By Phil Stacey
---- — One of the greatest female athletes in American sports lore had one of her most triumphant victories here on the North Shore, yet little has ever been written about it.
Gary Larrabee wanted to know why.
More accurately, he was intent on doing something about it.
Now, you can read all about Babe Zaharias and her dominant victory at the 1954 U.S. Women’s Open, held at Salem Country Club, in Larrabee’s new book, ‘Sensation at Salem.’
“It had always been in the recesses of my brain since I was aware of the fact she made golf history here on the North Shore,” said Larrabee, who worked at The Salem News from 1971-95 and now writes tomes on local histories. “But any time I’d come across something said or written about Babe, it would only give her win at Salem a glossing over. It got the short shrift everywhere, even her autobiography.
“In effect, it was her greatest moment in golf ... and certainly in North Shore golfing history.”
Larrabee, the North Shore’s foremost authority on all things golf, knew a litany of information about Zaharias going into the project — her upbringing in Beaumont, Texas; how she won two gold medals and a silver in track and field at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles; her athletic prowess in other fields such as basketball and softball; and her rise to fame as a golfer, which she started playing in 1935 and quickly became the face of women’s golf; and as one of the founding members of the Ladies Pro Golf Association. He was even aware that she had played on the North Shore previously, doing exhibitions some two decades earlier at both the United Shoe (now Beverly Golf & Tennis Club) and Happy Valley in Lynn (now Gannon Golf Club).
But his research unearthed some facts that make Zaharias’ triumph at Salem CC even more dynamic.
“I didn’t know how truly sick Babe had been during that time,” said Larrabee, a Danvers native who now resides in Wenham. “Even before 1953, when she had major intestinal (colon cancer) surgery, she had been pretty sick. She had good days and weeks, and some bad days and weeks. There was extreme doubt she’d be able to return to golf after her surgery; her surgeon in Texas said she’d never play competitively again.
“A lot has been written about Babe winning the ‘54 Open while wearing a colostomy bag, a remarkable feat. But to find out how she got her game back into condition and not being afraid to come out and make the comeback she did to the point where, lo and behold, a year after the surgery she won the most important tournament in women’s golf for the third time, was remarkable.”
Zaharias not only won the Open, she decimated the field with a 12-stroke victory over other name players such as Louise Suggs, Betsy Rawls, Patty Berg and Jackie Pung. The event, which took place July 1-3 of that year, was her last great triumph, as Zaharias died two years later after her cancer returned.
Clearly the most recognizable name in women’s golf, Zaharias attracted the galleries throughout her conquest of Salem — which she certainly helped put on the American golfing map with her exquisite performance, said Larrabee. “She was a tremendous goodwill ambassador to golf; the Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus of her day,” he said.
Another theme throughout ‘Sensation at Salem’ is Zaharias’ relationship with her husband, former pro wrestler George Zaharias. Larrabee describes it as “an extraordinarily loving but platonic relationship” and recounts how the two forged ahead through golf society.
Larrabee, who has written a number of books on North Shore golf history (’The Green and Gold Coast’ and a history of Salem Country Club) and is working on centennial books on both Kernwood Country Club and Rockport Country Club, is happy with his finished work and the response he’s gotten. The half-dozen members at Salem CC who helped fund the project (”they served as my angels,” he said) are also pleased with the end result.
“It’s a book not just about recounting the week and Babe’s win,” said Larrabee, “but a look at a great athlete and woman who has been dead for almost 60 years. “I’ve really tried to capture the history of the event in this fashion, and I’m very happy with it.”