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Baseball Hall of Fame honors ESPN’s Claire Smith Saturday for her pioneering career

(Illustration by Rich Arden and Ben Cafardo/ESPN/Photo by John Atashian/ESPN Images)

EDITOR’S NOTE: ESPN will provide coverage of Claire Smith’s J.G. Taylor Spink Award speech from Cooperstown, N.Y. on Saturday evening.

This Saturday, ESPN coordinating editor Claire Smith will receive the prestigious J.G. Taylor Spink Award as part of the 2017 National Baseball Hall of Fame induction weekend. It was announced in December.

Smith, a pioneer in sports journalism, was the first full-time female Major League Baseball beat reporter, among other “firsts” in her barrier-breaking career.

Her story, including the challenges she had to navigate, is remarkable. On the eve of Smith’s Hall of Fame moment, Front Row caught up with Kristen Lappas, the producer of the well-regarded SC Featured on Smith (see below), which has been airing throughout the week.

How did you choose Shannon Robinson as the narrator?
Back in June, when I first met with Claire, one of the first things she told me was that her love for the game began when she was a young girl, with Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier. She was enthralled with the Brooklyn Dodgers and what Jackie stood for; it was a motivating factor for her throughout her entire life and career. Claire also mentioned that she had developed a close friendship with Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s wife, and their daughter Sharon, over the years while covering baseball. For these reasons, I felt like having Sharon, who is a strong female voice, and a friend, would be the perfect fit to narrate Claire’s remarkable barrier-breaking career in sports journalism.

What aspects of Claire’s story did you feel were important to spotlight in this piece?
The theme we identified from the beginning was “breaking barriers.” Claire accomplished so many firsts throughout her career; first full-time major league beat writer, the pioneer who prompted the rule change allowing women in the clubhouses, and now the first woman to win the prestigious J.G Taylor Spink Award for baseball writing. We wanted to open the feature talking about the barriers that physically act as the parameters in the game of baseball – fences, lines, walls, and then use that as a metaphor for Claire breaking through these barriers throughout her career.

I also found it incredibly interesting that for those intimately involved in the game – managers, players, writers, owners – they all knew Claire extremely well and felt that she had affected the game in such an instrumental way over the last 35 years. But to the average fan, she was anonymous. Telling the story of this “hidden figure” in baseball was also a theme we wanted to hit.

What has the feedback been like on the piece?
We have all been humbled by the amount of incredible feedback that the piece has gotten so far. I have received countless emails from female writers and reporters in the industry, commenting that learning about Claire’s story empowered them and showed how, because of women like Claire, more doors are opened for them today. Former players, managers and reporters closely involved in baseball that know Claire well, said that they learned about the journey filled with adversity, that led to Claire becoming the trailblazer that they had come to admire professionally. Monday Night Baseball had a spirited talk about the feature and Claire’s journey during their broadcast while they were interviewing her. Most importantly, Claire called me in tears after the story aired, thanking us for telling her story and giving her and her family something tangible that they will be able to cherish forever.

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