CLAIRE SMITH

Boy it must have been tough to be a woman way back when. Still is in many ways.

And a woman of color then? Now? Forever?

Gender should never have been nor should it be or continue to be an issue. Race, color, creed religious affiliation or sexual preference either.

This is 2017; we should knock this stuff off. Any strand, strain or shred of bias. Humiliating and just plain ignorant it is. We are so far behind whatever the ‘right’ trajectory of the curve is, it’s embarrassingly stupid. The sooner we recognize that we’re all the same, the better off everyone will be.

Thinking in these terms is long overdue.

I come from a family of strong women. Powerfully intelligent women. Women who could reduce the strongest men to a puddle.

Not my father and not either grandfather mind you, but believe me, each of those gentlemen knew the score. They knew because they chose, of their own free will, to marry women of this sort. They got it and believe me they respected it.

Claire Smith was perhaps the undisputed pioneer of female sports writing. Never mind scaling rock or mountain; hers was the definition of a steeper uphill climb.

Indulge me while I revisit my lessons in Greek mythology. Was it Sisyphus and the Boulder? Punishment was meted out there last I checked. Claire Smith’s lot was to be a woman and a woman of color at that. In her halcyon younger days (and sadly even today) that was the punishment.

But it was nowhere near severe enough to deter her.

Smith, 64, was the first female Major League Baseball beat writer, covering the New York Yankees from 1983 to 1987 for the Hartford Courant. (Ms. Smith is an African-American). Later she worked as a national columnist and baseball writer for The New York Times (1991–1998) and was an editor and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer from 1998 to 2007.

Presently she is ESPN’s news editor of remote productions responsible for the integration of news and analysis in live game broadcasts as well as for the Baseball Tonight & SportsCenter studio programs.

She has been a journalistic force for the better part of four-plus decades. And at times it certainly wasn’t easy, to put it mildly. But she came from good stock, solid as a rock in every way.

Her mother was a chemist. Her father was an illustrator and a sculptor. And it was her mother, who liked baseball and happened to admire Jackie Robinson, who lit the fire. She sat her little girl, then in the third grade, in front of a movie about Robinson, the Dodgers infielder who integrated the major leagues.

There was birthed Ms. Smith’s attraction and then infatuation with the sport and it had less to do with statistics and the vagaries and nuances of the game than it did with its power to break down societal barriers. Ms. Smith has described Robinson and the many, many other African-American players as “our heroes and role models,” and has remarked intuitively that, “their story is intertwined with everyone who grew up in Black America.”

Ms. Smith’s brother, Hawthorne, sagely noted his sister’s uncanny ability to see baseball and sport as part of a larger scheme, a bigger picture. “Claire was always able to marry sport and societal issues,” he said. “It’s important that she is a woman and a person of color, but that’s not why she’s here. She’s here for her excellence.” (‘Here’ was in Cooperstown to receive yet another prestigious award for her work).

And also for her dogged persistence and perseverance. She encountered plenty of resistance from players and officials during her trailblazing tenure at the Courant in the mid-eighties and not from the era’s tumultuous Yanks, whom she wryly noted, “… hardly noticed me because they were holding on for dear life.”

Rather, her most monumental challenge of that time was presented by the San Diego Padres during their 1984 National League Championship Series against the Chicago Cubs. On one of the worst days she ever had at the ballpark, Smith was denied entry to the visiting Padres clubhouse — she was physically removed — following the Cubs 13–0 shellacking of the Pads in Game 1.

There was some song-and-dance that the Padres had players opposed to a woman’s presence in the clubhouse for religious reasons and they refused to let her in. She was trying to conduct interviews on deadline or in simpler terms, do her job. “I had a game story to write,” she said after she had been pushed out the Padres’ door.

Steve Garvey agreed. The empathetic first baseman left the clubhouse, told her she had a job to do and proceeded to feed her quotes from his teammates.

(George Vecsey, then a Sports of the Times columnist, playfully dubbed Garvey “a million-dollar stringer” for his righteous efforts. A ‘stringer’ works tirelessly to provide news snippets or pieces — even photos — on an ongoing basis but is paid only for what is published.)

The very next day, new commissioner Peter Ueberroth crafted and instituted a league policy mandating that all clubhouses be open to all credentialed writers.

Claire Smith was not the type to knock down clubhouse doors. She was the kind to steadfastly hold her ground until they opened.

This unwavering and dutifully firm resolve, coupled with her remarkable journalistic talents of course, was rewarded in December of 2016 when Ms. Smith was elected the 2017 winner of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award in balloting by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. The award, presented annually to a sportswriter “for meritorious contributions to baseball writing” and named for Spink, a driving force behind The Sporting News (known as the “Baseball Bible”) recognized Smith as its 68th. winner and first female recipient ever.

She is the fourth African-American (Wendell Smith — no relation — 1993; Sam Lacy — 1997; and Larry Whiteside — 2008 preceded her) to be voted into the writers’ wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

During her acceptance speech at the recent Hall of Fame Induction weekend ceremony, Ms. Smith reflected on her journey saying, “I humbly stand on stage for those who were stung by racism or sexism or any other insidious bias and persevered. You are unbreakable. You make me proud.”

The tenor and delivery of her message elicited a standing ovation from other baseball pioneering luminaries including Sandy Koufax who refused to pitch in the World Series on Yom Kippur; Frank Robinson, the game’s first black major league manager and Rachel Robinson, the widow of Jackie Robinson.

The crown jewel moment arrived when Ms. Smith introduced Garvey in the audience, asked him to stand and thanked him for his help all those years ago. He waved in an almost perfunctory way — he’s shy and has no desire to steal another’s thunder — and quickly reclaimed his seat.

Remarked Garvey later about the storied incident, “I knew it was a very important moment. And I knew she was a very deep soul.”

Deep enough to direct her speech to her son Joshua and also to cite, with great respect, previous winners of the Spink award including Ring Lardner, Damon Runyon and Grantland Rice.

Then in her typically insistent and humble way she wrapped by saying, “Those are wordsmiths. Me, I’m just named Smith.”

[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in August 2017.]

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