Fay Vincent, who served as the Major League Baseball commissioner for almost three years after the 1989 death of A. Bartlett Giamatti, claims partial credit for Ms. Smith’s transfer to The Times from The Hartford Courant, where she had covered the Yankees.
In a telephone interview, Mr. Vincent explained that Mr. Giamatti was a regular reader of Ms. Smith’s dispatches in The Courant and considered her the best baseball writer in the country. After Mr. Giamatti’s death, Mr. Vincent was speaking to Max Frankel, who was then the executive editor of The Times. Mr. Frankel mentioned Ms. Smith as a journalist the paper was “thinking about employing,” Mr. Vincent recalled, and asked what he thought. Mr. Vincent said he passed along Mr. Giamatti’s praise.
During her tenure at The Times, it wasn’t unusual for Ms. Smith to have multiple bylines in the Sunday Sports section. She recalled a weekend when she was ensconced in a hotel in the Midwest, finishing up a story, when she retrieved a message from her hotel phone. It was from Gene Orza, then the head of the baseball players’ association who would lead the players on the seven-and-a-half month strike that would cause the first cancellation of the World Series in 90 years. When she called Mr. Orza back, she expected him to correct her about a mistake in one of her stories. Instead, he chided her: “Don’t let The Times work you like that,” she recalled.
Ms. Smith became a fan of baseball after watching a movie in the third grade about Jackie Robinson, the Dodgers infielder who integrated the major leagues. Unlike the reporters drawn to the diamond by statistics, Ms. Smith’s attraction to the sport sprang from its power to break down societal barriers. In an interview with Newsday in February, Ms. Smith described Robinson and the other African-American players as “our heroes and role models” and said, “their story is intertwined with everyone who grew up in Black America.”
In the 1980s, while working for The Courant, she became one of the first women to enter baseball’s all-male press boxes. One of the worst days she had at the ballpark came in October 1984, after the Chicago Cubs’s 13-0 victory against the visiting San Diego Padres in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. The Padres had players opposed for religious reasons to women’s presence in the clubhouse, and they refused to allow Ms. Smith in when she tried to enter to conduct interviews on deadline.
The Padres’ Steve Garvey came to her aid. George Vecsey, then a Sports of The Times columnist, recalled that Mr. Garvey became “a million-dollar stringer,” racing in and procuring quotes from his teammates for Ms. Smith. The next day, the new baseball commissioner, Peter Ueberroth, made it a league policy that all clubhouses were open to all credentialed writers.
At the Baseball Writers’ Association of America dinner in New York in January, which Mr. Garvey attended, he said of Ms. Smith, “She not only wrote, but she taught us responsibility to do the right thing and say the right thing.”