By Maya A. Moore | 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)