Claire Smith's long, groundbreaking journey in baseball made a stop Saturday in Cooperstown, New York, where she was honored with the prestigious J.G. Taylor Spink Award as part of the National Baseball Hall of Fame induction weekend.
The Spink award is presented annually to a sportswriter "for meritorious contributions to baseball writing."
Smith is the first woman to work a regular beat in the majors, and she broke grounds in the profession as an African-American. She called the honor "the most memorable moment" of her career.
During her speech Saturday at Doubleday Field, Smith recalled her past few months since the Baseball Writers' Association of America voted her the 2017 Spink winner.
"Journalists, some young enough to be my children, began to reach out as I visited campuses and events hosted by the Robinson Foundation, The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, the Association for Women in Sports Media," she said. "Many spoke of research papers and articles they'd written about me! Now they were lining up to thank me for somehow inspiring them!
"Talk about missing the lead! Somehow, I must have touched something within these youngsters and never even knew it.
"Perhaps the enthusiastic young women who called me 'Auntie' and asked to pose with me for selfies saw someone who helped open a bit wider a door that had once been closed altogether. They were cherishing these encounters much the way I had when I first met Jane Gross and Robin Roberts.
"Perhaps reporters of color heard of a time when there were no reporters who looked like them. They listened to my story and hopefully realized that while present day may not be perfect, times ain't what they used to be. That's surely what I learned when listening to parents' life stories."
Smith, 62, is the first female recipient of the award, which was initially handed out in 1962 and is named after J.G. Taylor Spink, the longtime publisher of The Sporting News.
A graduate of Temple, Smith covered baseball for the Hartford Courant in the early 1980s, inheriting the New York Yankees beat midway through the 1982 season and becoming the first woman to cover a major league team full-time.
"I was recently asked about memories of that 'first,'" Smith said Saturday. "I had walked into a different reality, alright, but it had nothing to do with gender. Remember, the circus was in town. George [Steinbrenner] employed three managers, six pitching coaches and over 50 players that season."
Smith went on to become a columnist for The New York Times from 1991 to '98 and served as both an editor and a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1998 to 2007. She is a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee and three-time winner of New York Times Publishers' Awards.
Beyond writing, Smith fought for equal access. Notably, she was physically removed from the clubhouse by San Diego Padres players during the 1984 National League Championship Series with the Chicago Cubs. Former MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who once fought to keep female sportswriters out of major league clubhouses, later called her "the best baseball writer in America."
Most recently, Smith has been a coordinating editor for ESPN's universal news group, with an emphasis on baseball, the sport she has loved since she was a child.
"That's what we do: Shine the light where it needs to be shone," Smith said Saturday. "That's why I am proud to be a reporter -- a reporter, I pray, who continues to stand tall not only as a journalist but also as a woman of color because that matters greatly. Today, I humbly stand on this stage on behalf of every single person in my profession, in baseball and beyond, who was stung by racism, sexism and other insidious biases but persevered. You are unbreakable. You make me proud."
A full transcript of Smith's speech can be found here.
Also Saturday in Cooperstown, Rachel Robinson, the widow of Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson, was honored with the John J. "Buck" O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award. The late Bill King was honored with the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting excellence. It was accepted by his stepdaughter, Kathleen Lowenthal.