Claire Smith seized a moment that was much bigger than herself Saturday in Cooperstown, N.Y.
The first woman in the 55-year-history of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s J.G. Taylor Spink Award, having to wait behind the 67 men honored before her, and also the fourth African American ever acknowledged by the Baseball Writers Association of America for “meritorious contributions to baseball writing,” Smith dropped a Yogi Berra line right at the start of her 20-minute speech: “I want to thank you for making this day necessary.”
After rising from a seat at the dais next to Rachel Robinson, Smith used a measured, reverential tone in naming off some of previous winners such as Damon Runyon and Grantland Rice, and exclaimed that “those were such wordsmiths. Me, I’m just named Smith.”
But there’s nothing common about how the 63-year-old had basked in this late afternoon summer day.
Start with: How did a shy, young girl growing up in Philadelphia decide the Dodgers were entry into baseball and make her a life-long fan?
Smith was the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant born in New York City but sent back to the island for health reasons, so that she could be raised by a grandmother known as a healer in the country village.
“And in that hamlet they occupied, they lived the American dream, and one of their pastimes was to listen to American sports on the short-wave radio,” Smith recalled a couple of days before Saturday’s honor. “They would listen to the Joe Louis fights, or Jesse Owens’ accomplishments.”
Her mother returned to the U.S. in her teens as World War II broke out, but only by accident. She intended to go to England for schooling but her ship was rerouted and she landed instead in Philadelphia.
By 1947, the presence of Jackie Robinson in a Dodgers uniform made a life-long impact. Sports created change, and that profound idea was passed on to her children.
“So I doubt I had a choice but to inherit the Dodgers,” Smith said with a laugh. “Although my father was a Giants fan, listened more to my mother.”
As a third grader at St. James Catholic Elementary School in the Philadelphia suburb of Elkins Park, Smith and her classmates were ushered by the nuns down to the basement one day to watch a movie – “The Jackie Robinson Story,” with Robinson playing himself, and Ruby Dee in the role of Rachel Robinson.
“It finally put a face and a voice to the man and that cemented it for me,” Smith said. “We didn’t realize how corny the movie really was. But to tell the truth, if I’m flipping through the TV channels and I see the movie on, it always stops me to watch.”
Despite the distance from L.A., Smith figured out how to keep a scorebook on Dodgers games that she could pick up off a radio broadcast signal. It started with the Dodgers of the mid-’70s – Steve Garvey, Jimmy Wynn, Dusty Baker, even Von Joshua – and she drew pictures of them and was able to hand them to the players during their visits to Philadelphia to face the Phillies.
The first time she got to see a Dodger in a home uniform was from the upper deck at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium, driving out with some friends from Penn State to be at the 1974 MLB All Star Game – the year Garvey won the MVP as a write-in NL starter.
“It was magical,” she recalled. “Everyone else was excited about the 14 color combinations that the Oakland A’s had, but when I saw the Dodgers’ white powder uniform with the red number, I was mesmerized.”
Her first visit to Dodger Stadium was for Game 1 of the 1977 National League Championship Series, working for the Philadelphia Bulletin and making her first official plane flight.
“The stadium, it took my breath away,” she said. Not to mention that, in striking up a conversation with the ticket-taker who was so insistent that her day be memorable that he promised to bring her a Dodger Dog to her seat during the game, Smith was stunned that he actually tracked her down and made good on it.
Actually, before all that, Smith had trouble finding the game ticket that was supposed to be left for her by a colleague. When she saw Garvey enter the stadium, she stopped and re-introduced herself to him, and asked for his help. Smith handed Garvey money to buy a ticket for her, and Garvey came through.
As karma would have it, Garvey came up right after a Ron Cey seventh-inning home run and fouled a ball straight back off Steve Carlton. In the confusion of fans trying to grab it, the ball landed in Smith’s lap. Smith met up with Garvey after the game and had him sign it – along with getting a signature from Sandy Koufax.
THE GARVEY CONNECTION
Garvey’s continuous thread through Smith’s baseball tapestry made its greatest impact on a night in 1984 when Garvey, a member of the San Diego Padres, helped to right a ridiculous wrong.
Women reporters may have won some legal battles for the right to enter pro sports locker rooms over the previous handful of years, but Smith, covering the National League Championship Series between the Cubs and Padres, found herself physically pushed out the Wrigley Field clubhouse after a game. She pleaded that she needed access to players.
“I was talking to four or five male reporters at my locker, and I heard she could not get in, so I said, ‘Gentlemen, I’ll be back’,” Garvey recalled this week. “I went outside to see her, and she was helpless, in tears. I gave her a hug and I said, ‘Let’s get composed. You have a job to do. I’ll be here as long as you want.’
“I understood her challenges. That was one of those pivotal moments.”
Smith says Garvey’s response became etched in her work ethic – do your job, no matter the obstacles. The next day, new-on-the-job baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth did his as well, ordering all locker rooms open to anyone with a working credential – male or female. But even through the 1980s, female reporters put up with all sorts of resistance trying to do their work.
Garvey said he has “always appreciated the way she approached her job. Something about her demeanor, such a soulful person, just the way she introduces herself. The door has only been cracked open when she had the courage to walk through. It wasn’t easy.”
Garvey’s 23-year-old daughter, Olivia, engaged in sports journalism after going to Arizona State, has been working these days at the NFL Network in Culver City and has been able to call Smith a mentor.
“Sometimes, Olivia is in tears and she can’t figure something out, so she will call Claire, and just like I did with her, Claire can wipe away her tears, blow her nose, and just talk her through it,” said Garvey. “I’m so thankful for that.”
THE BIGGER PICTURE
Smith’s father, a painter, and her mother, a chemist who worked as something of a “hidden figure” at GE developing space technology, once gave her a used manual typewriter. At a time when Smith quit school and thought she would try retail, a journalism class at Temple gave her a new voice and a new goal. She might have been too naïve to realize what she was up against, but the American dream her mom instilled in her – and the Dodgers – motivated her.
Saturday, Smith said her role as a journalist is to “shine the light where it needs to be shown. A reporter who stands tall not just as a journalist but of a woman of color, matters great. I stand here representing every person in my profession stung by racism and sexism and any other insidious bias but who persevered. You are unbreakable. You make me proud.”
At one point, Smith urged Garvey to stand and be recognized for helping her. There was no way he would have missed this moment, he said.
“You can say she was a first this or first that,” said Garvey, “but I don’t like to categorize any of it. This is a person, black or white, male or female, whose body of work is so significant that she can sit at the knights of the round table of journalism. There’s now a place setting for her. The queen can take her seat.”
More on Smith’s story and her induction through the eyes of fellow female reporter Melissa Ludtke at www.insidesocal.com/tomhoffarth
CLAIRE SMITH BIO
Education: Penn State University, Temple University
Newspaper career: After the Bucks County Courier Times and Philadelphia Bulletin, she covered the New York Yankees for the Hartford Courant as the first female on a full-time MLB beat (1982-90). Moved to New York Times’ Yankees beat writer and baseball columnist role (1990-98) and Philadelphia Inquirer columnist (1998-2007)
Current occupation: Since 2007, coordinating editor and baseball remote news editor at ESPN, primarily working for “Sunday Night Baseball” crew
Previous honors: 2010 Sam Lacy Award at the Negro League Baseball Museum and Hall of Fame; 2000 Mary Garber Pioneer Award from the Association of Women in Sports Media; 2013 inaugural Sam Lacey-Wendell Smith Award from the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism at the University of Maryland.
Video: ESPN created a “SC Featured” piece on Smith, narrated by Sharon Robinson, that has run this week and can be viewed at http://www.espn.com/video/clip?id=20138520
Note: MLB Network has an edited version of Saturday’s ceremony for Smith and Ford C. Frick Award broadcasting winner Bill King at 8 a.m. Sunday, prior to the 10:30 a.m. live coverage of the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Cooperstown, N.Y.
MEASURING MEDIA MAYHEM
== An inspired move by NBC to secure one of NASCAR’s most beloved figures, driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., as a booth analyst for the sport starting next year once he finishes off this retirement season. It also doesn’t hurt that the booth includes his longtime mentor Dale Jarrett plus former crew chief Steve Letarte. Said NBC Sports executive Sam Flood: “His love of the sport and his passion for the history of the sport makes him look at it in a different way. It’s fun to hear how curious he is about TV.”
== The Chargers announced more additions to their broadcast team that includes games on KFI-AM (640): Beto Duran will do a Chargers pregame show on KLAC-AM (570) and also report on the team for the iHeartRadio stations; KFI’s Shannon Farren will work the sidelines on game broadcasts with Matt “Money” Smith and Nick Hardwick, with Kris Ankarlo doing halftime and post-game reporting, and Alex Flanagan will do sidelines on the local exhibition TV broadcasts with Spero Dedes and Dan Fouts in the booth.
== A one-year trial by Spectrum Sports to televise the KSPN-AM (710) noon-to-3 p.m. show co-hosted by John Ireland and Steve Mason has ended, without a renewal, without much of a whimper. The TWC/Spectrum execs who made the show happen — Mark Shuken and Larry Meyers — are no longer at the company, so no one carried the torch for something that would cost the cable company more money. Seemed like a nice stride forward for Southern California in the multi-platform world of sports talk.
== Data in, data out: SportsMediaWatch.com looked at all the Nielsen numbers from the weekend of July 22-24 and noted that Saturday’s ESPN2 coverage of “Cornhole: 2017 Championship of Bags” drew a larger audience in the adult 18-49 demographic (204,000 of them) than that weekend’s MLB games on FS1 (Cubs-Cardinals, 153,000) and TBS (Rangers-Rays, 150,000), the WNBA All-Star Game on ABC (195,000) and the final stage of the Tour de France on NBCSN (106,000). Cornhole did trail four of those five in overall ratings but still had 350,000 viewers. Also worth noting: Major League Fishing on CBS beat them all with total 675,000 viewers – as well as 206,000 in the adult 18-49 category. What does it all mean? Cornhole may have a calling.