Esposito: Smith a Spink Pioneer with Robinsonian Respect

One of the announcements at last week’s Baseball Winter Meetings was the naming of Claire Smith as the 2017 winner of the J. G. Taylor Spink Award, the Hall of Fame’s recognition for a sportswriter’s “long and meritorious contributions to baseball writing.”  And while one can note that the most important aspect of this announcement was the simply stated inclusion that Smith becomes the first female honoree, you can also stand up and applaud Smith as not only a pioneer for an entire gender, but also for an entire race as the first African-American female sportswriter to be named.

 Arguably not quite on the level of Jackie Robinson as a breakthrough, but certainly an honor which resonates greatly.

At the presser during the meetings that named smith, the 62-year-old former Yankees beat writer was applauded with a standing ovation by her peers, many of which, we’ll presume, if not all of those colleagues, were those who named her on their ballots.  The same body of writers that consider players for Hall of Fame election each year vote for the Spink award – named for the publishing pioneer who founded The Sporting News over a century ago – named Smith on 272 of 449 ballots cast.

Smith was overwhelmed and understated in her initial acceptance of the honor.

“I thank you and the guys who stood up to the athletes and teams and said (to me) we are your peers…and to be treated like you,” said Smith.

She also singled out her fellow female colleagues who cover baseball on a regular basis, calling six of them to the front of the room for their own recognition.

“I want to thank the women who walked the walk and fought the battles and got all of us to this point.  No one does this by themselves.”

 Smith first covered major league baseball for the Hartford Courant in 1983 as their Yankees beat writer.  Yes, it was somewhat unusual at that time to see a woman in the locker room trying to solicit quotes, especially with some ballplayers heading back and forth to the showers in various forms of undress, but for the most part, players were respectful and careful with their towels.  The American League was very open to accepting the breaking of the gender barrier, but the National League…

 Smith has been open about an incident that occurred in 1984.  She was assigned to cover the NLCS between the Padres and Cubs.  After the first game at Wrigley Field, Smith was physically removed from the padres’ locker room, with an official stating it was Dick Williams’ locker room and the old fashioned skipper didn’t want women in the clubhouse.

 A fellow writer saw how upset Smith was standing outside the locker room and confronted her.  She asked him to find Steve Garvey inside the Padres clubhouse to see if he would come out for a few quotes.  Not only did Garvey quickly respond to the request, he stayed and answered every question Smith could come up with before retreating back into the clubhouse.  

Kudos to Garvey for recognizing this blatant blockade of a sportswriter’s rights.

Then-baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth declared a new rule the next day requiring equal access for men and women to all major league locker rooms.  Also not exactly on the level of Jackie Robinson becoming the first African American to break the color line in 20th century baseball, but it did serve as a bill of rights for equality “on this playing field.”

 Smith stayed with the Courant for five years, and later covered baseball for the NY Times from 1991-98.  In ’98, the Temple University grad switched to the Philadelphia Inquirer until 2007.  The Pennsylvania native currently works for ESPN as their editor of remote productions.

This beloved sportswriter – you will not find a sportswriter on any level who has ever had a harsh word about Claire Smith – is also a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee, the recipient of three NY Times Publishing Awards, and the inaugural winner of the Sam Lacy-Wendell Smith Award from the Shirley Povich (Maury’s dad) Center for Sports Journalism at the University of Maryland.

Claire – she also carries one-name recognition status among her peers – was the Sports Journalist of the Year in 1997 for the National Association of Black Journalists, and the winner of the Sam Lacy Award from the Negro Leagues Baseball Hall of Fame in 2010.  There’s also a Mary Garber Pioneer Award on her mantle – or wherever she keeps it – from the Association of Women in Sports Media.  

From 1995-96, Smith was the New York Chapter Chair for the BBWAA, and has served on three HOF era committees.

 And now she’s in the Hall of Fame, which will culminate with official induction at a ceremony next summer on Saturday, July 29 at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown.  She will become the 68th writer to be honored, only the fourth African American honored, and deservedly so, the first woman.

Congrats, Claire!



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