Claire Smith (left), with MLB.com’s Marty Noble, interviews Red Sox star Mike Cameron.
He writes: When Bart Giamatti was the president of Yale he read the Hartford Courant daily, in part because he liked to read the paper’s baseball writer, Claire Smith. Bart told me, and many others, that she was the best baseball writer in the country. Later, when I quoted Bart on Claire to Max Frankel, then executive editor of The New York Times, he hired her. From then on, he teasingly called me Claire’s agent.
Former baseball commissioners Vincent and Giamatti aren’t the only ones who hold Smith — since July 2007 ESPN’s baseball news editor, remote site production — in such high esteem.
On Aug. 6 in her native Philadelphia, Smith will receive the National Association of Black Journalists’ (NABJ) Legacy Award. The citation will honor Smith’s trailblazing career and groundbreaking reporting.
For Smith, busy as always with her duties traveling with ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball crew and monitoring news otherwise, the NABJ award is a humbling honor.
But it’s also another milestone in a career that has seen her cover sports in some capacity every year since 1982. Smith was the first African-American female newspaper reporter to cover major league baseball on a daily basis.
She spent more than 20 years on the beat working for the old Philadelphia Bulletin, the Hartford Courtant, The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer.
But at this time in her life, Smith believes she’s got her ideal job working for ESPN.
Well, maybe there’s one job that could top this one.
“If I had a billion dollars, I would buy the Dodgers,” said Smith, who despite her Philly roots grew up a Dodgers fan because of Jackie Robinson’s compelling story.
“It took me about a year to stop thanking [ESPN Senior Coordinating Producer] Don Skwar for the opportunity. If you had told me that I would leave newspapers — if you had said that 10 years ago — I would have said, ‘What are you, nuts?'”
Working as either a beat reporter or national columnist, Smith built a reputation for being a sound reporter with an obvious love of the sport.
She’s been in the center of tumultuous years with the Yankees — in 1982, she worked with two of the three managers George Steinbrenner named that season, most of the six pitching coaches, and many of the 54 players on the team’s roster.
Smith was at the center of controversy in 1984 when a band of San Diego Padres ousted her out of the locker room after Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. Some of those players objected to having a female reporter in their clubhouse.
“These players not only conspired to have me pushed out of the clubhouse literally, they put hands on me and pushed me out. They were vile,” she recalled.
Padres Rich (Goose) Gossage, Steve Garvey and Bobby Brown came to Smith’s defense, but then newly minted commissioner Peter Ueberroth had to intervene to quell the situation.
“For years afterward, the hardest day was the first day of spring training,” she said.
Smith recalls with pride chronicling former Yankees pitchers Phil and Joe Neikro’s quest to set the standard for career major league wins by brothers (530); reporting from the Bay area during the earthquake that rocked the 1989 World Series; and investigating what inroads blacks have made in major league baseball on the 40th and 50th anniversaries of Robinson’s debut in the sport.
Even though Smith is not being asked “to cover 150 games a season and 150,000 groin pulls” as she would as a regular beat writer, her ESPN job still keeps her in the middle of the sport she loves.
On May 1, Smith was in ESPN’s production truck covering the New York Mets-Philadelphia Phillies game when news broke that Osama Bin Laden had been killed.
“I helped formulate a plan and I served as a conduit,” Smith said.
“[ESPN Executive VP, Production] Norby Williamson was in the truck with us. I was relaying his instructions back to the studio while [Vice President of Production] Mike McQuade was taking care of what went on the air.
“That was news, so I was in my element.”
The Temple University grad knows that receiving the NABJ honor will mark an emotional night.
“I’m already a mess. It’s going to be faucets on,” she said, smiling.
“For that group to decide to single me out is amazing, because I’m just doing my job. [The award is] one of the sweetest, most cherished things in my life.”