Claire Smith honored as first female J.G. Taylor Spink award winner

Claire Smith will be honored as the first female recipient of J.G. Taylor Spink Award and will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on July 29. (ESPN Images)

When talking about her journalism heroes, baseball writer and current ESPN News editor Claire Smith describes them as “lions” and “giants.” She raves about the way female sportswriting pioneers Jane Gross and Lisa Saxon inspired a generation and broke down barriers. Smith is humble, quick to talk about others who have helped her succeed. But on Saturday the stage will be all hers, and Smith will be honored for the giant journalism lion that she is.

Smith is the first woman to ever win the J.G. Taylor Spink award, a distinction given every year to a journalist for “meritorious contributions to baseball writing.” She appeared on the award ballot for the first time last year and earned more votes than the other two candidates, Jim Reeves and Juan Vene, men who she considers to be “just wonderful gentlemen, two longtime friends.” Smith’s award presentation will include an induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday in Cooperstown, New York, and she will be recognized as the first female Spink Award honoree.

After being announced as the 2017 recipient of the award in December at the annual Baseball Writers Association of America winter meeting, Smith demonstrated her class by calling all of the women up to the stage with her to accept the honor.

“I wanted to ask them to join in and applaud the gentleman we were facing because it takes a village,” Smith said. “We couldn’t do it without each other. It was a very special, once in a lifetime moment.”

Smith started her career as a baseball beat writer at a time when women were still banned from locker rooms and owners encouraged players not to talk to female writers. She recalls walking into press boxes that still had signs that read “No women or children allowed,” and while women still wrote from these boxes, the unspoken rule and lack of acceptance still lingered.

“I got to see change in the industry as a women and an African-American,” Smith said. “When I go into ballparks today or any sporting events, and I see just the amazing diversity. It’s not where we want to be or where we should be but it’s certainly not where we were.”

Smith’s writing career, which began in 1983 covering the New York Yankees for the Hartford Courant, ultimately led her to the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer, where she became a go-to voice for New York baseball. She now serves as a news editor for ESPN on the digital side and helps supervise baseball content.

Rob King, a senior vice president at ESPN, said he experienced “pure, unadulterated joy” when he learned that Smith had won the J.G. Taylor Spink award, and he credits her success to her fairness, decency and talent.

“I was Claire’s colleague in the sports department at the Philadelphia Inquirer before we both arrived at ESPN, so I’ve known her for a long time,” King said. “We’ve had many meaningful conversations about topics such as family, journalism, creativity, race, and naturally, sports. Her honesty and fearlessness have always driven me to think more deeply and care more openly. She’s just wonderful.”

Smith platform may have changed when she moved from newspapers to the digital space, but her commitment to her craft, and her generosity and kindness for those around her, has not.

In May, Smith spoke at the 2017 Association of Women in Sports Media conference, a yearly gathering for female sports journalists, students and athletes interested in learning more about the industry or networking with others. The conference brought together seasoned veterans and beginning writers, and Smith said the meeting gave her the chance to tell her story and hear from others about their experience chasing an identical, or similar, dream of covering sports on the national level.

“It’s certainly nice to go and be with like-minded individuals, to share stories and laughs, anecdotes and answers as to how to approach situations that may be good, bad, ugly,” Smith said. “Also to listen to new voices that are bringing certainly always new ideas, fresh ideas, fresh ways of looking at things to the table. It’s always nice if you are the minority, to not be in the minority.”

Jemele Hill, the co-host of ESPN’s 6 p.m. “SportsCenter” and another panelist at the AWSM conference, said Smith inspired her to pursue writing, and she now feels lucky to work alongside the newest Baseball Hall of Fame inductee.

“I could never have imagined years ago when I read her as an emerging journalist that we would someday be colleagues, that on some crazy level, we would actually be considered equals,” Hill said. “It’s pretty mind blowing.”

Smith’s work as the first female baseball beat writer occurred at a time when papers printed daily, the internet hadn’t been developed and Twitter just meant the sound of a “bird chirping,” she said.

While Smith blazed a trail for so many in the industry, such as Hill, she hopes that the next crop of journalists and athletes continue to aspire to make their way in an industry that has been male-dominated for so long.

“I would tell the youngsters coming up to cherish what opportunities they had because they were awesome and long overdue opportunities, but always remember to get in touch with that inner child and dream too because there are treasures to be found here in allowing those dreams to happen,” Smith said.