COOPERSTOWN, NY – Claire Smith, the 2017 recipient of a baseball writer’s most prestigious honor, the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, summed up what everyone acknowledges when they visit Cooperstown, the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum: “It feels like I’m in baseball heaven.”
It is, and it was, Claire, for Ms. Smith, the heirs of Bill King, the newest entrant to the broadcaster’s wing, Rachel Robinson, and the five newest members of the Hall – Jeff Bagwell, Ivan Rodriguez, John Schueholz, and Bud Selig – as they graciously awaited their immortal status with bronze plaques on the wall.
The first ceremony on Saturday afternoon kicked off a very busy weekend of activities, when 50 of the 73 living Hall of Famers returned to the quaintest little village in America to honor Smith, King, and Robinson, and welcome the five newbies to their brethren, who would be officially inducted on Sunday.
Smith became the first female member of the BBWAA to receive the Spink Award, recognized for “meritorious contributions to baseball writing,” and now the fourth African-American writer to be honored, joining previous recipients Wendell Smith, Sam Lacy, and Larry Whiteside.
“I remember a sign in the press box in Shea Stadium,” Smith recalled of her first years on the beat, “that said, “NO WOMEN OR CHILDREN IN THE PRESS BOX.” It didn’t say, ‘no colored people,’ but they were not allowed in there either.”
When Smith first started covering baseball for the Hartford Courant in 1983, there was merely a handful – literally a single handful – of female baseball reporters. Today, there are several dozen, and they likely owe a great deal to Smith for her pioneering efforts.
There was an incident early on, when covering the 1984 NLCS between the Cubs and Padres where Smith was demonstrably told to leave the Padres clubhouse because she was female. “This Is Dick Williams’ clubhouse,” she was remanded, and women were verboten from the Padres’ skipper’s domain.
Padres first baseman Steve Garvey learned of the removal and fought the ban by leaving the clubhouse to talk to Smith and give whatever amount of interview time she needed. Then Commissioner Peter Ueberroth soon thereafter decreed that all qualified reporters are allowed entry or none shall be admitted. End of any such ban in any major league clubhouse.
Smith, the 68th winner of the Spink Award, was on the Yankees beat for for the Hartford Courant for five years, and later became a highly regarded baseball columnist for the New York Times (‘91-’98) and Philadelphia Inquirer (‘98-2007). Today she serves as ESPN’s news editor of remote productions.
Bill King was the voice of the Oakland Athletics for a quarter-century. As the 2017 and 41st recipient of the Ford C. Frick Award, in recognition for “excellence in baseball broadcasting,” King first served as a fill-in broadcaster at San Francisco Giants games in the late 1950s. In 1962, he became the voice of the NBA’s San Francisco Warriors, and in ‘66, he started calling Oakland Raiders games.
He joined the A’s broadcast team from 1981 through 1995, and became known for his exclamation of “Holy Toledo!” King passed away in 2005.
Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s widow, was honored with the annual Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award. Ms. Robinson, who turned 95 just this past week – July 19 – and still as spry and energetic as anyone could imagine, has been a remarkable job of keeping her husband’s legacy alive all these years since Jackie’s passing in 1972. Her latest efforts have been targeting the development of the Jackie Robinson Museum in lower Manhattan, on Canal Street, which is expected to open in the next year.
Some of the 50 returning Hall of Famers with connections to New York included: Roberto Alomar, Wade Boggs, Bobby Cox, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Tom Glavine, Goose Gossage, Rickey Henderson, Whitey Herzog, Randy Johnson, Sandy Koufax, Eddie Murray, Phil Niekro, Mike Piazza, Nolan Ryan, Joe Torre, and Dave Winfield.
All of the Hall of Famers always enjoy their annual visits. Most participate in an annual golf tournament on Saturday morning. They get to welcome and playfully haze their new “rookie” members. And most pick up a few extra bucks – okay, a lot of bucks – signing autographs for fans on Main Street at the various memorabilia shops.
The MLB Network’s Brian Kenney, who served as a first-time MC of the Induction Ceremonies, greeted fans on Main Street who wanted him to talk about his new book, “Ahead of the Curve: Inside the baseball Revolution,” (Simon & Shsuter, 353 pages, hardcover, $28.00).
Kenney has specific opinions about the game, and is brilliant in his analysis of the standard and esoteric stats now prevalent in baseball. You may agree with his opinions or you may scratch your head, but you’ll revel in the information provided.
Among Kenney’s credos are: Disregard wins as a pitching stat. “It’s a team statistic, not a pitching statistic.” Forget errors. “They are a vestige of 19th Century baseball with almost no effect on today’s game.” Don’t bother to sacrifice bunt. “Good strategy, if you like scoring fewer runs.” Don’t always close with your closer. “If your closer is your best pitcher, use him when needed, regardless of inning.” Owners should watch their wallets a little more. “Don’t ever sign a big-money free agent.” And here’s one sure to cause debate: “Stop hiring managers based on their looks.”
“Ahead of the Curve…” is a must-read in any baseball library.
The Induction Ceremony, as well as a highlights episode of the Saturday ceremony, will be broadcast on the MLB channel commencing at 11:00 AM.