Claire Smith's impact would make Jackie Robinson proud
Claire Smith's work as a pioneering baseball writer will be recognized Saturday, when she receives the J.G. Taylor Spink Award a day ahead of the Hall of Fame inductions at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Smith, a former Inquirer columnist and editor, is the 68th recipient of the award, but the first woman.
BRISTOL, Conn. — Claire Smith knew it was not going to be easy, but she was prepared for the turbulence that lay ahead by parents who had educated her on struggles much greater than the ones she would encounter. Besides, this was the work she wanted, and if that meant being an African American woman in a world dominated by white males, she was ready to deal with the issues that would surely accompany the job.
She had left the Bucks County Courier Times in the late 1970s because the sports editor had made it clear to her that covering sports was a man's job. She was prepared to leave the Philadelphia Bulletin news desk, too, after Newsday in Long Island offered her a job covering high school sports. The managing editor at the Bulletin wanted to keep her in Philadelphia.
"Give us a chance," the Bulletin editor said. "What can we do?"
"Well, I want to be in sports," Smith told him.
A week later she was in sports. Nearly four decades later, she is receiving the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for her "meritorious contributions to baseball writing." No award for a baseball writer is more prestigious, and she will become the 68th recipient at a ceremony Saturday at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, N.Y. She is the first woman to receive the award and just the second woman to ever be individually honored by the Baseball Hall of Fame Museum.
The first — Effa Manley, the Negro League owner of the Newark Stars — was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006, and Smith wrote extensively about her for The Inquirer at the time. Both Manley and Smith are Philadelphia natives.
"It is an honor to go into the hall in close proximity to Effa Manley," Smith said. "She owned the Newark Eagles when Larry Doby was on that team and signed away by the Cleveland Indians."
Doby was the first African American to play in the American League, joining the Cleveland Indians just a few months after Jackie Robinson made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Smith, 64, has the Negro League history etched in her mind, a place that is filled equally with brilliance and compassion. Truth be told, she did not just want to be a sportswriter, she wanted to be a baseball writer. It was the game she grew up loving in Bucks County as the middle child of William Henry Smith Sr. and Bernice Anastasia. It was her mother, a child of Jamaican immigrants, who steered her toward the game.
"She was a die-hard Dodgers fan and that had everything to do with Jackie Robinson," Smith said. "When I was in third grade at St. James in Elkins Park, the nuns took us to the church basement and showed us The Jackie Robinson Story starring Ruby Dee and Jackie Robinson and I fell in love. I could put a voice and a face to the name and the legend my mother was always talking about. Watching him run with that pigeon-toed gait and listening to him talk … after that I always loved Jackie Robinson."
The first baseball story
Like her idol Robinson, Smith would also become a pioneer. Although she was given a chance by the Bulletin to cover sports, she left the Philadelphia newspaper when it was shuttered in January 1982 having written just two baseball stories, and they were both on the same day.
Bob Wright, the Bulletin sports editor, asked her to get fan reaction outside of Veterans Stadium on Aug. 10, 1981, the date that baseball returned from a two-month strike. When Pete Rose broke Stan Musial's National League hits record the same night, Wright ordered a second fan reaction story. Smith happily obliged, but when she returned to the office she discovered no one had informed layout man Pete Cafone about the Rose reaction story.
"You could call Pete crusty," Smith said. "To this day he remains one of my best friends. But when I told him I had not one story, but two, he hit the roof."
Cafone told her to write the Rose reaction piece, but he made no promises it would get in the newspaper. When Smith was finished with the story in the early morning hours, she informed Cafone.
"OK, it's probably not going to get in, but we'll see," he told Smith. "Tell me when you're leaving so I can get in my car and run you over."
Smith did not sleep. Instead, she waited for the newspaper to hit the honor boxes. After inserting a quarter, she saw that Cafone had indeed found room for her Rose reaction story. It was on the front page of the entire paper.
"It still hangs on a wall in my office," Smith said.
New York, New York
A few months later the paper closed and Smith headed to the Hartford Courant, where she thought she would become the New York Mets beat writer. Circumstances, however, changed things and she ended up in 1982 on the New York Yankees beat, which is where she remained for seven years. During that time, she met with some resistance and wrote her favorite baseball story.
Because she was a woman, she was physically pushed out of the Padres clubhouse before a 1984 National League Championship Series game between San Diego and the Chicago Cubs. A former Dodger, San Diego first baseman Steve Garvey, stood up for her. So did Padres pitcher Rich "Goose" Gossage, who knew Smith from his time with the Yankees. So did rookie commissioner Peter Ueberroth, who declared that anyone with a proper credential was allowed in the clubhouse.
Smith said she also always had the support of the star African American players in the Yankees clubhouse, a group that included Don Baylor, Dave Winfield, and Willie Randolph. What she also had, however, was a sense that the obstacles she faced as a female baseball writer were low when compared with the stories told to her by her mother and father.
"That generation, they are my heroes," Smith said. "My mom's generation and my dad's generation and Jackie's generation, they went off and fought World War II in segregated units and dealt with humiliation within the military.
"My mom told me she rode on a train to see her sister in Fayetteville, N.C., and German soldiers that were prisoners got access to the café car that African American soldiers on the train did not get. These folks loved a country that did not love them back. When I think of things like that, it made me say, 'Who am I to complain?' What I went through doesn't even compare. My dad grew up in a segregated Maryland and his grandfather was a slave. I got chased out of a locker room. My mom got chased out of department stores while being called vile names."
The old knuckleballer
In her fourth season as the Yankees beat writer, Smith covered a team that included a 46-year-old Phil Niekro in pursuit of his 300th career victory. The greatest knuckleball pitcher of all time picked up win No. 299 on Sept. 8, but failed in his next four tries to get No. 300.
Smith and another Yankees beat writer set up an interview with the pitcher in a hotel lobby in Baltimore during the final week of the season, but Niekro was exhausted by the pursuit and the subject.
"He was interviewed out," Smith said. "He was the nicest guy in the world, but it had become his least favorite subject. It was torture, just a brutal interview. It was going to be a horrible, horrible write. Finally, I just blurted out, 'Why do you still do this?' "
It was the question that triggered a magical story.
"I do it for him," Niekro said.
"Who?" Smith asked.
Niekro proceeded to tell a long, detailed story about his exhausted father Phil Sr. coming home from long days as an Ohio coal miner, but still having the time to teach his two sons — Phil Jr. and Joe — how to throw the knuckleball.
"At that point of his life, the father was sickly and he'd sit out on the porch and listen to games on the radio because he was too nervous to watch either Phil or Joe pitch on TV," Smith said. "During Phil's pursuit of 300, the father actually went into a coma. Joe and Phil were both on the Yankees that year and they'd fly home between starts."
Phil Niekro finally got his 300th win on the final day of the season with a complete-game shutout of a hung-over Toronto team that had won the American League East the night before. Phil Sr. came out of his coma that same day. The Hartford Courant nominated Smith's story for a Pulitzer Prize.
"That taught me a lot about sticking to an interview even when you don't think there's a story there," Smith said.
The campaign for Claire
Smith rose to the position of national baseball writer at the Hartford Courant and continued in that role after moving to the New York Times in 1990. It was there that she attended a reunion of Negro League players she'll never forget. Commissioner Fay Vincent promised the players and their spouses health-care coverage for the remainder of their lives and also issued an apology for the segregation they endured for so many years.
"I saw men and women weeping," Smith said. "Fay had no idea that would be the reaction. I had no idea and it was one of the most touching things I had ever seen."
Smith spent eight years with the New York Times, much of it covering labor strife with colleague Murray Chass, another winner of the Spink Award. She left the Times to come back to Philadelphia in 1998, accepting a job as a sports columnist with The Inquirer because she also needed to focus on taking care of her son Joshua, who was approaching his teenage years, and her aging parents.
Her return to a job with a baseball title came in 2007 shortly after she wrote her lengthy story about Effa Manley for the Inquirer. Film magnate Spike Lee asked Smith to be part of a Negro League documentary and she flew to Memphis, Tenn., for Major League Baseball's first Civil Rights Game. She also made an ESPN appearance to talk about Manley's contributions to the Negro Leagues and was hired a couple of months later to be the coordinating editor of baseball at ESPN.
Smith admitted to missing writing about baseball, but her work had not been forgotten by her former colleagues and competitors. Five years ago, when she was at Cooperstown to celebrate another writer who was receiving the Spink Award, Smith received a hug and a message from USA Today's Bob Nightengale.
"You deserve this award," Nightengale told her.
"Little did I know that he made it his mission to make it happen right after that," Smith said.
Nightengale, with the help of Marly Rivera from ESPN and Kristie Ackert of the New York Daily News, got the New York chapter to nominate Smith for the Spink Award.
"If any woman deserved to be the first woman it had to be Claire," Nightengale said. "Her national presence and knowing what she went through as a woman trying to get into clubhouses. It wasn't that long ago, but it seems like the dark ages."
The New York nomination alone touched Smith.
"I thought the impossible had happened when I received the nomination coming out of the New York chapter," she said. "It's a huge chapter and it has such a rich tradition. It also has so many more newspapers and therefore so many more veteran baseball writers. I worked with so many great writers and reporters that have never been nominated."
When it was announced at the winter meetings in December that Smith had won the Spink Award, the entire room was filled with emotion.
"I think that was as happy as I've ever seen a room," Nightengale said.
Smith, as always, showed her class by asking all the women in the room to join her up front before she gave a brief, emotion-filled speech.
"I asked them to come up and join me for two reasons," she said. "I wanted to share the moment with them because I feel that in winning the award I do represent them. I don't think any of us could have won the award without the support of all of us and, believe me, we support each other. But I also wanted the group of women to look out at the hundred or so male contemporaries and return the applause they had just given us because the larger group is the village and we all support each other."
Jackie Robinson would be so proud of Claire Smith's impact on the lives of so many others.