Column The unbreakable pioneer who wanted to cover baseball
She was a shy girl growing up in Philadelphia, listening to the transistor radio under the covers at night.
In the early ’60s, kids in Philly, the birthplace of “American Bandstand,” were tuning into rock ‘n’ roll. Claire Smith was mesmerized by baseball.
It has always been about baseball.
The first female full-time sports writer to cover a Major League Baseball team in our country got the love of baseball from her mother.
Bernice Ximines Smith, a chemist who through her position at GE worked on the space program (a “hidden figure”), loved the Brooklyn Dodgers.
“If you were an African American in the mid ’40s, and Jackie (Robinson) breaks the color barrier, you are a Dodger fan,” Smith said.
Claire Smith didn’t set out to be a pioneer in her field. Often this happens to people who follow their passion, despite the obstacles. She is a woman and she is black, but her guiding star was to write about baseball, ever since her first journalism class at Temple University. No doubt the writing seed was planted sooner, though, when her father, “a magician with paints, pencil and paper,” gave her an ivory-keyed typewriter when she was just in second grade.
I’ve heard about the now-legendary Claire Smith for years. She became the first full-time female sports beat writer for a major league team — the Yankees, no less — at the Hartford Courant in 1982. She went on to The New York Times where she was a columnist writing about baseball. Back to Philly while her son was young, and now she is an editor with ESPN, the national sports network based in Connecticut.
Two years ago, she was first female recipient of the top honor for a baseball writer — a formal acknowledgment that men do not own exclusive rights to the most powerful written words, as The New York Times said — of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award given during the storied Baseball Hall of Fame weekend in Cooperstown, New York.
“I humbly stand on stage for those who were stung by racism or sexism or any other insidious bias and persevered,” Smith said in her acceptance speech in July, 2017. “You are unbreakable. You make me proud.”
Thrown out of the locker room
Talk about being unbreakable. Though kind and quick to hug, Smith personifies unbreakable. Because of her determination to cover baseball as an equal to male writers, a Major League Baseball rule was “ripped up.”
Tuesday night she spoke to a rapt room in White Hall on the downtown campus of Western Connecticut State University in Danbury as a featured speaker for Black Heritage/ History Month. She was interviewed by Professor John Roche from the Department of Writing, Linguistics and Creative Process, and answered questions from the audience of several hundred.
The soft-toned Claire Smith has spoken to audiences innumerable times through her three-plus decades in journalism. But Tuesday she was as generous and enthusiastic and delighted as though it were her first.
She had to have grit the day back in 1984 when she got thrown out of the San Diego Padres locker room — because she was a woman (gasp!) — after the Padres lost the first National League championship series game against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.
Back then the leagues had different rules. Covering the Yankees in the American League, Smith had no problem going into the clubhouse. But the National League let each team set its own media rules. She went to the playoffs with a letter of credentials.
After the game ended, she went down to the Padres’ clubhouse to speak to the players for her story.
“The players, the (John) Birchers, start. More than chirping, they’re cursing, they’re yelling — ‘get out, get out!’ — next thing I know, I’m being pushed physically to the door,” Smith recounted. She was left in the dank, dark bowels of Wrigley, trying to figure out how to get the story.
Another reporter offered to get quotes for her. Instead, as soon as first baseman Steve Garvey heard what happened, he left the scrum of reporters interviewing him and went to Smith.
“As soon as I saw him, brave me, I just teared up. To this day I credit him with saying the most important thing anyone has said to me: ‘I will stay here as long as you need me to, but remember, you have a job to do.’”
She credited the 10-time All-Star player in her Cooperstown speech for his “human touch.”
After the humiliation with the Padres, Smith went over to the Cubs for the rest of the story.
“They were just spitting fire. ‘In our house they were doing that?’ They were just furious,” she said. So were others and the next day when Peter Ueberroth, his first week as baseball commissioner, heard that the John Birchers had pushed out a black woman, he called the rules “archaic, stupid” and ripped them up. He ordered all locker rooms in baseball open to women with news credentials.
When asked whether that was a pivotal moment for her, Smith responded that she “hated to be the story.”
“By the time the series got to San Diego, it was a huge story. It was racial, it was political, it was gender,” she said. “It was an angry mob.”
‘Shine the light’
If Claire Smith had to reflect on which was the larger issue in her career — gender or race — she had only to look toward the first row to her left for a powerful answer.
Gilbert Hernandez Black, his straight 6-foot-3 posture belying his now 80s-something age, bore testament. A standout in baseball at Stamford High School, he played for the Negro American League before baseball was integrated, which is a benign word for what always should have been. I don’t think my throat was the only one to catch as Gil received a standing ovation, in Danbury, now his home town.
“I’m jazzed to receive this invitation” to speak, Smith said, “but I’m just over the moon to meet Mr. Black.” He’s part of the “greatest generation within the greatest generation.”
That generation faced discrimination every day. Smith’s mother back in the war years had to pack her lunch to take a train from Philadelphia to Fort Bragg in North Carolina. The train was segregated, and blacks couldn’t go to the dining car. But, and here Claire Smith’s voice trembled, German prisoners of war on the train could. The prisoners were treated better than black Americans.
“So the Padres didn’t want to talk to me. I had one bad day; they had five bad days.” Race or gender? “It was never a contest, it was never ever close. With gender you run into troglodytes. Race was a really, really dangerous place.”
Like her mother, her hero was Jackie Robinson, who she never met. But she knows his wife Rachel and daughter Sharon. And became friends with Sandy Koufax, who began his career with the Dodgers as Robinson’s was ending. A link. If she was starstruck with meeting any player, it was Koufax.
“I wish I met Jackie Robinson, but I met Sandy,” she said Tuesday night.
The unintentional timing of her highest honor awarded to journalists by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America was significant — it was the 70th anniversary year of Jackie Robinson’s 1947 debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
In her acceptance speech, and giving the same message this week, Claire Smith conveyed her purpose.
“Shine the light where it needs to be shone,” she said. “That’s why I am proud to be a reporter. A reporter, I pray, who continues to stand tall not only as a journalist, but also as a woman of color, because that matters greatly.”
Jacqueline Smith’s columns appears Fridays in Hearst Connecticut daily newspapers; she is the editorial page editor of The News-Times in Danbury and The Norwalk Hour. Email her at email@example.com.