Longtime Major League Baseball journalist and industry pioneer Claire Smith spoke at the Konover Auditorium in the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center as part of a collaboration of the UConn Women’s Center, UConn Athletics, the African-American Cultural Center and UConn Sport Management’s “Beyond the Field” lecture series. In a conversation hosted by Jennifer McGarry of UConn Sport Management, Smith shared powerful stories as well as unique perspectives on the inside of the industry she has long been a part of.
“Beyond the Field” has long served “to deepen the understanding of critical issues in the sport industry and the world around us.” In the complex world of sports, gender and race have long been stumbling blocks towards creating a holistically-strong environment.
Smith, an African-American female, grew up in a time when both of her underrepresented identities first made their breakthroughs. She told of how both her parents grew up as big Jackie Robinson fans and how that had a trickle-down effect on her. In a time where blacks in America faced oppression in a multitude of areas in society, every breakthrough was of major significance.
Robinson’s strides and the surrounding conversation inspired Smith, drawing her to want to understand the purpose of athletes and their impact on a larger society. In a daunting field filled with white men, Smith claims to have had only one truly bad day.
In what was inarguably the most powerful anecdote of her whole talk, Smith shared her turbulent experience with the 1984 San Diego Padres.
Smith spent her whole career in the Eastern Corridor, in progressive cities with amenable teams. As a Yankees beat reporter, she was shipped out West for the National League Championship Series between the Padres and the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field in Chicago. While the American League had an open clubhouse policy, the National League left it up to the discretion of the respective clubs. Nevertheless, the MLB had reassured Smith that she would face no problems getting access for the postseason.
The Padres at the time had three members of the John Birch Society, a radical and far-right organization, on the roster at the time. As Smith moved in to get quotes for her postgame, some players started chirping and cursing at her, agitated for her removal.
“It got that the point where a clubhouse attendant put his hand on me and was pushing me in the back,” Smith said. “On my way being pushed out, I went past Padres GM Jack McKeon, who I previously knew, and I told him what was happening, and that MLB had approved me being here. He said, ‘This is Dick Williams’ clubhouse.’ And we passed Williams (the Padres manager at the time). And he said the same thing.”
Removed to the ugly underbelly of Wrigley Field’s underbelly, Smith broke down. Thankfully, she saw a fellow journalist she knew who offered to get her quotes. She sent him to the Padres’ Steve Garvey, who had been good to her in the past. Garvey, upon being told what had happened, dropped the interviews he was doing and went outside to assist Smith.
“He told me that he would stand here as long as I needed him. But he also said it couldn’t be forever because ‘Claire, you have a job to do.’” Smith said. It was the inspiration she needed. The word of her mistreatment spread quickly and generated fury with the right people. The Cubs were upset, Major League Baseball was upset and her media colleagues were upset.
New MLB Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, on the job a week or so, came to her aid. MLB instituted a new mandate that all clubhouses would be open to anyone with credentials, regardless of their identity and how others felt about it.
The story resonated with many in the crowd.
“For me, coming from a different country where baseball is not popular, I did not really know about the atmosphere surrounding the sport,” said Liwei Ye, an eighth-semester statistics and sport management major. “I was really surprised to learn about her experiences, but it just made me respect her and others like her even more.”
Baseball would come to show its support for Smith again. She was awarded the 2017 J.G. Taylor Spinks Award, the highest honor given by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.
At the time she started, Smith was entering an environment that was unwelcoming and unaccustomed to someone of her background. She was one of, if not the, first African-American and first woman to cover the MLB.
“You couldn’t fill a baseball infield with the amount of women we had in the industry at the time,” Smith said.
Still, such an experience actually had some positive outcomes. The network was extremely close and a sisterhood developed over their shared experiences. They empowered each other and helped build each other up. These women became some of Smith’s heroes.
“Jane Gross was a reporter in the New York market, and she had to cover Dave Kingman—6-foot-6 Dave Kingman. And he would use his size to try to intimidate her,” Smith said.
Those were some of the horror stories Smith was familiar with. However, she maintains that in all of her years of reporting, she only had “one bad day.”
In this manner, Smith would become someone she sought to cover: individuals in sports creating change.
Smith still sees that change coming, yet she is pleased with the progress that has come. She is currently a news editor at ESPN, and in that role, she was able to connect with former ESPN president John Skipper and other executives at Disney.
“ESPN doesn’t just talk about diversity, they act on diversity,” Smith said.
She regaled the audience with a story about when ESPN was caught up in drama over their coverage of black activism in sport. On the outside, the network was catching heat from many, including the president. On the inside, Smith was communicating with Skipper about the merits of the protests and why they warranted coverage. She attempted to provide him a perspective he would never see on his own and was appreciative of his efforts to engage with her and be understanding. The possibility of such a dialogue between a high-level executive and an employee on such an important yet sensitive topic is rare, so she lauds the fact that it happened.
That is the next step in her eyes, not just in the media world, but sports at large. Prompted by a question about the shrinking number of African-Americans in sports, she rallied to say MLB needs to be willing to think critically and have the hard conversations about the root of the decline and how to stem it. That is how they can find innovative and effective strategies to solve it.
“I know there was a lot of discourse about ESPN’s bias and how they should stick to sports. But I never really considered their internal stakeholders and what kind of feelings or influence they might’ve had,” said Thomas Woodward, an eighth-semester sport management student. “I think realizing people like Smith, and her experiences, gave me a new understanding on the choices ESPN made in their coverage.”
One of the final topics of discussion centered around passion and satisfaction in pursuing professional endeavors. Her advice was to never ignore your goals and always keep your dreams in focus. Don’t be dissuaded by the discouragement of others or the obstacles in the road.
“I want to work in sport education. I know it is not a lucrative field and there is not a lot of glory,” Ye said. “Ms. Smith reminds that there are lot more serious concerns when it comes to a job and her advice gave me determination to stay on the right path for myself.”
It was a wise message, one generated by years of experience. Smith moved seamlessly to the next topic, but anyone in attendance or who knew her background knew she had dealt with far more than typical naysaying or deterrents. Rather, she had persevered through discrimination and social norms, and in her legacy, that has made all the difference.
Matt Barresi is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.