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Inquirer alum Claire Smith first woman to win baseball's prestigious Spink Award

As she drove on Sunday from Connecticut to Washington, the final leg in a journey that has led her to baseball's Hall of Fame, Claire Smith stopped in her native Bucks County.

As she drove on Sunday from Connecticut to Washington, the final leg in a journey that has led her to baseball's Hall of Fame, Claire Smith stopped in her native Bucks County.

There, in the Bristol cemetery where a Harriet Tubman statue designed by her artist-father stands watch on a crowded hillside, she visited her parents' graves.

"Pennsylvania is my life and my heart," Smith, now a Connecticut resident, said recently. "This is a very special trip. And I'm carrying my family and all of my Inquirer, Bulletin, and Courier family with me."

A former Inquirer sports columnist and pioneering baseball writer whose talents and empathy have helped leaven the cynicism in her profession, Smith made the stop en route to baseball's winter meetings. There on Tuesday she was named the 2017 recipient of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award.

The first female and fourth African American winner in the 55-year history of the award for contributions to baseball writing, she will be honored officially at the Hall's annual induction ceremonies in July in Cooperstown. Her name will be permanently inscribed on the list of writers and announcers in the Hall's library.

"It's humbling to think of all the people who've won this award," Smith said, "all those people I know and know of."

No one who knows the emotional, soft-spoken Smith would be surprised that she interrupted her joyful trek down I-95 to remember the parents who inspired her.

Her mother, Bernice, a General Electric chemist, worked on the space program and passed along to her only a daughter a passion for baseball - more specifically, for Jackie Robinson's Dodgers.

And 31/2 decades ago, when Smith was an aimless college dropout, it was her father, William, a prominent illustrator and artist, who urged her to identify and pursue a dream.

"I wanted to work in baseball, but after 21/2 years at Penn State, I dropped out and was one of life's lost souls," said Smith, 63, a Langhorne native and Neshaminy High graduate. "I wasn't following the dream buried inside me. Finally, my dad threw up his hands and blurted out, 'What do you want to do?' "

When Smith answered that she wanted to work in baseball, her father said, "Well, go back to school and do it!"

Initially planning to do public-relations work for a team, she shifted her focus to journalism while at Temple in the mid-1970s.

She took a job in news at the Bucks County Courier. Later, while on the Evening Bulletin's news desk, she was approached by New York's Newsday. Bulletin managing editor Craig Ammerman, eager to keep her, moved Smith to sports.

In 1982, on the night the Phillies' Pete Rose broke Stan Musial's National League hit mark, she did her first baseball story, a fan-reaction piece.

"I was like the 15th writer from the Bulletin, but my story ended up on Page 1," she said. "That was just so exciting."

When the Bulletin folded later that year, she moved to the Hartford Courant. She covered the Mets briefly, the first full-time woman on a baseball beat, handled the Yankees beat for six years, and finally became the paper's national baseball writer.

It was in 1984, at the National League Championship Series between the Padres and Cubs, that Smith became the focus of a groundbreaking sports-journalism moment.

The Padres, citing their "no-women-in-the-clubhouse" policy, ordered her out.

"They were enthusiastically violating a league edict," she said. "One of the clubhouse people physically put his hands on me, pushed me out of the locker room."

Tearful and fearing that she'd not get any quotes for her story, Smith asked a colleague to inform the Padres' Steve Garvey.

"Steve was surrounded by a large group of writers, but he excused himself and came out," she said. "I was really breaking down by then and he said, 'I'll stay here as long as you need, Claire, but remember, you have a job to do.' That brought me back to my senses and I did my job."

The Padres' action incensed friends on the Cubs as well as many others in baseball. Later that week, new commissioner Peter Ueberroth ruled that the leagues would now control locker-room access and that any properly credentialed media representative would be welcome.

"He said this would no longer be an issue," she said. "He took the power away from the clubs. That's when it all changed."

As a writer and columnist, Smith has focused on the game's emotional and personal angles, and in doing so has formed close bonds with players, management, and her sportswriting colleagues.

"I've always tried to write about the human being. Tell me the story of what formed you, who raised you, what are your values, instead of what pitch did you throw and what were the mechanics of it," she said.

The other two nominees for the 2017 Spink award were longtime Hispanic sportswriter Juan Vene and Jim Reeves, a columnist and beat writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

"In a highly competitive profession, she is universally well-liked and respected," said Tim Dwyer, one of her Inquirer sports editors. "Not only is Claire a great journalist, but she has been a mentor to hundreds of young journalists that were lucky enough to cross her path."

In 2013, Smith won the first Sam Lacy-Wendell Smith Award, named for a pair of pioneering black sportswriters and presented to those who make "significant contributions to racial and gender equity."

"I've always tried to drive equal rights in baseball, equal rights in whatever part of society I'm covering," she said. "It's the right thing to do and it's where my words might have influence."

In 1990, she became the New York Times' national baseball writer. Moving back to Philadelphia in '98, she was an Inquirer sports columnist until leaving in 2007 for ESPN. At the sports network, she's a news editor, one charged with educating the network's on-air baseball talent.

"I just love this game," she said.

Smith said that as a child with three active brothers, she preferred writing to talking. When she was just 8, her parents gave her a used Olympia typewriter.

"They must have seen or sensed something in me," she said. "That's why I wanted to [visit their graves en route to Washington]. I'm thinking of them now."