Spink award winner breaks down barriers
A highlight of the summer business of sports calendar was Claire Smith being honored with the J.G. Taylor Spink Award from the Baseball Writers Association of America. It’s the closest thing for a journalist to induction to the Hall of Fame itself.
For me that’s a signal that the barriers for women in sports journalism and the sports industry continue to come down. There’s much further to go before sports organizations reach gender equity. But to a greater degree than ever, professionalism, integrity and a drive to do the best work count more than whether the person is a man or woman.
I’ll share that message with students at The George Washington University. I’ll also share my personal admiration for a remarkable role model.
Granted, I’m biased. Claire Smith and I have been friends nearly 40 years. We began our journalism careers together in the late 1970s in the sports department of the Philadelphia Bulletin.
We were in our 20s and surrounded by pure talent. Our colleagues — almost all men — included greats like Ray Didinger, Mark Whicker and Gerry Fraley. I covered college basketball and golf. Claire had (I thought, as a recent alumnus) the best beat at the paper: Penn football.
When the Bulletin folded, Claire landed at the Hartford Courant where her journey to Cooperstown began. In 1982, she became the first woman to cover a Major League Baseball team as a full-time beat reporter.
Claire’s story is about overcoming barriers and dispelling old ways of thinking. As an African-American woman, early in her career she was often an outsider. Press boxes were the domains of white males, some unfriendly to racial and gender diversity. Clubhouses were worse. Women often faced suspicion and sometimes hostility.
At GW, we invite female industry leaders to speak with students. Last spring, Christine Brennan shared stories of a book she wrote with another pioneer, Billie Jean King, and about obstacles she faced as the first woman to cover the Washington Redskins. Go after your dreams full tilt and never doubt yourself, she told students.
Claire has visited a few times and always connects with students. They seek her out for advice and inspiration. She participated in a baseball forum on campus last December with MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, a day before she was announced as the Taylor Spink Award winner. A few months later, she was back in Washington speaking at GW and Howard University.
My humble friend hadn’t expected to become a counselor and example for the next generation of women in sports. It just turned out that way.