George Zaharias and Babe Didrikson, the First Power Couple in the World of Sports

George and Babe Didrikson Zaharias in 1938, the year they were married. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Theodore Vetoyanis (Greek: Θεόδωρος Βετογιάνης) was an American professional wrestler and sports promoter, known by his ring name of George Zaharias, and more popularly known as “The Crying Greek from Cripple Creek” during the 1930s.

Although he was prominent enough in his own right as a wrestler to have been inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2020, many Americans remember him best as the husband of Babe Didrikson Zaharias, the stellar multi-sport Olympic champion in track and field, who went on to excel in golf and other sports.

Born February 27, 1908 in Pueblo, Colorado, Zaharias was a bruiser for that time, weighing in at a hefty 300 pounds. His debut match was in 1930.

One of Zaharias’ most celebrated bouts was a 1932 match with Jim Londos at a sold-out Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, which Londos won. Back in those times, wrestling was an extremely popular sport, and the audience of 14,500 was the highest attendance for any North American wrestling match that year.

 

In 1938, Zaharias met Babe Didrikson, a preternaturally talented female athlete who had set four world records in track and field at the 1932 Olympics, at a charity golf event; the promoter had matched the wrestler, the golfer, and a minister in a threesome as a gag.

Falling immediately head over heels in love, Zaharias and Didrikson married later that year, and Zaharias quit wrestling in order to manage his wife’s career.

For more than a decade, he devoted himself to furthering her accomplishments, encouraging her to take up any sport that she thought she could excel in, at a time when, at best, female athletes and their efforts were thought of as unfeminine — and at worst, faced real marginalization and discrimination.

George and Babe Didrikson-Zaharias in 1955. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Known as a gentle giant, the Greek-American man put himself in the backseat and promoted his wife’s achievements at the sacrifice of his own — something that was almost unheard-of at the time, when the vast majority of women did not even work outside the home.

Acknowledged in her lifetime as the greatest female athlete of all time, a museum in Beaumont, Texas, is devoted to the portrayal of Babe Didrikson-Zaharias’ stellar accomplishments in the world of sport.

She excelled in nearly every sport that existed at the time — basketball, track, golf, mens’ professional baseball, tennis, swimming, diving, volleyball, handball, bowling, billiards, skating and cycling — and even, amazingly, boxing.

In 1932, Babe won the national women’s AAU/Olympic tryouts in Track and Field as an unattached athlete, with 30 points — eight points over the entire Illinois Women’s Athletic Club, which came in second place.

This has been declared to be the greatest single achievement in a series of events in the history of athletics. She was called “Wonder Girl” by Grantland Rice after winning two gold medals, in hurdles and the javelin and one silver, in the high jump, in the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Babe eventually focused on golf, at Rice’s suggestion, and went on to be declared by golfing legend Bobby Jones as “one of the ten best golfers of all time.” During her career, Babe won a total of 82 golf tournaments, both amateur and professional.

Didrikson-Zaharias had her greatest athletic year in 1950 when she completed the Grand Slam of the three women’s major tournaments in golf at that time: the US Open, the Titleholders Championship, and the Women’s Western Open.

She went on to win the LPGA Championship a staggering ten times. Didrikson Zaharias was voted the “World’s Greatest Woman Athlete of the First Half of the 20th Century” by the Associated Press, and the only athlete to be named Woman Athlete of the Year by the AP six times, in 1932, 1945, 1946, 1947, 1950 and 1954.

As his wife’s career soared, Zaharias also promoted wrestlers, managed a tailoring shop, a women’s sports clothier in Beverly Hills, California, and a golf course in Florida, where the couple eventually retired. The former wrestler also did some part-time acting during his long and varied career.

In 1975, the former football player-turned actor Alex Karras portrayed Zaharias in the television movie “Babe,” which told the story of their lives. The touching film also depicted her battle to be accepted as a woman in a man’s sports world, and her fight against cancer, all while being supported by her biggest fan, her husband, George Zaharias.

After she was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1953 and again in 1955, George had completely devoted himself to her care.

The Zahariases had no children and unfortunately had been rebuffed by authorities when they sought to adopt. Several years after Babe’s death, George married actress Betty Burgess in January of 1960 in Las Vegas.

He died in Tampa, Florida, May 22, 1984 at age 76, having outlived Babe, the love of his life, by 28 years.

George Zaharias was inducted into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum as part of the Class of 2020.