A good reporter knows never to become part of the story. Claire Smith recognizes this, believes it and has lived it for 35 years. She pulled it off so well that she could not help but become the central figure in a wonderful story.
She was honored by the sport she loves most in a way that she could not have dreamed of when she first started covering baseball and noticed a sign in the Shea Stadium press box that said, “Women and children not allowed.” Smith, the former Yankees beat writer for the Hartford Courant and national baseball columnist for The New York Times, Saturday became the first woman ever awarded the Hall of Fame’s J.G. Taylor Spink Award.
“This is unbelievable,” she said during a ceremony at Doubleday Field as she shared a stage with many Hall of Fame players and one of her all-time idols, Rachel Robinson, who was presented the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award.
Just this once, it was OK to be part of a story because, as she put it, this was “like a pebble in a pond, which sent out the most beautiful ripples.” Since her award was announced in December, countless people (including college students who called her “Auntie”) have told her how much her story encouraged them.
She acknowledged that she felt awkward answering questions rather than asking them, particularly one from her 29-year-old son Joshua, who had asked her, “What does this mean to you?” At the end of her speech, she told him, “It means the world.”
It really is fine that she is the story because she never set out to be. She did not ask for a special category or different treatment. She just wanted to be allowed to do her work the way anyone else would. It turned out she did it better than most. In her own mind, the mantra was, “You’ve got a job to do.”
Those were the exact words with which Steve Garvey turned around the worst day of Smith’s professional life. She was covering the 1984 National League Championship Series between the Padres and Cubs when she was rudely and forcibly ushered out of the Padres clubhouse because of her gender. Fellow reporter Henry Hecht told Garvey about the situation and the player excused himself from a group of male reporters in the clubhouse for a private interview with Smith in the corridor.
Touched by the gesture, Smith grew emotional. Garvey assured her he would give her all the time she needed, but first she would have to pull herself together: “You have a job to do.”
With the job well done, Smith paused during the ceremony Saturday and requested Garvey accept applause by standing near his seat, “The way you stood up for me.”
Smith has the reporting and writing skills to cover anything, but she always has stuck with baseball (she now works for ESPN). She explained that her parents told her all about Jackie Robinson (Rachel’s late husband) and how he changed everything in 1947. Years later, Smith was a third grader in a Philadelphia Catholic school when the nuns showed the film, “The Jackie Robinson Story.” Smith, the only African American student in the class, said that was the first day she really sat up straight. “I felt good about myself because of what I saw on the screen,” she said.
If they ever do “The Claire Smith Story” it will not be just one long crusade. It will involve someone working hard every day, witnessing the same (sometimes amazing) stuff the other beat writers did — Goose Gossage “celebrating” a Yankees doubleheader sweep by doing a full rant about George Steinbrenner, saying, “You can take that to the fat man upstairs.”
Smith’s award has been widely and rightly celebrated by women journalists. But not only by them. When someone breaks a barrier (or two), it is good for all of us.
Plus, it’s quite a story.