Like a pebble tossed into a pond, the honor of being named the 2017 Spink Award winner sent out the most beautiful ripples, which are now washing up on the shores of Lake Otsego, magically carrying my family and me to the most memorable moment of my career.
To the BBWAA, to paraphrase dear, dear Yogi Berra: “I wanna thank you for making this day necessary.”
This day … I am here, not to ask tough questions, but to answer one asked by my son, Joshua, after an amazing announcement and ensuing flood of congratulatory messages rendered me speechless last December.
Spink Award winners—my heroes—were applauding me! The world was upside down! Finally, Josh asked: “What does this all mean to you?”
I did not know! So many extraordinary names are attached to this award. Damon Runyon! Wendell Smith! Red Smith!
Those were real wordsmiths. Me? I’m just named Smith.
Yet here we are, Josh Smith. And because you want a response, I will attempt to give you an answer.
First, look at where we are: beautiful memory-encrusted Cooperstown. Can’t you feel the spirit of Jackie Robinson in the gentle breezes? And Doby’s, Mr. Rickey’s and Roberto’s?
Feel that warmth? Must be the million-dollar smiles of Kirby, Tony Gwynn and The Kid. Or the gigantic personalities of Pops, Big D and Buck O’Neil.
I can just imagine Mom chatting with Katy Feeney and Little Knucksie. Or Dad staring down Joe Black. Dad knows Mom had a mad crush on you, Joe, when you both were at Morgan State. He knows you eyed her 40 years later at a writers’ banquet and made a move! Behave, big fella! You are in Heaven, you know!
Josh, when we’re here, you can’t help but feel angels on your shoulders. For this is Baseball Heaven on Earth.
Gaze upon these Hall of Famers. Gentlemen, many believe your plaques say it all. Not even close.
Hank. Willie. Frank Robby. You are lions.
Sandy, Sweet Swinging Billy Williams, Knucksie, Sut—there will never be any others quite like you!
It’s been a privilege to have covered so many of you. Please don’t let this get out, Ozzie and Goose, but this really never gets old.
Now, here I sit with Mrs. Rachel Robinson, my hero and my friend; and the family of the great Bill King, the Ford C. Frick award winner. Unbelievable!
Such settings never fail to make one’s fingers itch and make me wish for a keyboard. I happily inherited that hunger from your grandparents, Josh.
William Smith was a magician with paints, pencil and paper. He could spin a tale, but not without illustrating it first, mixing pictures with prose. Was it any wonder that he married Bernice Ximines Smith—a chemist? A stroke of genius here, an idea there, and mix, mix, mix, she and her peers invented instruments, including a fuel cell used in the missile that carried John Glenn into space!
I couldn’t put brush to canvas, and I won’t even talk about my grade in chemistry. Yet your grandparents gave a shy elementary schooler an antique typewriter, showing a budding storyteller another way to create.
For years after, I typed and dreamed. And, like Mom, I developed a deep love for baseball—and the Dodgers—as her heroes, Jackie and Rachel, became mine!
Mom, we were always on the same page. … almost. Except for that one day back in the early 1960s. Doubleheader, Connie Mack Stadium. Koufax! Drysdale! Bunning! Roberts! Who did Mom take to those games? Little brother, Bart, because … wait for it, ladies … HE WAS A BOY!
I cannot remember exactly when I started to dodge bedtimes by hiding under my sheets to listen to late games on my transistor radio. What else could a Dodger fan do, when trapped deep in Phillies territory? I’d even listen to French-language broadcasts from Montreal! I’d like to say that helped me with my French grade, but “le lanceur” didn’t fit into the curriculum.
Occasionally, I’d even listen to games from that other league, from a mythical place called Yankee Stadium, games called by “White” and “The Scooter.” Those huckleberries!
The Sporting News was my bible. The dailies were must-reads. Brothers Bill and Bart grabbed the funnies; I hogged the sports sections. I knew Dave Anderson, Jerry Izenberg and Dick Young before I ever met them.
It would take some time before I got to know myself, though, Josh. Feeling lost and invisible, I dropped out of college. Worked in retail until Dad, God bless him, said, please tell us, what do you want to do?
Work in baseball.
Go do it! We’ve got you!
So, I returned to school, at Temple University. Took one mandatory journalism class, and my life changed. I would write about baseball! I cut my teeth at hometown papers, The Bucks County Courier Times and The Philadelphia Bulletin, awaiting my chance. It finally arrived in 1982.
The Hartford Courant hired me and I inherited the Yankees beat midway through the ‘82 season, becoming the first woman to cover a major-league team full-time.
I was recently asked about memories of that “first.” I had walked into a different reality, alright, but it had nothing to do with gender. Remember, the circus was in town—George employed three managers, six pitching coaches and over 50 players that season.
I doubt many Yanks even noticed me, as they were holding on for dear life. Right, Winny?
But, as you can see, Josh, I made it through that year and 34 more, thanks to my wonderful peers at The Courant, The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer and now ESPN.
Throughout my career, all I wanted was to go to work, do my best to get it right, then look in the mirror and ask, “Mom, Dad, did I do you proud?” I wanted to be able to look you in the eye, Josh, and ask the same.
Then Mr. Spink’s Award came along.
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. 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.
What have the younger generations given me in return? The realization of just how one’s reach can exceed his or her wildest imagination. For someone is always watching, and just may be ready to follow our lead.
Jackie, Doby, Frank, Rachel, Roberto, Mom, Dad—you surely knew that. You likely just wanted to go to work, too. Yet you are on my Mount Rushmore, because you shattered barriers, for the sake of those waiting to follow.
Such warriors were often lonely, but seldom alone. Thankfully, I wasn’t. Writers, with their billions of barrels of ink, and twice as many hugs, were and are always there. Bless you all. Editors like Bob Wright and Jon Pessah were and are not only my foundation, but family.
Then there was the army of the willing, fittingly in uniform. Every writer has his or her top go-to guys. Mine? Don Baylor—Groove. Willie Randolph. Donnie Baseball. Senior. Johnnie B. Dusty Baker, and so many more.
Steve Garvey, please stand, just as you did when salvaging the worst day of my career. After I was kicked out of a clubhouse during the 1984 postseason due to gender, Steve came out to the tunnel to assure I would have postgame quotes. When he saw that I was becoming emotional after having been manhandled, he uttered the most important words an athlete ever said to me: “I will stay here as long as you need me to, but remember, you have a job to do.”
The human touch. We all need it, Josh.
When Fay Vincent and Len Coleman joined to bring Negro Leaguers here for a reunion in 1991, to honor an oft-forgotten class, the then-commissioner issued the first-ever official apology to victims of baseball’s most abhorrent era. Then, Mr. Vincent led teams to offer the ex-players and their spouses health insurance for life. Union chief Don Fehr and the players joined in.
Simple gestures? No. Much more. Covering for The Times, I saw many an elderly man and woman weep. Closure long-overdue, but closure, none-the-less.
Josh, that’s what we do: Shine the light where it needs to be shone. 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.
In closing, I want to thank my family and friends, who I so hold in my heart. Hawk, my baby brother and hero; Bart, my beautiful dreamer, I cherish you. Thank you, Groove, my gentle giant; and Sophia, for believing in me. Alfie, thank you for teaching me how to laugh and how to hear the music, again.
Most of all, thank you, Joshua. Every time you smile, you make the man in the moon wink, and my heart melt.
As for your question, what does this all mean to me?
It means the world.