WHEN A FRIEND PUBLISHES a golf-related book and you run a golf blog, you don’t attempt to write an unbiased review. You celebrate. So this is a celebration of WONDER GIRL: The Magnificent Sporting Life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias by New York Times bestselling author (and friend) Don Van Natta Jr.
The truth is, I’m not much of a review writer anyway. And I’m certainly biased when it comes to Don. If you knew him and his work like I do, you might be too. Even so, Don doesn’t need my praise when heavyweights like Tom Brokaw, Jeremy Schaap and James Dodson have unanimously declared WONDER GIRL to be the definitive account of the world’s greatest female athlete, “elegantly told, funny and tragic.”
“I haven’t enjoyed a sports biography this much in years,” noted Dodson, Ben Hogan’s biographer.
The reviews will roll in and they’ll be mostly good to great, as they should be, so I’ll tell you a bit about how I met Don and was lucky enough to converse with him when he was writing Babe’s story on weekends in the summer of 2009.
Don is an accidental friend, another personal example of how the virtual world of blogging can lead to a real-world friendship. During the 2008 election season, I got the crazy idea to stage a fictitious match play tournament called the Presidents Golf Championship at ARMCHAIR GOLF BLOG. Who better to have as a guest analyst than the bestselling author of First Off the Tee: Presidential Hackers, Duffers, and Cheaters from Taft to Bush? I had seen Don Van Natta’s byline on golf articles and knew about his presidential golf book.
Looking back on it now, I’m a bit surprised that I looked up the author and cold called him at his home on a Saturday morning to propose the guest analyst arrangement. Why would a bestselling author, New York Times investigative reporter and member of two Pulitzer Prize-winning teams want to have anything to do with me and my golf blog?
But I made that call and Don took it. He jumped on board and we held the tournament. It was fun. (Eisenhower upset Kennedy in the finals.) During that same time, Don’s feature on First Golfer Barack Obama appeared in Golf Digest. Since then, he has been a good friend and a generous mentor and adviser on my own writing projects.
In July 2009 I met Don at Fitzgerald’s 1928, an eatery and tavern in his former Glen Ridge, New Jersey, neighborhood. During a long, enjoyable dinner, he told me about the challenges of bringing the incomparable Babe Didrikson Zaharias to life on the page. He was striving for a folksy narrative voice that would match the bigger-than-life sports hero from little Beaumont, Texas. Later he shared early chapters with me and occasionally sent lengthy emails about his progress on the manuscript.
After reading early draft chapters, I knew this would be a special biography of an extraordinary female athlete (and golfer) who was a half century ahead of her time. I’ve since read the entire book. It’s outstanding.
Babe would probably fail as a fictional character. Who would believe that a one-woman track team could win a National AAU Championship? Or that anyone (man or woman) could excel in multiple sports, including basketball, track and field, softball, baseball, tennis and golf? Or that a woman could almost single-handedly launch a ladies professional golf tour (the LPGA) in the 1950s?
Babe did it all, won at all. She was the greatest—and told everyone she was the greatest—long before Cassius Clay (now Muhammad Ali) stepped out of a Louisville, Kentucky, gym and dazzled the world with his lightning fists and brash poetic pronouncements. Babe mowed down every foe in her path until stricken with cancer. And, as you would expect, she didn’t back down when faced with the deadly disease.
Don delivers a complete and heartfelt portrait of Babe. He doesn’t gloss over Babe’s personal flaws. He is, after all, a veteran investigative reporter. But he also has succeeded at crafting a warm, folksy narrative, just as he set out to do. WONDER GIRL lopes along as gracefully as young Babe running and hurdling the hedges in her Beaumont neighborhood.
Check out WONDER GIRL at Amazon, Little, Brown and Company (publisher), Barnes & Noble and Borders.
−The Armchair Golfer