Don Van Natta Jr.'s "Wonder Girl: The Magnificent Sporting Life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias" is a new biography of one of the 20th century's most gifted athletes. Though known for her golf game, Babe was a woman who never met a sport she couldn't master.

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‘Wonder Girl: The Magnificent Sporting Life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias’

by Don Van Natta Jr.

Little, Brown, 256 pp., $27.99

When ESPN and The Associated Press compiled their lists of the best athletes of the 20th century, only one woman was in the top 10, along with the likes of Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth and Muhammad Ali. She was Babe Didrikson Zaharias.

Universally known as Babe, this gifted athlete was a dynamo who never met a sport she couldn’t master, from basketball and bowling to swimming and tennis. She won two gold medals and a silver in track and field at the 1932 Olympics. Then she became a world-class golfer and a founding member of the LPGA Tour.

Author Don Van Natta Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times, and he has delivered a well-researched, readable book about a remarkable woman whose biggest hurdles weren’t on the track.

Babe grew up as a Texas tomboy in Beaumont, the second youngest of seven children of Norwegian immigrant parents. Throughout her life, her repertoire included intimidation and boasting, but she also could be witty and charming.

In 1947 she made sports fans on two continents smile when she danced the Highland fling on the greens after her matches, on her way to becoming the first American to win the British Women’s Amateur championship.

Babe was a mediocre student who dropped out of high school to play basketball for a women’s team sponsored by a Dallas insurance company. She was gifted, but also a ball hog and self-promoter. She gravitated to individual sports where she didn’t have to share a spotlight and only had to depend on herself to win.

There was nothing remarkable about her dimensions — she was 5 feet 6 ½ inches tall and weighed 132 pounds at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. There she won the javelin competition (a throw of 143 feet, 4 inches), the 80-meter hurdles (11.7 seconds) and was second in the high jump (5 feet, 5 inches). These marks are considered decent only for high-school girls today, but one barometer of her athleticism that has stood the test of time was her baseball throw of 296 feet.

After the Olympics, she capitalized on her fame by doing everything from a brief stint in vaudeville to playing on the bearded House of David men’s baseball team that toured the nation. One of her big breaks came when a wealthy Fort Worth woman took Babe under her wing and gave her Pygmalion tutorials on everything from dressing properly to hairstyling. After that, Babe was no longer glamour-challenged, and gossip subsided about her “manliness.”

As a professional golfer, she received under-the-table appearance fees and told the other golfers, “I’m the star and the rest of you are the chorus.” She won 14 consecutive events but claimed the streak was 17.

In 1938, Babe married George Zaharias, a professional wrestler with a reputation as the “nastiest villain” in the theatrical sport. Their nearly 18-year marriage was a ride of ups and downs, tender moments, then nasty fights and long separations. Babe was diagnosed with cancer in 1953 and underwent a colostomy. With willpower, she won her third U.S. Women’s Open in 1954.

Her death in 1956 at age 45 of cancer was such a big news event that President Eisenhower began his news conference that morning with a tribute to her. Fifty-five years later, Van Natta’s book will help keep her memory alive.

Craig Smith is a retired Seattle Times sports writer.