Our neighborhood’s contributions to Olympic glory

Although the euphoria of the 2012 Summer Olympics has subsided and celebrations mostly ceased, there are more Olympic stories to be told — Oak Cliff Olympic stories. But for that, we need to go back a few decades.

Mildred "Babe" Didrikson

Image courtesy of April 10, 1932 “Dallas Morning News” Historical Archives.

Named by the Associated Press in 1950 as the most important woman athlete of the century, Babe Didrikson developed many of her athletic skills right here in Dallas, in Oak Cliff, preparing for the Olympics. And she practiced at Lake Cliff Park.

Yes siree, Bob! At Lake Cliff.

With an audience of Cliffites, who came out early to secure prime observation spots, the spectators waited for Didrikson to arrive each day. According to her coach, “Colonel” Melvin J. McCombs, she would jog north from her residence on Haines Street and then turn down Colorado Boulevard toward the park, then back home and then back to the park — frequently re-running the route until after dark. She’d practice her javelin, shot put and other events while the delighted crowd encouraged her with applause and verbal awes, sounds that Didrikson relished.

Mildred “Babe” Didrikson hailed from Beaumont, where the high-schooler’s athletic prowess clearly stood out from the pack. McCombs, the highly successful coach of the of Employers Casualty Insurance Company’s female sports teams — the Golden Cyclones — convinced the young athlete to move to Dallas and play basketball for him.

McCombs soon realized, however, that Didrikson’s talents and personality were better suited to individual sports, so he began coaching her in track and field. Competing with the company’s team at the 1932 AAU Track & Field competition, she single-handedly won the team championship. The competition’s individual events also served as the U.S. Olympic trials, and of the 10 events offered, Didrikson participated in eight … and won six (the shot put and long jump, and set the world record in the baseball throw, 80-meter hurdles, high jump and javelin)! Her 30-point total was eight more points than the entire 22-woman University of Illinois team.

In the ’32 Los Angeles Olympics, women were allowed to enter only three events. Didrikson won gold in two: the javelin and the 80-meter hurdles. She tied for gold in high jump, but was awarded silver when her jumping style was ruled as illegal for the time.

Soon, Didrickson’s interest turned to golf. She rose through the ranks at a remarkable pace and by 1936 was considered the best female golfer in the country. She won 13 consecutive tournaments, and strangely enough her winning streak was ended by an Oak Cliff native, former Sunset Bison golfer Bettye Mims Danoff. Didrickson took the defeat gracefully, although she was reported to be ill during play and running a temperature. During her professional (LPGA) career, she took 31 tournaments including three U.S. Opens, before her early death in 1956.

Didrikson wasn’t an official Oak Cliff native, but it seems reasonable for us to claim her. Certainly her days on Haines Street and at Lake Cliff Park helped place her on the Olympic path.

Eddie Southern

Photo courtesy of Eddie Southern

Oak Cliff’s Eddie Southern began running races at W. E. Greiner Junior High School before entering Sunset, where he set state and national high school records ablaze. The 1955 graduate competed as a member of the ’56 USA Olympic Track Team that traveled to Melborne, Austrailia, and stood on the podium as the 440-meter hurdles Olympic silver medalist. Along with his USA teammate Glenn Davis, Southern broke the world record in the pre-lims, and then both men broke it again in the finals. Southern was leading the pack until the last hurdle, when Davis passed him by and grabbed the gold. Southern went on to lead the University of Texas Track Team to Southwest Conference championships in ’57, ’58 and ’59, setting more individual records in multiple events.

After an unfortunate stumble in the last few meters of the 1960 Olympic games, Southern’s opportunity to return to the winner’s circle ended. But in 1969 he was inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame with accolades from, among others, Clyde Littlefield, legendary UT track coach.

Rafer Johnson.

Photo courtesy of UCLA Athletics

Another Olympian, Rafer Johnson, attended Oak Cliff’s Harlee Elementary School for six years, before his family moved to California. Always an outstanding academic and athletic student, Johnson was also a natural leader. Injured while participating in the 1956 Olympics, he took the silver medal in decathlon before winning the gold at the 1960 games, with a record-breaking score of 8,392 points. The decath winner, who, according to tradition, is regarded as the best all-around athlete in the world, was also the captain of the American team and carried the U.S. flag in the opening ceremonies — the first African-American to have this honor. At the 1980 Los Angeles Olympics, Johnson had the distinctive honor of lighting the Olympic flame.

For decades, Cliffites have had reason to shout “USA!” Sports legends like Didrickson, Johnson and Southern are among those who have given us reason. So … go, USA! Go, Oak Cliff!