Pioneering writer Smith receives Spink Award

First female recipient of honor recalls struggles, kindnesses

July 29th, 2017

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- When you're the first to accomplish something notable, it comes with labels. "Pioneer" is often used, as is "trailblazer."

As an African-American woman who established herself as one of the most respected baseball writers over a 35-year career, Claire Smith realizes she is distinctly tied to those two concepts.

She was the first woman to cover Major League Baseball as a full-time beat writer, and she did so during an era when female sportswriters were still an enigma -- and often not welcomed by male counterparts.

:: 2017 Hall of Fame induction coverage ::

She is also the first female recipient of the prestigious J.G. Taylor Spink Award for meritorious contributions to baseball writing, which she gratefully accepted during Saturday's annual Hall of Fame Awards Presentation at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown.

"Like a pebble tossed into a pond, 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 Otsego, magically carrying my family and me to the most memorable moment of my career," Smith said.

Being a trailblazer may humble Smith, but it doesn't define her. Her abilities -- superb writing, informative, thorough and thoughtful reporting -- more aptly shape her legacy.

Smith started her baseball writing career in 1983, spending five years at the Hartford Courant covering the Yankees. She then became a columnist with the New York Times from 1991-98 and an editor and columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1998-2007.

Now a coordinating news editor for ESPN's universal news group, Smith delivered her acceptance speech as a love letter to her grown son, Joshua, and as a tribute to her late parents, who encouraged her to aim high when she revealed to them as a young woman that she wanted to be a baseball writer.

"Throughout my career, all I wanted was to go to work, do my best to get it right, then look in the mirror and ask, "Mom, Dad, did I do you proud?'" Smith said to her son. "I wanted to be able to look you in the eye, Josh, and ask the same.

"Then Mr. Spink's Award came along."

Joshua was one of many prominent figures in Smith's life to attend the ceremony. Steve Garvey, to whom Smith will forever be linked. was there as well.

Garvey's kindness to Smith after a 1984 postseason game between the Cubs and Padres at Wrigley Field will stay with her forever. Smith, on deadline covering the playoffs for the Courant, was shoved out of the clubhouse by three Padres players, and, eventually, the clubhouse manager.

Standing outside the door and needing quotes, Smith implored a fellow writer to ask Garvey to come out to talk to her. Garvey soon appeared, and Smith, exhausted and panicked with a deadline, started to break down.

"When he saw that I was becoming emotional after having been manhandled, he uttered the most important words an athlete ever said to me," Smith said. "'I will stay here as long as you need me to, but remember, you have a job to do.'"

At this point in the speech, Smith asked Garvey to stand to be recognized by the Doubleday Field crowd: "Please stand, just as you did when salvaging the worst day of my career."

It turned out to be one of the few bad days Smith had as a baseball writer. For every mean-spirited ballplayer, there seemed to be 20 who would rush to her defense.

Don Mattingly did it when he thought a teammate had thrown a sanitary sock in her direction on purpose after a Yankees game in the late '80s, screaming at the room, "Not on my team!"

Goose Gossage, upon hearing what the Padres did to her after that 1984 postseason game, was all but ready to slug the offending players.

And on and on. In her speech, Smith named at least two dozen players she used to cover. She addressed all of them with appreciation for their respect for her and for treating her accordingly.

Not as a "female reporter," as was usually the reference.

Just, reporter.

After the Padres clubhouse incident, the Yankees, whom she covered on her regular beat, sent a formal protest to the Padres over how they treated her. She said to the public relations director, "Why did you do that? [Commissioner] Peter Ueberroth took care of it.' And he said, 'Nobody treats a Yankees beat writer that way.'

"It was the first time I heard it without the qualifier," Smith said. "It took my breath away."

MLB Network's exclusive live coverage of the 2017 Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony -- simulcast live on -- begins with MLB Tonight Sunday at noon ET, followed by the ceremony at 1:30 p.m. Prior to Sunday's live coverage, you can watch a rebroadcast of the 2017 Hall of Fame Awards Presentation at 11 a.m. ET on MLB Network. It features Rachel Robinson (Buck O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award), Claire Smith (J.G. Taylor Spink Award for writers), and the posthumous honoring of Bill King (Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasters). The presentation will also commemorate the 25th anniversary of the release of the film, "A League of Their Own."