Claire Smith moved the needle for so many female sports writers.
"In almost every way, she was the Jackie Robinson of baseball writers," said John Quinn, Smith's former colleague at the Inquirer. "People don't always make that connection."
She was a trailblazer for female baseball writers — the first woman beat writer to cover a major-league baseball team and the only woman to win the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, for which she was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame — and for black sports writers everywhere.
On Thursday, she will be inducted into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame. That induction, which will take place Thursday for her and more than a dozen other honorees, has allowed Smith to reflect on her career here.
"I covered most of the other recipients and I know what they mean to that city," Smith said. "It will be very humbling and it will be an amazing honor for not only myself but my family because we're all Philadelphians and we all know the history across the board for professional sports teams and six colleges and universities. It means the world."
Her Philadelphia story
There wouldn't be a Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame for Smith, or the Jackie Robinson comparison, if her father, William Smith, hadn't had a conversation with her after a two-year break from her studies. Smith was enrolled at Penn State with the aspirations of becoming a lawyer. Her second love, after baseball, was politics. But she was quick to find out after a few courses that politics was not for her.
"Well, what do you want to do?" her father asked one day after a long shift working retail.
She had left Penn State a few years prior, and at that time she was working in retail with no viable career in the foreseeable future.
"I said out loud I wanted to do something with baseball," Smith said.
Smith's favorite player growing up was Robinson, whose story intersected sports and racial segregation. Her father advised her to go back to school with the family's financial backing. So she did.
Just do what you want to do, her father told her.
Smith enrolled in Temple as a public relations major. After taking the required journalism course for the major and sensing the passion of her teacher, she switched to journalism.
"Through her teaching, her enthusiasm, her passion, it only took one course for me to see that that's what I wanted to do, not public relations," Smith said. "To write my own words. To be my own author rather than [writing] these press releases for other people."
With her being at Temple, it was pretty obvious where her dream job was.
"I had my eyes set on the [Philadelphia] Bulletin. It was my favorite paper growing up. The truth is, if it was still in existence, I would probably still be there," Smith said.
Smith grew up in Bucks County. Her mother, a huge Robinson fan, sprinkled that love for Robinson and the game of baseball down to Claire. Smith's love for baseball and writing was discovered early in her life, when she folded copies of the Bulletin as a daily activity.
She got her start as a reporter at the Bucks County Courier Times while she was a full-time student at Temple, sometimes for little to no pay. The exclusivity of covering government meetings and concerts couldn't be beaten.
"They let young, enthusiastic journalists cover things for them," Smith said. "That's really when I started writing. I was hired there as an editor, and I really got the best of both worlds."
Smith moved on to the Bulletin in 1977, she said, because the sports editor at the Courier didn't believe women should be covering sports. She started at the Bulletin as a news reporter. Smith wanted to cover sports but because of her experience with the sports editor at the Courier, she didn't want to cause any problems.
She interviewed for and was offered a position as a high school sports reporter at New York Newsday. Smith told Bulletin managing editor Craig Ammerman that she was leaving. She wanted to be a baseball writer. He wanted her to stay.
"He said, 'Let me see what I can do,' " Smith said.
Within a week, Smith was covering Penn football, and men's and women's college basketball. She stayed until the paper folded in 1982.
"I just learned so much about the business and the approach and how to do the job," Smith said. "It was a wonderful place to grow into the job and into the lifestyle. It was like going to school every day."
Editors from around the country began to look to collect talent from the Bulletin, at the time one of the major papers in the Northeast.
"That kind of jobfest put me in touch with the sports editor from the Hartford Courant, who was looking for a baseball reporter, and that was exactly what I wanted to do," Smith said. "He wound up hiring me, and that started me on my journey."
Her career was on its way, but it wasn't without a tough decision to leave Philadelphia.
"It was a hard conversation I had with my parents. I told them I would indeed be leaving the area for the first time in my life," Smith said.
She joined the New York Times as a baseball writer a little less than 10 years later, and in 1998 landed at the Inquirer as a sports columnist and, later, night sports editor.
"With a lot of gratitude and unending gratitude to the New York Times, who showed me a level of journalism I never experienced before nor do I expect to experience again," Smith said, "I said goodbye and I accepted the wonderful offer from the Inquirer."
Smith has broken barriers for women baseball writers. She was excluded from the San Diego Padres clubhouse during the 1984 playoffs because she was a woman. Peter Ueberroth, the baseball commissioner at the time, the next day required equal access to all locker rooms.
She has been a trailblazer for black women's writers across all levels of sports coverage, luring the eyes and recognition of female peers and males alike.
"The fact that she was fighting those battles for equal access in the locker room," writer Christine Brennan said. "Equality for women in the workplace. Claire's devotion to that issue certainly impacted my career and certainly others as well. It's safe to say she was fighting battles and she was opening doors a generation of women have walked right through because of her and because of other pioneers like her."
Although Brennan didn't cover Major League Baseball, she knew of Smith during her time at the Miami Herald. Brennan was aware of the battles Smith was fighting. The internet was not around then, Brennan said, but word of mouth spread quickly of the glass ceilings Smith was shattering to pave the way for other female sports writers.
"She was paving the way for women and for people of color, in a very important way," Brennan said.
Network of peers
Brennan, a founder and first president of the Association for Women in Sports Media (AWSM), concedes that, while she is only a few years younger than Smith, they didn't necessarily have a network of peers they could confide in regarding their daily struggles on the job.
"I didn't seek out anyone," Brennan said of what she did before AWSM's founding. "Believe me, if there had been emailing and texting, we all would have been in touch."
That's in part why she felt it was important to launch an organization such as AWSM, which began with a newsletter every three months so women sports writers could have some idea what other women sports writers were going through. Smith was heavily involved in the organization's founding and has been an active member since its inception in 1987.
"Claire has always been a steady kind of supportive and intelligent voice in our business, and she has been a friend to me for years and a role model for so many people and just a trusted colleague," Brennan said. "Her calm demeanor, her steadiness, it has served her well and it has served all of us well. She was just a rock you could lean on even if you weren't physically within a few hundred miles of her."
Reporters are tasked with the job of building relationships with those they cover, which at times can be difficult if you are covering 50 players, coaches, and front-office executives. Smith made this look easy and was admired by her peers for her ability to do that.
"Most sports writers cover sports but they don't get to know the people. Some of them don't even care to get to know the people — they're almost like baseball cards," Quinn said. "Claire got to know the person. That's what she was great at. Which was a tremendous strength and advantage for her. She knew them, and they would say hi to her."
She also earned the respect of her competitors, even those in Philadelphia.
"The biggest thing I would say is I've always been impressed with the way she handled herself," said Paul Hagen, a longtime Phillies writer for the Daily News and himself a Spink Award winner. "The class, dignity, and if you're a beat writer, getting people to trust you and talk to you and tell you the truth is a huge part of that, and I think Claire was really, really good at that."
Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame induction
When: Thursday, Nov. 1.
Where: Sugar House Event Center, 1001 N. Delaware Ave., Philadelphia.
Inductees: 1948-49 NFL-champion Eagles, Allen Iverson, Benny Bass, Billy "White Shoes" Johnson, Brian Westbrook, Claire Smith, Danny Murtaugh, David Berkoff, Donald Lippincott, Gavvy Cravath, Jamie Moyer, Joanne Iverson, Louis Santop, Mel Greenberg, Muffet McGraw, Reggie Leach.
Ticket information: http://www.phillyhall.org/2018/Banquet.asp