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

Posted

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)

Comments

2 comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment
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.

Sunday, August 19, 2018
Edmund Fellmeth

I would like to comment and thank Robert Pruter for his comments of Professor Burke's article about "The Babe" greatest athlete. Mr. Pruter did not mention that Catherine also won the Womens Internatiional Bowling Congress All Events title and is a member of the W.I.B.C. Hall of Fame. This association was the women's version of the men's A.B.C.

Catherine was just hitting her stride and top performance in track and field when the war began in Europe and never had the opportunity for an Olympic bid when she was at the peak of her game.

Thank you Mr. Pruter. Her on.

Edmund Fellmeth

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Shop For Our Books & DVD's

WEEKLY SPORTS PUZZLE

View larger Puzzle archive


THIS WEEK

10 years ago

BASEBALL April 2, 2010  Former MLB pitcher Mike Cuellar dies at the age of 72. A 2x World Series champion and 4x All-Star, Cuellar started off with the Cincinnati Reds in 1959 and played for 5 teams, spending the most years with the Baltimore Orioles. He won the AL Cy Young award in his first season with the dynastic Orioles and was their starting pitcher at the 1969 World Series against the NY Mets. Cuellar closed his career with an ERA of 3.14 and 1,632 strikeouts.

20 years ago

BASKETBALL April 2, 2000  At the 19th Women’s NCAA Basketball Championship, the Connecticut Huskies defeat the Tennessee Volunteers 71-52. Led by their famed coach Geno Auriemma, the Huskies claimed their second national title. They would win another 9 championships and become the nation’s most successful women’s basketball program to date. The Connecticut ladies dispatched Penn State at the Semi-finals before taking on Tennessee for the crown.

30 years ago

GOLF April 8, 1990  Nick Faldo wins the 54th annual Masters Tournament held in Augusta, Georgia. Shooting a 278 (-10) and tying Raymond Floyd in the final round after the latter bogeyed on the 16th hole, Faldo emerged victorious in the playoff showdown. It was his second consecutive win at the Masters and third of what would be six career majors. Born in Herdforshire, England, Faldo turned pro in 1976 and has won more majors than any other modern European golfer.

40 years ago

OLYMPICS April 12, 1980 The U.S. Olympic committee announces their boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. A total of 66 countries chose not to attend the games due to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Nevertheless, 80 other nations did agree to send their athletes to the first Olympics that were held in a communist country. Four years later, the Russians and their East European allies would follow-up with a boycott of the Los Angeles games.