Shut out of the locker room with a deadline looming, Claire Smith had a job to do

July 27, 2017
Category: Business & Work

It is hard to recall more universal acclaim for a sports journalism honor than Claire Smith being named the recipient of the 2017 J.G. Taylor Spink Award. She will take part in the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies this weekend, and will have her name enshrined with the previous baseball writer winners at Cooperstown.

Smith is the first women and only the fourth African-American to win the Spink Award, which is the highest honor conferred to journalists by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. She deserves it not only for a body of work that includes covering baseball for the Hartford Courant, The New York Times, and The Philadelphia Inquirer, but also for the dignity and professionalism she continues to display throughout her career.

I told Smith, whom I first met when we were both baseball beat writers as young kids in the mid-80s, that the positive testimonials from her peers had to feel like being alive to hear your own eulogy.

“It’s been overwhelming. A whirlwind,” said Smith, now ESPN’s news editor of remote productions, responsible for the integration of news and analysis in live game broadcasts and the Baseball Tonight and SportsCenter studio programs. “I liken it to learning how to ride a horse and then holding on for dear life. It’s all been flattering and wonderful.”

Smith also noted the timing of an African-African woman being honored during the 70th anniversary of Jackie Robinson making his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

“It brings it all into focus,” Smith said. “The barriers are falling.”

Smith is quick to point out that she was among “the second wave of women sportswriters” when she started covering the Yankees for the Hartford Courant in 1982. The first wave broke through in 1970s, experiencing numerous hardships and obstacles.

“I have some friends who went through some very trying moments,” Smith said.

As a result, Smith says she feels fortunate that she only endured one “really bad day” as a woman sportswriter. But it was an off-the-charts bad day, emblematic of what pioneers like her encountered back then.

Following Game 1 of the 1984 National League Championship Series between Chicago and San Diego, Smith was informed that Padres manager Dick Williams prohibited any women from being in the locker room. While the American League had no restrictions, the National League allowed individual teams to have their own media policy.

Embarrassed and humiliated, Smith stood at the locker room door at the Wrigley Field visitors clubhouse unable to talk to any players for her story. Several male reporters saw the situation and offered to get quotes for her. When San Diego’s Steve Garvey heard what was going on, he went outside to help Smith.

By then, a shaken Smith broke down when she first saw Garvey. She never forgot what Garvey told her: “You’ve got to pull yourself together. You’ve got a job to do.”

Smith said Garvey’s words became a “mantra” for her career.

“I always think of what he said,” Smith said. “You miss a flight, you have a job to do. You have a tight deadline, you have a job to do. You have a breaking story, you have a job to do. No matter what happens, you have a job to do. Sometimes you learn lessons of journalism from non-traditional sources.”

A postscript to the story: The following day, baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth acted quickly and ordered all locker rooms in baseball to be open to women.

Since winning the award, Smith has reached out to personally thank several players she covered. Naturally, the list includes Garvey, as well as Joe Morgan, Don Baylor, Frank Robinson, Willie Randolph and more.

“They were so receptive and supportive of the job I had to do,” Smith said. “They were proactive in making sure the work place for me was anything but hostile.”

She said she had an emotional conversation with former Yankees pitcher David Righetti. She recalled Righetti as a young player discussing the need to always be a respectful, stand-up guy while dealing with the media.

“When I told him he met that standard, we both got choked up,” Smith said. “We grew up together in our professions.”

Back then, Smith said, you needed one hand to count the number of women baseball writers. Now there are many more in the press box, including women reporters on the broadcast side. A 10-year veteran at ESPN, she is heartened by the diversity she sees at the network.

“I really see it here,” she said. “It’s magnificent.”

Smith has been a long-time role model for young women looking to get into the business. Winning the Spink Award takes it to another level.

Smith said her favorite question as a journalist is merely asking “why.” She has tried not to ask herself that question in asking why she won the award.

“It stumps me immediately,” Smith said. “When you look at the names of the previous winners, Grantland Rice, Red Smith, Wendell Smith, Roger Angell, it’s very humbling.”

Smith, though, may have found her answer when her son, Joshua, asked her “what does it all mean?”

“I said, ‘Josh, all I did for 35 years and counting is try to get up, go to work and do it right. I wanted to make you proud. I wanted to make mom and dad proud. Lo and behold, when you realize a whole bunch of people were watching you, you start to think, maybe you did do it right.’”