How sports journalism pioneer Claire Smith of ESPN gets into ‘the marrow of a story’

By Maya A. Moore ‘19 | UConn Jour­nal­ism | March 29, 2019

Claire Smith cred­its her mother’s infec­tious love of the base­ball and the endur­ing sto­ry of Jack­ie and Rachel Robin­son with inspir­ing her 37-year-long career as a sports journalist.

I always knew that base­ball was a pas­sion, from child­hood,” she said. “I just fell in love with the idea of Jack­ie Robin­son and Rachel Robin­son. I fell in love with how a game could show a nation how mer­i­toc­ra­cy is the best route and how base­ball inte­grat­ed some 20 years before the Civ­il Rights Movement.”

As an African-Amer­i­can woman, Smith said the Robin­sons’ sto­ry res­onat­ed with her.

I grew up lov­ing the game and watch­ing the game but not just because it was a game, but because it meant more,” she said. “It meant some­thing to not just my fam­i­ly but Black Amer­i­ca, and it always had my attention.”

Smith’s career has been sym­bol­ic in many ways – she was the first woman to cov­er a Major League Base­ball team full-time and is the first female sports jour­nal­ist to receive the J.G. Tay­lor Spink Award from the Base­ball Hall of Fame. The Spink award is pre­sent­ed annu­al­ly to a sports­writer “for mer­i­to­ri­ous con­tri­bu­tions to base­ball writing.”

It was dur­ing her time at the Hart­ford Courant as a full-time beat writer cov­er­ing the Yan­kees, that Smith had her “one bad day in ’84.” It was a les­son that reaf­firmed her com­mit­ment to the pro­fes­sion and high­light­ed the impor­tance of allies in a male-dom­i­nat­ed field.

It was a nation­al league play­off series and I had to write the game sto­ry,” she recount­ed. “I was basi­cal­ly being barred from access­ing one of the two teams in that play­off game and in a way being told ‘well, you can’t do your job ful­ly sim­ply because you’re a woman, and our team is going to ignore the league rules and throw you out of the clubhouse’.”

But Padres play­er Steve Gar­vey came out of the lock­er room to check on her. He gave her quotes for her sto­ry and advice that Smith has car­ried with her since.

And he said, ‘look, I’ll stay here for as long as you need, but remem­ber you have a job to do.’ And that one com­ment from Steve made me just snap to it, pull myself togeth­er,” Smith said. “It’s prob­a­bly the most impor­tant thing that any­one that I’ve cov­ered ever said to me and that was in ‘84 and I’m still doing this job.”

Smith empha­sized that “one bad day,” has not defined her and won’t define her suc­cess­ful career. It’s a les­son she enjoys shar­ing with aspir­ing journalists.

We tell our sto­ries as a part of let­ting young jour­nal­ists who are com­ing along know what it was like but also to tell them that no mat­ter what road­block that some­one might put in your way, there’s absolute­ly no rea­son to stop,” she said. “Because my friends did­n’t stop and I did­n’t stop. We went out against the biggest doubts and we went out because we cer­tain­ly have more allies than ene­mies, and that’s why we con­tin­ue to go on.”

Smith didn’t stop. She went on to work as a reporter and colum­nist for The New York Times and The Philadel­phia Inquir­er and a news edi­tor at ESPN in Bris­tol, where she still works.

Her pas­sion for the game and per­se­ver­ance –rem­i­nis­cent of the Robin­sons’– can be seen in her three decades of cov­er­ing the life of the sport and its play­ers. She has pushed through bar­ri­ers to go beyond the basic facts of each inning or home run.

The most ele­men­tal les­son taught to us in Jour­nal­ism 101 is the five W’s: who, what, where when and why,” Smith said. “Every one of those ques­tions will take you past the num­bers and into the mar­row of a sto­ry. Into the mar­row of a per­son­’s back­ground. It will make you look at the human being in front of you who hap­pens to play this, or coach that, or is on this team.”

Smith said her favorite ques­tions to ask are why and how.

It just puts that third dimen­sion onto the human being that you’re speak­ing with,” Smith said. “We’re not speak­ing to strikes and balls and yardage and bas­kets. We’re speak­ing to peo­ple and if you want to know that per­son, you need to know why they do what they do and how they do it. When you start ask­ing ques­tions like that, it leads to some amaz­ing life stories.”

WATCH THE 9‑MINUTE DOCUMENTARY ‘A League of Her Own: The Claire Smith Sto­ry” on Vimeo.

TOP PHOTO: Claire Smith’s career has been sym­bol­ic in many ways – she was the first woman to ever cov­er a Major League Base­ball team full-time, and is the first female sports jour­nal­ist to receive the J.G. Tay­lor Spink Award at the Nation­al Base­ball Hall of Fame. (Pho­to cour­tesy of Claire Smith)

This sto­ry was fea­tured in UConn Journalism’s #TheR­oundupCT newslet­ter, our smart sum­ma­ry of the week in Con­necti­cut news.