This baseball writer is in a league of her own

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JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: a pioneer in the traditionally male-dominated world of sports writing.

Claire Smith has been covering baseball for more than four decades. She was the first African-American female reporter to cover the game for a newspaper. Working for The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Hartford Courant during her career. She’s now with ESPN.

And, yesterday, she was awarded the top honor for a baseball writer. Smith is the first woman to get that prize from the Baseball Writers Association of America.

And she joins me now from covering baseball’s winter meetings in Oxon Hill, Maryland, where off-season trades and other business is being discussed.

Claire Smith, congratulations. And what does this mean to you?

CLAIRE SMITH, J.G. Taylor Spink Award Winner: It means the world.

I look around this hotel lobby, I see my peers out there hard at work. I see so many that I watched grow up in the industry, so many that I have worked with for three-plus decades. And I — they chose me. They chose me to be the 68th winner of this award.

And previous winners were named Grantland Rice, Damon Runyon, Red Smith, Wendell Smith, Sam Lacy.

And they said, you are the 68th winner, the first female, the first African-American female.

It’s so humbling. I’m overwhelmed. I really am.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why baseball? Why did you want to write about and cover baseball?

CLAIRE SMITH: Two words: Jackie Robinson.

I was a child when my mother told me that story. And in those two words, I thought, this is a great country. Anything is possible. And within this sport, this sport taught this country how to grow up and move on. It integrated 20-some years before the United States of America.

I was in elementary school when the nuns at Saint James took a third-grade class down to the church in the basement of that Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, school, and showed us “The Jackie Robinson Story.” And Ruby Dee as Mrs. Rachel Robinson, and Jackie Robinson as Jackie Robinson, they took my breath away.

They reminded me of my parents, young and proud. And I wanted to know more about this couple and that game and that man named Branch Rickey. I loved storytelling. My parents bought me an old Olympia typewriter and gave me paper as a child, a preteen. I loved pecking on that.

But that story captured my imagination, and I still wear Jackie’s number a lot. I loved the idea of baseball and what it did for this country, what Jackie and the Dodgers did.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It is so inspiring.

But once you got into writing about and covering baseball, as a woman, you found out it wasn’t as easy as maybe you might have thought going in? I mean, I’m particularly interested in what happened in 1984.

CLAIRE SMITH: Well, Judy, I had a long career with one bad day.

And that was in 1984 in the postseason, Padres at Cubs, a playoff game. And I was pushed out, physically pushed out of the clubhouse because the Padres didn’t adhere to the National League’s edict that the National League controlled the clubhouses once the postseason started.

I had so many people jump to my defense, not necessarily the Padres club, but Padres player, first baseman Steve Garvey, who left the clubhouse to make sure that I had quotes, so I could do my job.

And he reminded me, as I started to falter, that he would stay in that damp, small area in Wrigley Field while I pulled myself together. He would stay as long as I needed for him to stay.

But he said, “But you have a job to do.” And he — that one phrase made me pull myself together and do my job.

My peers came to my defense. And the commissioner, Peter Ueberroth, who was in his first week in office, the next day passed an edict: All credentialed — properly credentialed reporters, no matter gender, race, religion, whatever planet they came from, get access in Major League Baseball.

He couldn’t believe that it really hadn’t happened before. But on his watch, from that day forward, it was going to happen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you were not deterred, and you have kept on ever since then.

Has it been harder, though, as an African-American? Or have you just not looked back and thought about that since then?

CLAIRE SMITH: It was no contest.

It was harder because of gender than race. I have always said that, because a sport had — at that time had a much larger representation of African-Americans in uniform, and still to this day is a very diverse sport, albeit more Latin American players of color than African-Americans of color, it would be very hard to be overtly racist towards anyone in a clubhouse.

However, it’s still very easy to be an idiot.

(LAUGHTER)

CLAIRE SMITH: It might not be in a club’s best interest to push people out because of gender, because the commissioner’s office will come down on you very hard, but that doesn’t stop a player from being obscene, from being a degenerate, from just being a jerk.

And that happens occasionally, sadly. If a woman is isolated in a town where a team has a laissez-faire attitude, it makes it very difficult.

I was very lucky. I covered a team that was aggressive in its approach. The Yankees were very proud to say that none of that happened in the clubhouse. By the time I came along, the Yankees were just ferocious in policing their own clubhouse, from the players on up. I had friends who were severely scarred by incidents elsewhere in the country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Wow.

Well, I hope that a lot of young women who are thinking about going into sports writing and sports news are watching this and being inspired by it.

Claire Smith…

CLAIRE SMITH: Well, thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Claire Smith, congratulations.

CLAIRE SMITH: Thank so much, Judy. I appreciate that. Thank you very much.

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