Claire Smith has been a ground-breaking sports writer-journalist for over 30 years. As you will see, her entire career has been and continues to be characterized by a series of “firsts.”
Smith was born in Langhorne, PA. Both of her parents were professionals. Her father was an illustrator and a sculptor. Her mother was a chemist. Smith was educated at Penn State and Temple Universities.
Smith credits her mother for sparking her interest in baseball, particularly Jackie Robinson, pioneer extraordinaire, who, obviously, was and continues to be an inspiration to countless African Americans. The barriers Jackie encountered and his struggles to overcome them were to become a model for Smith’s own professional life.
She recalled that when she was in the third grade her teacher showed the film “The Jackie Robinson Story” to the class. Smith said it made her feel “good about myself.” She was the only African American in the class, and it ”filled [her] with pride.”
When she was nine her parents gave her a special and portentous gift. It was an old manual typewriter. She loved it and pounded out “stories” on it constantly.
Her first journalism job was with the Bucks County Courier, but that was merely a prelude to greatness and notoriety. Smith was to become the first female to serve as a beat writer for a MLB team. She began her ground-breaking career by covering the NY Yankees for the Hartford Courant from 1983-1987. Later, she was a columnist for the NY Times and an editor and columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
According to former Baseball Commissioner, Fay Vincent, Smith got the job with the Times through the recommendation of the late Bart Giamatti, also a former Commissioner and a close friend of Vincent’s. It seems that Giamatti was a loyal reader of the Courant and Smith, and he considered her to be “best baseball writer in the country.” He recommended her to Max Frankel, the executive editor of the Times, who was looking to hire a sportswriter, and that was that.
Smith achieved additional notoriety during her tenure with the Times during the 1994 baseball players’ strike. Sports fans will recall that this was a particularly bitter strike. It even caused the cancellation of the 1994 World Series, the only WS that has ever been cancelled. At one point, the owners threatened to use replacement players. The Baltimore Orioles were the only team that refused to use replacement players, even if it meant forfeiting the games. This became an even bigger story because one of the Orioles , Cal Ripkin, was in the midst of breaking the record for consecutive games played, a record held by the immortal Lou Gehrig, which had been considered unassailable. If any games were played and Ripkin remained on strike, his streak would be broken. Smith covered this compelling side story for the Times with her usual aplomb.
Last Saturday, she became the first woman to be awarded the Baseball Hall of Fame’s J. G. Taylor Spink Award, which is given by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. This is the BWAA’s highest award. It is named after J. G. Taylor Spink, the initial publisher of The Sporting News, the venerable, long-time “bible” of baseball. It has been awarded since 1962.
It was not an easy road for Smith. It is never easy being the “first.” If you are under 40 you may not realize that up until 30 or so years ago sports journalism was essentially a man’s world. Women were virtually non-existent in the field – as reporters, journalists or interviewers. Women were barred from men’s locker rooms and clubhouses. PC, as we know it today, did not exist. Many male athletes were very candid about their feelings that women did not belong there, “invading their privacy.” Those were the barriers that Smith overcame.
One example will illustrate this point. After Game 1 of the 1984 NLCS between the San Diego Padres and the Chicago Cubs, Smith entered the Padres locker room, just like all the male reporters, to conduct interviews for the Courant. The National League had a rule that granted equal access during the playoffs to all accredited journalists, regardless of gender. . Nevertheless, many Padres players strenuously objected to her presence, and she was physically ejected. Without access, she would be unable to do her job effectively. Henry Hecht, another reporter, witnessed this and mentioned it to Padres star Steve Garvey. Garvey left the group of reporters who were interviewing him and went to Smith in the hallway outside the locker room. He told her that “he would give her all the time she needed” to interview him, telling her “you have a job to do.” And so, she did. Not only did Garvey grant Smith the interview, he also ferried himself between Smith and other players still in the locker room to obtain additional stories and quotes for Smith. George Vesey, a fellow sportswriter quipped that Garvey became Smith’s “million dollar stringer.” The incident became a big story, superseding the game, itself, which had not been very compelling to begin with. (The very next day, Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth promulgated a stronger, more encompassing rule granting equal access to all major league locker rooms for all accredited journalists.)
Smith, classy person that she is, never forgot Garvey’s gesture. She invited him to the awards ceremony as her special guest and made sure to give him a special mention.
Presently, Smith is a news editor for ESPN.
I maintain that every female reporter, journalist, interviewer and commentator, who has worked or is currently working in the sports field owes a debt of gratitude to Smith. Yesterday, Mark Hermann, long-time sports columnist for Newsday, wrote that in the last few months “countless people (including college students who called her ‘Auntie’) have told her how much her story [had] encouraged them.” In a sense she was the Jackie Robinson of sports reporting. She led a revolution in sports reporting, and she did it, not with bluster or violence, but with a dogged persistence and quiet dignity. Rather than break down barriers, she persevered until they fell.
Moreover, despite her significant accomplishments, she remains very humble. For example, in her acceptance speech she paid homage to previous winners, such as Ring Lardner, Damon Runyon and Grantland Rice – literary giants all. She said, they and others are “wordsmiths.” Me, I’m just named Smith.” I think those few words sum up Claire Smith quite well.