I recently addressed a rather odd topic for an audience of political progressives: “Who was your sports hero growing up?
Of course, sports today is very political – from billionaire team owners demanding that taxpayers build sports palaces for them, to the recent show of political solidarity by athletes who have “Hands up, Don’t shoot” written across their jerseys.
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In the 1950s and ’60s, however, when I grew up playing ball, sports “heroes” were not supposed to be political. Yet, just by being in the game, some players were making profound political statements every day. Jackie Robinson, for example, heroically endured fierce racism to break down the solid wall of segregation in baseball.
I never considered athletes to be heroes, but some heroes do happen to be athletes, including the one I chose. Even as a boy, I knew that “Babe” was unusual, excelling in sports, but doing something bigger. Not Babe Ruth, but Babe Didrikson Zaharias – a woman! Indeed, a woman who cast-off the female stereotype of being delicate, half-court players.
Raised in a hardscrabble, Texas working family, Babe was a national champion basketball player; she won countless events in national track meets and set four world records in the Olympics; she went on to pioneer the women’s golf tour, winning 82 tournaments and founding the LPGA; and she was named sports’ “Woman of The Year” five times.
But Babe Zaharias’ greatest triumph was to alter America’s cultural biases about what a woman couldn’t do. She changed the political climate so girls and women who came after her could get more programs, funding, coaching, opportunities, and respect for developing their athleticism. “My main idea,” she said, “always has been to go out there and cut loose with everything I’ve got. I’ve never been afraid to go up against anything.”