the energy and vibrancy of Babe herself. A bold tomboy Texan from a poor family, Babe saw sports as a way to earn recognition, respect and a living, something almost unheard of for a woman at the time. Using quotations from friends, rivals and Zaharias herself, as well as a bounty of period photographs, Freedman brings her irrepressible personality leaping from the page. At a golf championship in Scotland, she egged on the polite and quiet crowd to cheer for her; playing a bit part in the movie Pat and Mike, she obliged the screenwriters to change the script so she wouldn't have to lose to the Katharine Hepburn character. Freedman tiptoes around the issue of Zaharias's sexuality, especially when describing her troubled marriage to a former wrestler and her close association with another female athlete. By paying attention, however, to the times in which she lived, Freedman demonstrates Zaharias's role as a challenger not only of sporting records, but of cultural assumptions about class and gender as well. This celebratory work gives readers a chance to cheer Zaharias's legendary life. Ages 10-up. (Aug.)