Greatest Athlete of All-Time? A Case for "The Babe”

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It's impossible to settle the question of who was the greatest athlete of all time, though it certainly makes for a lively and interesting debate. But before we plunge into the discussion, we define the ‘greatest athlete’ as an individual, man or woman, who was able to play a variety of sports at an extremely high level.

Therefore, certain athletes who may have been the greatest in their sport, (i.e., Wilma Rudolph, Michael Jordan, Mia Hamm, Bill Russell, George Herman Ruth, Serena Williams, Jack Nicklaus) will not qualify due to this standard.

Certainly in the running for the G.O.A.T. were Jim Thorpe (football, baseball, track & field, baseball) and Jackie Robinson (baseball, football, basketball, track). Both excelled in a variety of sports and were top performers in each. However, my selection for the greatest athlete of all time - male and female - was Mildred Ella “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias.

Born in 1911 to a family of Norwegian immigrants who settled in Texas, Babe played and excelled in various ways in the following sports: baseball, basketball, billiards, bowling, boxing, cycling, diving, golf, handball, roller skating, swimming, tennis, track, and volleyball!

By the way, Babe also learned to play the harmonica, starred in a vaudeville show, and appeared in a film with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn!

After successfully participating in several high school sports (basketball, baseball, golf, swimming, tennis, and volleyball), Babe became a standout basketball player in the Amateur Athletic Union where she was recognized as the league’s best player and selected as an All-American for three years in a row from 1930 to 1932.

Also in 1932, Babe participated as the ONLY member of her team in the United States Women’s Track and Field Championships. She competed in eight different events - winning five -and claimed the overall championship by herself!

Again in 1932, Babe participated in three events in the Olympic games held in Los Angeles. She finished in first place in all three events, (world record in the hurdles, Olympic record in the javelin, and high jump), but was relegated to a silver medal in the high jump due to a questionable technicality.

Arguably, Babe’s most prolific sport was golf where she won 82 tournaments. In 1946-7, she was reported to have won 14 successive golf tournaments. In 1950, Babe helped to form the Ladies Professional Golf Association. Babe was also the first woman to appear in a PGA (normally all men) event.

Possibly her most outstanding athletic accomplishment occurred in 1954. Babe had been diagnosed with colon cancer just a year earlier which required her to have emergency surgery. While wearing a colostomy bag, she won the United States Women’s Open by 12 strokes!

By the way, over the course of her life time, Babe Didrikson was voted the ‘Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year’ a remarkable six times.

The great Babe Didrikson Zaharias unfortunately passed away in 1956 at the tender age of 45. Although Babe’s life was relatively short, her list of sports accomplishments - in my humble opinion - make Babe the greatest athlete of all-time.

Kevin L. Burke is a sport psychology professor, consultant and co-author of "Sport Psychology Library Series: Basketball" available for sale on our site. His contact information is: burkek@queens.edu  Twitter: @kevinlburke (personal) or @kbsportpsyching (Sports Illuminated) iTunes podcast: Sports Illuminated (https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/sports-illuminated/id384931758?mt=2)

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RobertPruter

I beg to differ. Most of the sports listed b Mr, Burke for Babe involved brief engagement and are undocumented, I would put up for the Greatest multi-sports athlete Catherine Fellmeth of Chicago. Although one of the most extraordinary athletes America ever produced, she remains a virtual unknown. A world class track and field athlete, 1927-1941, she won the National AAU championship in shot put five times, discus three times, and baseball throw once. Fellmeth also made her mark as top basketball player, a nationally renowned softball pitcher, and a national champion bowler; She also competed in bicycle racing, volleyball, and speedskating, and won medals and championships in each. Fellmeth is perhaps the only American athlete who with her teams have won national championships in three different sports--in softball in 1934; in track and field in 1930, 1931, 1933 and 1936; and in bowling in 1940 and 1942. Her sustained competition for 10 years or more in basketball, softball, bowling, track and field (at the highest levels), plus her many documented achievements and championships in speedskating, cycling, volleyball shows she merits recognition as the greatest multisports athlete above Babe, who shown sustained excellence only in golf, basketball, and track, the latter no more than a year or so.

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