A well deserving award for your years of being an honorable baseball writer and wonderful human being. And inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame caps off 34 years of covering the National Pastime with pride and joy
By ARNIE LESHIN, Santa Fe Today
It’s an honor, a proud honor, to continue to spread the news about Claire Smith. If you’ve missed it, you haven’t been reading the newspapers or watching TV.
It’s good, in fact, great, that this lovely woman’s long groundbreaking journal in baseball made a stop this past Saturday in Cooperstown, N.Y., where she was honored with the prestigious J.G. Taylor Spink Award as part of the annual National Baseball Hall of Fame induction weekend at Doubleday Field.
The Spink Award is the top honor for a baseball writer, and is selected annually by the Baseball Writers of America.
Yes, everything has come up roses for a sportswriter who received this award for meritorious contributions to baseball writing. She is the first woman to work a beat in the major leagues, and she broke grounds in the profession as an African-American.
She broke down several times in accepting the award. She had to wipe away tears in turn with flashing her contagious smile. She called the honor the most memorable moment of her career.
And I was fortunate to know her, to work with her, to have her as one of my peers during my ages of sports writing.
It was midway through the 1982 baseball season, the year that followed the baseball strike in June, when I and others first met Smith as she inherited the prestigious beat, the New York Yankees.
It was the year after they had lost the ’81 World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers in seven games, a time when owner George Steinbrenner’s revolving door had not one, not two, but three different managers passing through.
But the Hartford Courant thought only that she was the one who deserved this promotion, that she was well prepared to handle it.
We were in the Yankee clubhouse when Smith quietly walked by and introduced herself. Her smile appeared genuine, her handshake was warm.
It was two hours before game time. Yankee officials offered her assistance. No one ordered her out of the clubhouse. Her gender was as welcome as her color.
It wasn’t until 1984 when she was assigned by the Courant to cover the playoffs, that she finally got a heave-oh from a clubhouse, that of the Chicago Cubs.
I wasn’t there, but I received reports of what transpired from other baseball writers who were. She hadn’t taken two steps into the locker room when a loud voice informed her that this was not the place for women, then, when she did a double-take, she was escorted outside.
“Arnie, I was manhandled,” she said when we met up in the opening game of 1985 at Yankee Stadium. “I was not prepared for it because it never happened to me before. I lost my composure, I became emotional, actually crying when Steve Garvey came over, put his arm around me, and let me know how wrong this was, that I was as welcome as any other reporter.”
She said that picked her up a little, and thanked Garvey, the player, and the writers who comforted her. But she added that she was so upset that she
called her newspaper and they said to forget the clubhouse and just head up to the press box.
Not long after, the problem was solved, and now Smith, Jane Gross, Helene Elliott and other female reporters were allowed to go where their peers did.
This came after Gross, whose father, Milton Gross, was a renowned columnist with the New York Post, was given a constant hard time by then-Yankee manager Billy Martin, ordered out of his office several times, and finally called her paper, the New York Times, to tell it she had had it and was going home.
Elliott covered the New York Mets and Mets’ outfielder Dave Kingman once greeted her by dropping his towel, and once sent a mouse in a box up to her in the press box, to which she let out a scream.
I was there to witness both of these fiascos. Fortunately, Smith wasn’t. She was on the way to making only friends, politely requesting interviews and sometimes even getting hugs, and writing great stuff, stuff that never invited controversies, and never lost the friendship shared with her peers.
After 34 years on the beat, after never losing her charm and professionalism, and after being presented with various awards along the way, Smith is currently a contributing editor for ESPN’s universal news group, with an emphasis on baseball.
After one year of a mandatory journalism course at Temple University, she began at the Courant in 1980, later covering sports for the New York Times and her hometown newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer. Prior to the Courant, she wrote for the Buck County Courier Times and the Philadelphia Bulletin. She always said she got her teeth at these hometown papers.
The City of Brotherly Love was her hometown, but she grew up a Brooklyn Dodger fan, listening to their games on her little transistor radio by hiding under her bed sheets. And when the Dodgers came to Philly, her mother took her and her brother to Connie Mack Stadium, they for the Phillies, she for the team from Brooklyn.
She grew up, she says, with “Jackie, Campy, Pee Wee, and with lions like Hank, Willie, Frank, Doby, and later the likes of Don Baylor, Willie
Randolph, Dusty Baker, Johnny Bench, and Donnie Baseball.” She listened to the Yankee games broadcast by (Bill) White and the “Scooter” Phil Rizzuto, who she called the ‘huckleberries.’
Now 62, Claire Smith is getting rewarded for what she has brought to the game of baseball, for being a lovely woman with kindness, for being herself and realizing her dreams of being a sportswriter. With Rachel Robinson, her son, Joshua, and a crowd of Claire Smith fans, she began her speech.
“Like a pebble tossed into a pond,” she said, “the honor of being named the 2017 Spink Award winner sent out the most beautiful ripples, which are now washing up on the shores of Lake Ostego, magically carrying my family and me to the most memorable moment of my career.
“To the BBWAA, to paraphrase dear, dear Yogi Berra, “I wanna thank you for making this day necessary.”
She told of the day that her son Joshua, after the amazing announcement and ensuing flood of congratulatory messages, rendered her speechless last December.
She said, “I told Josh that other Spink Award winners – my heroes – were applauding me. The world was upside down. Then he asked what does this mean to me?”
“I don’t know, I answered. “So many extraordinary names are attached to this award. Damon Runyon, Wendell Smith, Red Smith. They were real wordsmiths. Me? I’m just named Smith.”
After numerous standing ovations, she concluded by showing gratitude for what she had accomplished.
“Journalists, some young enough to be my children,” she said, “began to reach out as I visited campuses and events hosted by the (Jackie) Robinson Foundation, the Negro Baseball Museum, the Association for Women in Sports Media. Many spoke of research papers and articles they’d written about me. Now they were lining up to thank me for somehow inspiring them.
“Talk about missing the lead. Somehow, I must have touched something within these youngsters and never knew it.”
To which I can say, Claire Smith is a classy women deserving of all this recognition, and how thankful I am to be so proud to know her.
And that writing this was so special.