As we wrote in Sunday media column, Claire Smith seized a moment that was much bigger than herself Saturday in Cooperstown, N.Y.
The first woman in the 55-year-history of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s J.G. Taylor Spink Award, having to wait behind the 67 men honored before her, and also the fourth African American ever acknowledged by the Baseball Writers Association of America for “meritorious contributions to baseball writing,” Smith dropped a Yogi Berra line right at the start of her 20-minute speech: “I want to thank you for making this day necessary.”
After rising from a seat at the dais next to Rachel Robinson, Smith used a measured, reverential tone in naming off some of previous winners such as Damond Ruynon and Grantland Rice, and exclaimed that “those were such wordsmiths. Me, I’m just named Smith.”
Others, like Melissa Ludtke, would disagree.
In 1978, as a reporter for Sports Illustrated, Ludtke got on the national journalism radar by successfully suing the New York Yankees, Major League Baseball and commissioner Bowie Kuhn for the right to enter the locker room to do her work during the 1977 Dodgers-Yankees World Series.
Reporters like Mary Garber and Elinor Kaine fought those sort of access battles as well. In L.A., women reporters making strides in that area included Tracy Dodds, Diane K. Shaw and Lisa Nehus Saxon (as she explained as much to us recently). They were followed by Jane Gross, Melanie Hauser and Mary Schmidt.
Claire Smith was added to the list of those who have been humiliated in the past by archaic rules involving women reporters, as her 1984 incident during the NLCS finally led to commissioner Peter Ueberroth ordering access be granted to everyone with a credential. But that shouldn’t define her career.
Smith once called all those other women “trailblazers who, like Jackie Robinson, changed perceptions in the workplace and in life in extraordinary fashion just by insisting they be treated in ordinary but fair fashion,” writing in a 1999 piece entitled: “Women Sportswriters Confront New Issues: No longer focused on locker room access, work and family challenges prevail”
Ludtke said she never met Smith before asking her to contribute that particular story for Nieman Reports, a quarterly publication by Harvard University to promote and elevate the standards of journalism.
Now she’s more than glad she did get to know Smith on more than a professional level — enough to where she made the trip, with her daughter, so see Smith’s J.G. Taylor Spink Award ceremony on Saturday.
“It thrilled me enormously that my 20 year-old daughter said yes to coming with me,” Ludtke said earlier in the week from her home in Massachusetts before going to Cooperstown, N.Y.
“It may be different for her generation to appreciate when it means to experience a sense of a women’s place in history. Maybe they take it for granted. My generation had so many moments of ‘firsts.’ That it’s more a rarity today, that’s all good, but it’s important for her not to just read or talk about it but experience sitting there at the moment Claire walks up there to give her talk.”
Smith also said earlier this week that she “can’t wait to go to a similar ceremony where there’s a woman or a person of color standing there and it’s just a footnote or an asterisk. That will be really cool as a sign that we’ve come so far as our industry fights so hard to be diverse. It’s one of the reasons I’m proud to be a journalist. We are the watchdogs and keep on eye on so many different industries to see if people are being honest.
“Journalism looks so much different than 35 years ago when I started. An entire nation suffers from attention deficit disorder with all the devices and things pulling and tugging at us. I feel sorry for reporters today who multicast with camera and phone and audio and visuals and Twitter and Instagram. We need the time and luxury to sit back and do long-form reporting.”
Ludtke reasons that Smith shouldn’t put off the joy of her accomplishment for what can happen in the future.
“It’s an inspirational goal we all have, but there’s also pride in the accomplishment we celebrate here. It wasn’t easy. It was tough. There aren’t a whole lot of us around still. Forty years ago in my case, and a little less in her’s, this (recognition) was inconceivable. How could a woman get into the Hall of Fame when they barely had the opportunity to cover and write about the sport with the enormous barriers, just to do it with a level of competency and quality?”
Ludtke said that Smith’s entire career should be labeled as “phenomenal — if she was a man, she’d be getting into the Hall as well” based on her writing as a beat reporter and columnist for major newspapers at a time when covering the Yankees in particular was a prime assignment and drew the most attention.
“You really have to pull your act together to get on the radar screen with the big boys then,” said Ludtke. “It was the way she handled herself. She gave the players a way to speak honestly to her and she didn’t abuse that privilege. That’s a mar of someone really a pro at knowing where the ethical boundaries are and still give readers and editors what they need to know. Her work spoke volumes.”
One of the lesser known facts about Smith is her decision, as a single mom, to adopt a son in the late 1980s. Ludtke knows as well the power of adoption by doing the same with her daughter Maya — it came after Ludtke wrote the 1997 book, “On Our Own: Unmarried Motherhood in America” — and how it changes one’s perception of what’s important in a career.
“That isn’t a sacrifice when baseball writing is a calling and you respond to it,” said Ludtke. “Women still need to figure out how to balance work and being a mother. We can still do things to make that better.”
= The full text of Smith’s speech on Saturday
= A list of the J.G.Taylor Spink Award winners, since it was started in 1962, includes Grantland Rice, Daymond Runyon, Red Smith, Shirley Povich, Jim Murray, Bob Hunter (a former Los Angeles Daily News columnist), Ross Newhan and Peter Gammons.
= A seven-minute ESPN “SC Feature” on Smith narrated by Sharon Robinson has been airing on the network this week and is at this link.
= Smith’s speech at the Jackie Robinson Foundation Awards ceremony last March
= As part of the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism, Smith explains her life story in the “Still No Cheering in the Press Box” series
= A Smith tribute to the late Alison Gordon in 2015
= A piece on Smith from New York Newsday last February
= A piece on Smith from Poynter.com this week
= A New York Times essay by ESPN’s Doug Glanville, “Who Gets To Call The Game,” focused on Jessica Mendoza’s work on “Sunday Night Baseball” but tying into Smith’s Hall of Fame honor
= A New York Times piece on Smith’s ceremony Saturday by Filip Bondy as well as Times reporter (and former Daily News colleague) Karen Crouse