7:51 PM EDT, July 13, 2013
While I was a junior at Rutgers, learning how to become a sports writer, Claire Smith was out there fighting for me.
And I didn't even know it.
I didn't even know it until the other day when Smith, who works at ESPN, and I sat down to talk about the upcoming ESPN documentary "Let Them Wear Towels," which details some of the battles that female sports writers had to go through to do their jobs. It's the third film in the company's "Nine for IX" series about women's sports, and it airs Tuesday night at 8 p.m. on ESPN.
When I confessed to Claire that I hadn't heard about the time when she, as a Courant sports writer, was thrown out of the San Diego Padres' locker room in 1984 — only five years before I arrived at the Courant — she told me that was a good thing.
"When we went to Tribeca [Film Festival], there were a lot of young reporters there, and they didn't know the story," said Smith, who left the Courant in 1990 and went on to work at The New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer before joining ESPN in 2007. "They don't recognize that environment, and that's a good thing."
Ah, but there's the difference. I'm not that young. I do recognize that environment. There have been a few times — not recently, but maybe 25 years ago, when I was first starting out — that I was told I couldn't go in a locker room because I was a woman. I got around it and figured out how to do my job despite the limitations. But still.
There were also plenty of locker rooms — the Yankees' clubhouse comes to mind — where I felt fairly comfortable and, if not completely accepted, at least able to do my job in a professional manner, thanks to Smith and the other pioneering female sports writers who came before us.
In 1984, Smith had been on the Yankees beat three years for the Courant. It was six years after Sports Illustrated's Melissa Ludtke had sued Major League Baseball (and won) after she was barred from the Yankees' locker room during the World Series.
So you would think that by 1984, things would have changed. They had in the American League, where Smith had access to every clubhouse and could do her job. But not in the National League, where teams were allowed to set their own rules regarding female sports writers. And the San Diego Padres were known for not allowing women in the locker room.
When the playoffs rolled around, the Padres were set to face the Cubs in the National League Championship Series. Smith went to cover the series in Chicago. She had told then-Courant sports editor Jon Pessah that there might be trouble. Pessah had written NL president Chub Feeney and told him his concerns. He was assured that Smith would be allowed access.
"I go to the first game," Smith said. "The Padres win. I go down with the rest of the reporters. I'm in the clubhouse. Some of the Padres started chirping and cursing. 'Get her out of here.' So on and so forth.
"Some of the staff come and start saying, 'You have to leave, you have to leave, you're not allowed in here.' As they were ushering me out, I went right past Jack McKeon, who was the general manager, and I said, 'They say I have to leave.' And he said, 'That's right, this is [manager] Dick Williams' clubhouse.'
"At that point, it was either a trainer or a clubhouse guy — he had Padres gear on — he literally put his hand on my back and pushed me toward the door. As I was pushed out the door, Dick Williams was coming back from the interview room. I said, 'They say I have to leave.' And he said, 'That's right,' and just kept going."
Smith found herself outside the locker room, on deadline, panicking. She was the only writer from the Courant, and there was a hole back in Hartford on the page with her name on it. The PR person from the Padres came out, she said, but wouldn't bring her any players to interview.
A writer from The New York Times came by and asked her if she needed help. She said, yes, could he get Steve Garvey?
Garvey knew Smith. He came right out, told her to pull herself together and ask him some questions. She did and went to the press room to write her story.
And then she called Pessah.
"He went crazy," she said, laughing now. "He was waking everybody up. He said, 'You're going back in there tomorrow. You stay until they come and arrest you.' It was like, oh God. I can laugh about it now. But it was very traumatic."
Peter Ueberroth, coming off organizing the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, was just taking over for Bowie Kuhn as commissioner.
"It was his first week on the job," Smith said. "He's coming from the 21st century Olympics and he can't believe he's walked into this.
"The next day, he said, 'The clubhouse is open. This is nonsense.' "
Some of the Cubs who knew Smith were irate that this had happened at Wrigley Field. Goose Gossage, who played for the Padres, saw her before Game 2 and asked her why she hadn't asked him for help.
"I had a lot of support," she said.
"It was a very uncomfortable thing," she said. "I didn't want to do any interviews. I didn't want to talk about it [publicly]. You're trained not to be part of the story."
After the incident, things did change — in baseball, anyway. But it took a while.
"It was a wake-up call to the people at the top of baseball that women in the locker room were not going away," Pessah said. "The women weren't going to back down, and the papers behind them weren't going to back down. They had problems with certain teams, and they needed to get ahead of the curve on this. It was an embarrassment. It was a national story. This was not something they wanted. I think it took a lot of fortitude on Claire's part and others to keep going in, year after year.
"It didn't go away. It took a lot of players a long time to get used to the fact that this was going to be the way it was. We had long talks about it. She really wanted to be a baseball writer, and she was willing to push it."
There are women who are in college, young sports writers like I was, hoping (as I did back then) to cover the Red Sox or a professional sports team when they graduate. Sort of like girls who play sports today who aren't aware of the impact of Title IX, they may not know the stories. But as Claire said, that's a good thing.
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