Tom Keegan: Pioneer baseball writer to speak at KU

In this July 29, 2017 photo, former sportswriter Claire Smith speaks during her induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

To know Claire Smith is to know that it’s never wise to judge the strength of a voice by its volume. On the bashful side, Claire speaks softly, but it pays to listen closely, because she always has interesting, original things to say.

For most of her career, her audience has read her words. For the past year, her spoken words have been in demand. Smith, a pioneer in baseball writing, will deliver the keynote address tonight at 7 p.m. as part of the University of Kansas’ fourth annual “The Power of Sport: A Conversation on Business, Race and Sports.” The entire event is set for 6-9 p.m. in the Kansas Union Ballroom, 1301 Jayhawk Blvd.

Smith was the first woman to cover the baseball beat full time for a newspaper when she was assigned by the Hartford Courant to the New York Yankees beat in the middle of 1982.

She wrote baseball or, more accurately, wrote about the people in baseball so well that she won the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for “meritorious contributions to baseball writing,” awarded as part of the Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Cooperstown.

Smith, now an ESPN news editor, wrote baseball for the New York Times for much of the time that I was writing it for the New York Post (1995-2002). I had never heard her talk about herself until she agreed to do so Wednesday night over dinner.

Why did I wait so long?

A mutual friend suggested I ask her about Steve Garvey, the former first baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers and then the San Diego Padres.

Garvey was with the Padres in 1984, which doesn’t seem that long ago until Smith shares with you the differences in the media policies of the American League and National League back then. The AL stipulated that accredited media had clubhouse access, regardless of gender. The NL left it up to individual ball clubs.

“We knew that certain clubhouses were hot spots,” Smith said.

San Diego was one of them. The Padres even had three players who were members of the controversial John Birch Society, so you can imagine how they felt about women in the clubhouse.

Smith’s boss had been assured that in the postseason, the commissioner’s office would make the rules and Smith would encounter no trouble doing her job.

Smith went into the Padres’ clubhouse with the rest of the writers, only to feel a shove on her back, followed by an escort out the door.

She appealed to the general manager, to no avail, and then to the manager, who, without breaking stride, told her she wasn’t welcome.

Henry Hecht, of the New York Post, walked by and asked her what had happened. She told him and asked him to tell Garvey. Hecht walked into a pack of reporters surrounding Garvey’s locker and relayed the message. Garvey excused himself and went outside to see Smith.

“As soon as I saw him, I fell apart,” Smith said. “He told me he would stay there and answer questions as long as he needed me to. And then, he told me the most important thing an athlete has ever told me, that I had to remember I had a job to do.”

Meaning, pull yourself together and get your job done. So that’s what she did, and she hasn’t stopped since.

“If he hadn’t done that, I could have gone out that door and kept on going,” Smith said. “My career could have ended that night.”

That’s why, when she gave her acceptance speech at Cooperstown, she asked Garvey to stand while she related the story.

Smith never gave much thought to being a rarity as an African-American female baseball writer, which made it all the more thrilling for her when she was approached at the Association of Women in Sports Media convention by young African-American women breaking into the profession.

“I get that down-home love from them: ‘Auntie, Auntie, can we have a selfie with you?’ They were so beautiful and eager to get out there and do things,” she said. “I get kind of choked up thinking about it.”