Review: ‘Wonder Girl’ leaves us wondering

Villainous professional wrestler George Zaharias, an 8 handicap, met Mildred Didrikson when they were paired together during the first two rounds of the 1938 Los Angeles Open. He beat The Babe by a shot that first day, 83-84, and though neither made the 36-hole cut, they went on to form a colorful, if strained, partnership. He was the big galoot turned entrepreneur. She was the rough-hewn Texas tomboy who never met a sport she didn’t master.

Her life as a barnstormer, sports headliner, champion golfer and pack-a-day smoker (before her death from cancer at age 45 in 1956) is the subject of New York Times investigative reporter Don Van Natta Jr.’s newest book. It tells the story of how Didrikson emerged from small-town poverty to become the most celebrated sportswoman of the first half of the 20th century, if not the greatest athlete of her age.

She was an All-American basketball star before gaining international attention for winning three track and field gold medals at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. She then undertook the only serious training in her life in an effort to master golf, and soon she was doing exhibitions with Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan, winning 14 consecutive amateur golf titles in 1946, helping found the LPGA and claiming three U.S. Women’s Open crowns.

Van Natta has dug deeply, drawing upon old newspapers accounts, sports museum archives and the memories of those who knew The Babe. What he hasn’t combed is her soul, and so we come away knowing very little of her beliefs, fears and loves. She was, after all, a product of sportswriters looking to apply cartoonish caricatures wherever they could, and in The Babe they found a worthy subject. But a life given to such a ceaseless quest for competition and filled with insufferable and tasteless bragging (in an early form of “trash talking”) suggests an undercurrent of deep insecurity. Van Natta knows it’s there and writes suggestively, but only fleetingly, of its various sources: working-class anxiety, a culture’s awkwardness with female public achievement and anxiety about gender identity.

In “Wonder Girl,” we learn what Didrikson publicly achieved. Maybe it’s Van Natta’s achievement that we can now turn to what privately drove The Babe.

• • •

Wonder Girl: The Magnificent Sporting Life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias

• By Don Van Natta Jr.

• New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2011

• 405 pages, hardcover, with illustrations

• $27.99

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