Elliott: Claire Smith, first female Spink winner, homers at Doubleday

Claire Smith during her acceptance speech at Doubleday Field Saturday afternoon. Photos: Milo Cooper, Jr. Clem Murray

Claire Smith during her acceptance speech at Doubleday Field Saturday afternoon. Photos: Milo Cooper, Jr. Clem Murray

By Bob Elliott
Canadian Baseball Network

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. _ When the good people at ESPN decided to do a six-minute feature on Claire Smith they did not mess around.

Sharon Robinson, daughter of Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson, read the script eloquently in the segment prepared by Kristen Lappas. 

Hall of Famer Joe Torre was interviewed along with Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker, Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly and former Los Angeles Dodgers star Steve Garvey, along with ESPN’s Jemele Hill.

The video evidence ...

ESPN SC Featured

* * *
We asked a few people for an anecdote about Claire, maybe a story to illustrate what makes her such a special scribe ... 

Brian Bartow, St. Louis Cardinals: ”Being in the National League with the St. Louis Cardinals, I didn’t have the opportunity to work as closely with Claire as some of my American League counterparts, but I was fortunate enough to see her at many post-season and off-season gatherings and observed how well respected and beloved she was by EVERYONE within the game. What a wonderful and historical day it will  be for our sport to see Claire take her well-deserved place among the greats in Cooperstown.”

Jack Curry, YES Network: “Whenever I sat next to Claire in the press box, I knew two things that were certainties: 1) I had a teammate who would look out for me and do anything to assist me in helping make my story better that day. 2) I was sitting next to the classiest and most respected person for hundreds of miles. Claire was and is one of the friendliest people I have ever met in this business, a woman who chronically asked me how I was doing and how my wife, Pamela, was doing. A simple, but powerful gesture. She cared deeply about excelling at her job (and she did), but she also cared just as much about the people who made up the world around her job. I’m thrilled to call her a friend and thrilled that I was one of the people who got to work with such a legend. Congrats, Claire.” 

Mark Gonzales, Chicago Tribune: “The first time I met Claire Smith was in the 1990s during spring training while covering the San Francisco Giants for the San Jose Mercury News. Claire arrived at spring training in Scottsdale, Ariz., one morning, and I was in awe of the way that she was treated like royalty by the likes of Dusty Baker and later, Dave Righetti. I knew it was time to do my homework and take a closer examination of her work in this profession.

“Claire doesn’t flaunt her experience or knowledge of the game. She is always more interested in how you’re faring rather than what she’s accomplished. The sport of baseball and profession of journalism are extremely lucky to have her. She’s not only a Hall of Fame writer but also a Hall of Fame person.”

Jon Greenberg, Milwaukee Brewers media relations (1987-2005), president Milwaukee Admirals Hockey Club: “When I would find out that Claire Smith was going to be in Milwaukee for a series at County Stadium, I always made sure that Mr. Selig and Wendy Selig-Prieb knew that she’d be in attendance. I rarely did that with any other media members. I saw how important it was to them and they would make sure to take time to see her. Claire’s presence, to me, was bigger than life. When she came to Milwaukee it was a big deal and it was an honor to host her in our quaint little press box. Congratulations to Claire on her award. It is truly deserved.”

Paul Hagen, MLB.com, 2013 Spink award winner: “On a personal note, I remember covering the Phillies in the late 1980s or early 1990s. Claire was with The New York Times then. Anyway, we were in St. Louis and, coincidentally, the Associated Press Sports Editors were having their convention in the same hotel I was staying in. One of the topics on the APSE agenda was a seminar called “Burnout on the Baseball Beat: Fact or Fiction?” They had brought in several beat writers to discuss the subject and Claire was one of them. And what I remember moist was her immense dignity. The other guys, all guys, on the panel sport of whined and complained. But Claire had -- and I can’t think of any other way to say it -- immense dignity.

“The other is when I was at the Philadelphia Daily News. I was a vice president for the Newspaper Guild and we were in the middle of a tense negotiation. So tense that we were actually spending hours every day preparing for a strike. Making picket signs, things like that. And Claire not only showed up to help, she worked as hard as anybody. She was a columnist at the Inquirer at the time, but was enormously supportive of the Guild and was to lead one of the picketing units if the strike actually happened which, thankfully, it didn’t.” 

Jim Henneman, Baltimore News American, Baltimore Sun: “If I was going to use a word to describe Claire it would be genuine ...

“She has a genuine love for the game; a genuine respect for, and of, her peers; and a genuine desire for excellence in her profession, where she has been a mentor to some and model for those who followed in her footsteps. A very genuine person.”

Jay Horwitz, New York Mets: “Fair. Never got flustered.  Very thorough. Our stars of the 1980s. Doc, Straw and Carter never said no to an interview with her.”

Paul Hoynes, Cleveland Plain-Dealer: “To me Claire always brought grace and serenity to a crazy beat. I’m not sure how she did it, but that always amazed me about her. Hoynsie.”

Greg Johnson, Pittsburgh Pirates: “Long overdue for Claire! Very, very deserving and very respected!”

Bob Nightengale, USA Today: “Claire is our Jackie Robinson of baseball writers, breaking down long-standing sexist barriers. It took absolute courage and bravado for a woman sportswriter to simply perform her job in a baseball clubhouse. Claire was our trailblazer, and responsible today for everyone being able to do their jobs without outside interference. There is no one more beloved and respected in our industry today.”

Sandy Koufax, left, and Steve Garvey, with Claire Smith at the 1985 all-star game.

Sandy Koufax, left, and Steve Garvey, with Claire Smith at the 1985 all-star game.

Jon Pessah, former Hartford Courant sports editor: “My favorite story. It was in the fall of 1985, another classic George Steinbrenner season. Yogi was fired after 16 games, lighting the clubhouse on fire. As well as know, George brought back Billy Martin, making both the players and the media utterly miserable.

The Yankees had a good team that season. Dave Winfield was there, in the middle of his personal feud with George. Don Mattingly was rapidly becoming the best player in baseball, well before a bad back ruined the last five years of his career. Rickey Henderson was but 26 and stealing 80 bases while hitting 24 home runs and batting .314. Don Baylor, Willie Randolph, Ken Griffey. 

Ron Guidry was on his way to 22 win, Phil Niekro, 36, would win 16 more games, Dave Righetti was in his second season as a standout closer. There were so many good stories for Claire to write about as the Hartford Courant’s Yankee beat writer.

Then there was free agent signee Eddie Whitson, finishing out what would be his only utterly miserable full season with the Yankees in mind.

And that’s where Claire come in. It’s early on Sunday morning of Sept, 23 when the phone rings at my house. I was the sports editor of the Courant at the time, and I was reading the Sunday edition of our sports section. The call is from Claire, who was with the Yankees at the Cross Keys Inn in Baltimore. On Claire’s best days, you have to ask my soft-spoken friend to speak a bit louder. On this day, I had to ask her to shout.

“I can’t do this any more,” she said, finally speaking loud enough for me to hear.

What now? I asked. This was Claire’s third year on the beat, and while she was still facing resistance in some quarters in baseball, I could tell from her tone that this had nothing to do with being a female covering the game of baseball.

“I can’t do this anymore,” Claire said again.

Claire, what happened?

“I just don’t think I can do this anymore,” she said, almost in a trance.

OK, please, what happened?

“Ed Whitson broke Billy’s arm in a fight last night,” she told me.

Claire had seen a lot in her time on the Yankee beat, and some of it actually had to do with baseball. But this was the first time she’s seen a player and a manager get into a fight in the early morning hours in the team hotel.

The fight started, as so many involving Billy, in the hotel bar. The writers and coaches managed to put Billy in one elevator, and Whitson in another. Who knew they were both staying on the same floor. When the doors open, out walked both men, who promptly went at it, with Whitson getting the better of Martin.

And so we talked for about an hour, as we often did while Claire covered the Yankees. It was that kind of beat. And, as she always did. Claire too a deep breath and went back to work.”

Ray Ratto, Comcast SportsNet Bay Area: “Claire tells the best Claire anecdotes, because (a) she was always there and (b) because she was always accurate. Because of that, I would bow to her on the subject of Claire stories. Indeed, it is my contention that this award benefits more from its association with her than vice versa. Frankly, Claire should sue, because she’d clean up. I mean, I would absolutely do so, but then I’m not Claire. And that, I think we can all agree, is a very good thing.”

Patrick Reusse, Minneapolis Star Tribune: “One big thought: Being with a local newspaper (then St. Paul) trying to lead the way on all things Twins in the 1987 post season wasn’t easy, when Claire had Don Baylor in the clubhouse. Claire has amazing connection with her sources.” 

Marly Rivera, Baseball Writer, ESPN: “As a woman of color, throughout my career it was always a challenge to find workplace role models that looked like me, until I met Claire Smith. You may admire Claire’s talents as a journalist and her numerous accomplishments, but for me, she was proof that it didn’t matter that you didn’t look the part as long as you did the work. And now having the opportunity to work so closely with Claire, she has been instrumental in my career and being recognized by ESPN at-large for my work as a journalist. I wouldn’t have the modest accomplishments I’ve had to date without Claire Smith. And for that I will always be grateful. And while we continue to be in dire need of diversity amongst baseball writers, Claire’s career is a wonderful reminder that we can always do better.” 
Phil Rogers, MLB.com “I remember how comfortable Claire made everyone when I was starting on the beat and getting to know her — mid-80s. It was so clear how well respected she was by everyone — her colleagues, players and executives. Classic case of treating people with respect and getting respect in return.

“A fairly recent story that makes me smile: One day at Wrigley Field she was sitting on the bench talking with Billy Williams and Bill Madlock. She asked me to take a picture with her iPhone, and I did. Billy Williams told her to send a copy to “Groove’’ — Don Baylor, of course — and tell him she’s “sitting with the real hitters today.” In her role with ESPN, I always know it’s going to be a good day when I see Claire at the ballpark.”

Cal Ripken points out how far Claire Smith hit her 'home run' of a speech. 

Cal Ripken points out how far Claire Smith hit her 'home run' of a speech. 

Lisa Nehus Saxon, former Daily News of Los Angeles ball scribe: “Claire began covering the Yankees in 1982, a year before I took over the Angels beat. She made an incredibly difficult job look easy in part by viewing obstacles as opportunities. I always looked up to her.

“Spend a speck of time with her and you will quickly learn that she is inclusive and somewhat selfless. When Claire knew she had been nominated for the Spink, she asked me to join her in San Diego for the announcement of the three finalists who would be placed on the ballot. During the BBWAA meeting before the 2016 All-Star Game, we held hands under the table as the announcement was made. Claire repeatedly said that wanted to make sure that I was there, because of our shared history, adding that, win or lose, she needed me to support her. Support? She manages just fine on her own. My truth is that she wanted me there to share in the experience, because we are the only two people alive who fought that access -- and acceptance battle -- as beat reporters in the early ‘80s. If Alison Gordon (Toronto Star) had been alive, trust me, Claire wound have moved mountains to get her there, too. That is Claire. She has tremendous empathy and a compulsion to do the right thing. When the Bulletin was closing, Claire’s editors invited staffers to take any photos they wanted. Claire made sure history was preserved, taking the files on Jackie Robinson and the Negro Leagues. She did not keep the valuable images. Instead, she gave them to foundations. Incredible. But that’s Claire.”

Buck Showalter, manager, Baltimore Orioles: “When I first met Claire almost three decades ago, we were both at a point in our careers where we were still trying to prove ourselves. I was young and I hadn’t played in the majors. I think we both felt a little bit like outsiders trying to find our way and through that, we developed a special bond in those early days of our friendship. We both had a lot of respect for each other.
“I am sure she faced unfair challenges along the way, but she rose above those hurdles. She was professional and tough as nails but she always had a way of finding the good in people. She never indulged the distractions in a big market like New York; she lived in reality, tuning out the noise and focusing on the important details.
“We’ve stayed friends throughout the years and I could not be happier to see her enshrined in Cooperstown.”

Dan Shulman, ESPN, Sportsnet: “Claire has so many of the best attributes of her profession. She relates to people exceedingly well, treasures the history of the sport, and can convey her thoughts on paper as well as anyone. She is a valued member of the ESPN baseball team, whether it’s seeking her out for advice on how to handle a particular situation, or the research materials she provides on a weekly basis. Going through Claire’s notes and links is one of my must-do’s every week.”

Serge Touchete, formerly Le Journal Montreal, LNH.com: “I remember Claire very well. Claire is a great writer, but more important, a great person. Tell her I say hello. Cooperstown should be honored to have her!”

* * *
I first met Claire in maybe 1984 or 1985 on a trip to New York. 

We were friends at “hello.” 

Often Tracy Ringolsby, Gerry Fraley, Phil Rogers, Claire and I would share rides to the park during post season play or we would sit near each other during many a fun-filled winter meetings. Often someone -- I forget who -- would loose the day-by-day book and the search would continue until the book with legs was found.

Each trip to New York I would see the soft-spoken Claire. Leaving the Grand Hyatt I’d scoop up the New York Daily News, Newsday and the New York Post -- toss out all than was not sports (leaving the front 20 pages and the back 20 pages) and jump into a cab. I’d bring the unwritten papers downtown, head to Runyon’s and on the way home buy the next day’s set of bugles.

I never purchased the New York Times since it was too heavy to carry with the three tabloids.

Until that is 1994 ... I was in New York covering the contract talks after the strike. It was after the work stoppage on Aug. 12 and before the season was cancelled.  The New York Times was THE only paper to read due to coverage provided by Murray Chass and Claire. 

In a span of a couple of days Claire wrote features on union leader Donald Fehr and management boss Richard Ravitch.

Under Claire’s byline in the Times ...
Fehr stopped, as if an internal alarm had sounded, a signal veteran Fehr-watchers know means a change of subject is at hand.

“What time is it?” he asked, his blue eyes suddenly flashing mischievously.

Twenty minutes before noon, he was told. Fehr jumped from his chair, walked to a wall-mounted telephone and tapped into the public-address system. And he proceeded to inform his staff that a moment of silence would be needed in 20 minutes “because,” he said with great solemnity, “it will be 20 years to the minute that President Nixon quit.”

Then Donald Fehr, the man the public sees only as a dour young intellect possessed of a Churchillian scowl but not one single funny bone, stepped into a smile that could light up Pluto.

And in that instant, the myth of the humorless architect of work stoppages ended. In its place stood a man with as many admirers as complexities.

Richard Ravitch, the owners’ chief negotiator, acknowledges as much. Even though Ravitch often describes Fehr as frustratingly rigid, he also invariably uses words like honest, decent and bright when discussing the 46-year-old union leader. Then there are Fehr’s peers, who see a man molded by a big heart and an even bigger mind and an unswerving dedication to his constituency.

And writing about Ravitch ...
It’s not exactly a win-win proposition. This Ravitch knows. Yet he has more than managed to hang on to his commitment, using it to shield against the sort of self-doubts almost all of his predecessors eventually succumbed to when faced with the players’ resolve. Keeping a Sense of Humor

A sense of humor doesn’t hurt, either.

“My wife had a very close friend call and say, ‘There are three people I wouldn’t like to be right now: O. J. Simpson, Roger Altman and Dick Ravitch,” said Ravitch, who married Betsy in May.

“Then my son called me from London the other day and said, ‘I saw you on CNN. Why the heck are you involved in this thing?’ said Ravitch, who has two grown sons from his first marriage. “I said, ‘You little so and so.’ My sons are the ones who talked me into listening when I was first approached by baseball. So they are barred from complaining.”

Ravitch needs no such ban. “Everybody asks me whether I sleep or not; I sleep like a baby,” he said. “It’s a lot of responsibility. But I’m fine.”

* * *
That night I called Claire at home, Claire my dear friend of almost 15 years, the woman who asked “how is your daughter Alicia? How is Bobby Jr?” each time I saw her.

I had never read the Hartford Courant before the inter web was invented.

My choice was to read the Yankees and Mets ... but in the tabs.

I took a breath and said: “Hey Claire ... don’t take this the wrong way ... but you are really, really, really, really good.” 

Instead of hanging up she thanked me.  

During post-season play I  have a routine after filing for first edition. Usually finishing about the second or third inning, I’d file the story and confirm from the office. Then go for a walk, re-group for Round II. 

(There was a time when you would write for first edition, again on a different subject (most nites) for second edition and again a third time for final edition.)

Walking into the lunch room at Citi Field for a Diet Coke during Game 3 of the 2015 World Series, I found Claire seated watching off the TV. Broadcasters Keith Hernandez and Chris Singleton were nearby.

Claire’s workplace had sort of a Ponderosa approach like my office ... it spread: her laptop, note pad, purse and a recent trip to the concessions were on the table. I cleared a sushi tray, an empty box and sat down for an inning and a half, chatting between innings. 

The next two nights, Game 4 and Game 5, were the same ... and two more nights of me arriving and cleaning a space to put my score sheet. The Kansas City Royals won Game 5 and to win the World Series. I did not see Claire post game and heard from her about three months later.

In my house cleaning ... I had picked up the cardboard sushi box placed garbage on it and tossed it. In the bottom tray was her wallet.

People are amazed at Claire’s kindness ... I certainly was. I threw out her wallet and we are still friends. The Royals won the World Series that night. I was happy for Claire ... she would not have been able to get to K.C. withhout her credit cards

* * *
On the back porch of the Ostega Hotel on Friday Claire handed out hats for women to wear in memory of the late executive Katy Feeney. When her wonderful speech was completed and the crowd stood and applauded Saturday afternoon, Claire flipped her wide-brimmed Katy-lid into the air and caught it like a Fred Astaire.

Claire once compared a woman’s place in the work place those early years to Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing “saying Fred Astaire was amazing and so was Ginger Rogers, only Ginger did what Fred did dancing backwards with high heels on. That’s what I think of when you have to carry that extra burden.”

Claire Smith, with her son Josh Smith, right.

Claire Smith, with her son Josh Smith, right.

Later that night at the Willow Tree Inn, Claire’s baby brother, Hawthorne, sang and played a Frank Sinatra "I Have Dreamed," song on his sax, Josh Smith, moved close and hugged his mom. There was not a dry eye in the place as mom hugged son, hours after mom had delivered her love letter to her son in the best Spink acceptance speech we’ve ever heard. 

* * *

Claire always thinks of others ... like insisting a friend to jump into her family photo on the steps of the library. 

Like holding up a picture of Don Baylor, one of her "go-go guys," along with former Los Angeles Dodgers Steve Garvey and Willie Randolph, who she introduced and asked both to stand.

Smith, partially blocked by someone wearing a Cowboy hat, former Spink winner Tracy Ringolsby, asked women in the room to come to the front of the room and share her honour as she was named the Spink award winner.

Smith, partially blocked by someone wearing a Cowboy hat, former Spink winner Tracy Ringolsby, asked women in the room to come to the front of the room and share her honour as she was named the Spink award winner.

Like when she was named the winner at the winter meetings in December ... Claire asked all the working women scribes in the room to come and stand with her.

* * *
I can envision 100 years from now a grandpa and his grandson standing in front of pictures of J.G. Taylor Spink award winners. And it would go something like this.

“I figured it out grandpa, they are listed in chronological order ... year by year. We took Ms. Smith is class under Great Pioneering Women. She is 100 times more important and influential than the guy that won in 2012.”

In other words ... Claire Smith "just classed up the joint."

* * *
Dom Amore: Claire Smith Legacy Lauded In Hall Of Fame Ceremony

Marc Narducci: Claire Smith hits home run with Hall of Fame speech

Jenni Carlson: Why Claire Smith’s story should be told in Cooperstown and beyond