Claire Smith can remember the exact moment when she fell irrevocably in love with baseball. Already a fan of the sport, she was a third-grader in suburban Philadelphia when the nuns took her class into the church basement for a screening of “The Jackie Robinson Story.”
“My mom was a huge Dodger fan and had told me about Jackie and Rachel,” she said, referring to Robinson’s wife. “But to see him on the screen and see how handsome and strong and vibrant he was, I will never forget. They were our heroes and role models. Their story is intertwined with everyone who grew up in Black America.”
Smith saw at a young age that baseball was a place where you could break down barriers, so it seems only right that she broke down one of her own. This summer, 55 years after Robinson became the first African-American to be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame, Smith will become the first woman and third African-American to win the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, the highest honor of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, and earn a spot in the writers’ wing in Cooperstown.
Smith, who currently works as a news editor for ESPN, was one of a handful of women in the country writing about baseball when she took over the Yankees’ beat for the Hartford Courant in 1983. It’s hard to explain just how hard it was back then for a woman who wanted to cover the sport. But here is an attempt: The same organization that honored Smith by voting her into the Hall of Fame this year was issuing tickets to its annual dinner that read “Stag. No women allowed” when Smith broke into the business.
“How wonderful is it that a girl now who wants to grow up and cover baseball will be able to walk into the Hall of Fame and have Claire as a role model?’ said Lisa Nehus Saxon, who was the Angels beat writer for the Los Angeles Daily News in the 1980s. “They don’t have to imagine, ‘What would it be like?’ They can see what she did and see that she did it very well.”
The Eighties were a difficult transitional time for women covering sports. By court order, women won the right to equal access to the locker room in 1978, but it often was left up to individual reporters to fend for themselves on a game-by-game basis. Saxon said she was regularly propositioned, insulted and physically touched by players. Susan Fornoff, who covered the Oakland A’s for the Sacramento Bee, received a live rat in a corsage box from Dave Kingman.
Smith considers herself relatively lucky.
“I wasn’t the first. I wasn’t the bravest,” she said. “I will never pretend that I had it as difficult as a lot of women. I had one bad day in 35 years. Some women had seven bad days because they didn’t have that Yankees organization for support and sophisticated players who had their backs.”
Smith’s one bad day, however, was history-making.
Thirty-three years ago, while trying to cover Game 1 of the 1984 National League Championship Series in Chicago between the San Diego Padres and the Cubs, Smith was physically pushed out of the visitors’ clubhouse and showered with catcalls. When she appealed to then-Padres general manager Jack McKeon to let her do her job, he shrugged and said, “This is Dick Williams’ clubhouse,” referring to the Padres’ manager.
Smith, the only baseball writer for the Courant at the series, was on deadline. She had been worried that the Padres, then known for not allowing women in their clubhouse, would be a problem. The doors to the American League clubhouses had been forced open by the courts six years earlier, but the National League still allowed each club to determine its policy regarding women reporters in the clubhouse.
The Padres refused to bring any players outside for her to interview. By now, the sexist treatment she was receiving from seemingly everyone had left her in tears. She asked a fellow reporter to go inside and tell Padres first baseman Steve Garvey, with whom she had a good relationship, what had happened.
When Garvey came out, he was shocked. He told her he would help her but that she had to stop crying because she had a job to do. Smith got her story, and the next day, after hearing what had happened to Smith, new baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth took the power away from clubs to set locker-room policies, forcing open MLB doors for all credentialed writers.
When Smith was honored late last month at the Baseball Writers’ Association of America dinner in New York, it was Garvey who gave her introductory speech.
“In her warm and gentle way, she won us all over,” Garvey said. “She not only wrote, but she taught us responsibility to do the right thing and say the right thing.”
Smith, 63, grew up in a baseball-crazed family that believed a person should pursue his or her passions. Her mother was a chemist who worked in General Electric’s wing of the space program. Her father was an accomplished artist who pushed Claire to go after what she wanted after she initially dropped out of Penn State.
“I was lost,” Smith said. “My dad got tired of me moping around the house and asked me, ‘What do you want to do?’ I said I want to work in baseball. It had been my passion forever.”
It took Smith a while to get that baseball job. After getting a journalism degree at Temple, she worked for the Bucks County Courier Times, where the sports editor didn’t believe women should be sportswriters. She moved to the Philadelphia Bulletin, where she covered high school sports and got her big break when she wrote a front-page fan reaction story after Pete Rose broke Stan Musial’s National League hit record in 1981.
Two years later, she moved to the Hartford Courant to cover the Mets part-time. When the Yankees beat writer got injured playing softball, she moved over to the Yankees and quickly distinguished herself. She later moved on to cover baseball at The New York Times and then took a job as a general sports columnist in Philadelphia before moving to ESPN.
“This is long overdue,” said Jon Pessah, who was Smith’s sports editor at the Hartford Courant and later became Newsday’s sports editor. “You can’t look at this award that is for excellence and trailblazing and wait this long for someone who has been doing it for 30 years . . . She’s done a great job for a long, long time and opened the door to generations of people who came after her.”
Smith is very cognizant of the role she’s played over the years. She has mentored younger female and African-American sportswriters and remained close friends with the women with whom she covered the sport. Smith traveled with Saxon to San Diego last summer for a meeting during the All-Star Game at which the BBWAA was going to announce the three journalists who would be on the ballot. The two held hands under the table as they prepared to call the names, then hugged when Smith’s was among them.
“When we started, we didn’t know if we could get in the door. We didn’t know if we could get in the locker room. We didn’t know where our seat would be in the press box,” Saxon said. “And now Claire is a step away from being ushered into the Hall of Fame. There’s only a handful of people who understand the day-to-day grind of what we did. I’m so happy for her.”