Renaming the Spink award, revisited

Claire Smith

Claire Smith at her Hall of Fame induction. The Spink Award deserves a better re-naming than “Career Excellence.” Smith would be one viable candidate for whom to re-name the award appropriately.

The good news, in case you missed it as I did, is that the Baseball Writers Association of America last February removed the name of J.G. Taylor Spink from the award that enshrines baseball writers in the Hall of Fame. The bad news is that the BBWAA re-named it the Career Excellence Award.

That’s the kind of name you affix to a retirement party and a gold or platinum watch to someone who’s spent his or her life with the company without having been particularly above and beyond the simple call of duty. It’s not the kind of name by which you honour the best of your best.

When first we learned the writers were considering the purge of Spink’s name from the award, I was (and remain) all in. Spink may have published The Sporting News for almost half a century, but he also opposed “organised baseball’s” racial integration. Ironically enough, the Spink Award was established in 1962—the year in which Spink himself passed away but Jackie Robinson was elected to the Hall of Fame.

“In August 1942,” noted Daryl Russell Grigsby in Celebrating Ourselves: African-Americans and the Promise of Baseball, “[Spink] wrote an editorial saying that baseball did not have a color line, but that segregation was in the best interests of both blacks and whites because the mixing of races would create riots in the stands . . . Spink’s defense of segregation was largely not based on fact but on fear and prejudice.”

There have been fan riots in the stands, of course, but unless I’ve missed one the customary causes seem to have been copious alcohol (Ten Cent Beer Night is only the most notorious of that lot) or large enough contingents of opposing teams’ fans in the home ballparks.

You’re far less likely to see a fan brawl inspired by race than you are by, say, a not-so-friendly argument between Cub and White Sox fans during interleague play. Heaven help Chicago if the Cubs and the White Sox ever tangle in a World Series for only the second time in their history. (The first: 1906—when the Hitless Wonders, the White Sox whose .230 team hitting average was the American League’s lowest, beat the 116 game-winning Cubs in six.)

When the BBWAA first announced they would remove Spink’s name from the award in question, I noted a Spink Award Hall of Famer (oops! now we call her a Career Excellence Award Hall of Famer), Claire Smith, telling USA Today baseball columnist Bob Nightengale the previous summer, “If this is the time of introspection, if Mississippi can change the flag, and Confederate statues can be removed from state capitals, we can do this.”

They did half of “this.” The other half should be considered un-tenable. Those baseball writers deemed worthy of Cooperstown enshrinement deserve far better than being called mere Careers of Excellence. (While we’re pondering, when will now-retired Thomas Boswell receive his due election to the Hall of Fame?) For whom, then, should the award really be re-named?

I thought almost a year ago that re-naming it for any of the following would be proper. I haven’t changed that thought since. Let’s revisit, in alphabetical order.

Roger Angell—The first non-BBWAA member elected to the Hall. He wasn’t a daily baseball beat writer, which blocked him from BBWAA membership. It took San Francisco Chronicle writer Susan Slusser, when she was a BBWAA president, to nudge and push the BBWAA into recognising Angell’s oeuvre as long overdue for honour. Yet again, with the same feeling: Angell isn’t baseball’s Homer; Homer was ancient Greece’s Angell.

Alison Gordon—The first lady to be sent onto the baseball beat, in 1979, covering the Blue Jays for the Toronto Star. Said she, a well regarded humourist when handed the Blue Jays, and who died in 2015: “You had to have a sense of humour to cover the Blue Jays, at least in the first few years.” Said one-time Jays outfielder Lloyd Moseby: “A lot of women that are in the profession right now should be very thankful for what Alison did and what she went through. She took a beating from the guys. She was a pioneer for sure.” She also went on to write some fine crime novels hooked around baseball.

Sam Lacy—One of the first black members of the BBWAA. Lacy was to the Chicago Defender and the Baltimore Afro-American what Wendell Smith was to the Pittsburgh Courier, a consistent but prudent pressure point upon major league baseball to end segregation in the game once and for all. It’s a shame that he could and did write a fine memoir but his baseball journalism, so far as I know, remains un-collected.

Jim Murray—The Los Angeles Times fixture (1961-1998) was what Fred Allen would have been, had Allen chosen to become a sportswriter instead of a transcendent radio comedian. Murray was actually awarded the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1990, about which he rejoined the committee gave it to the wrong man: he said the award belonged to one who brought a corrupt government down, not one who quoted Tommy Lasorda correctly.

Shirley Povich—The grand old man of Washington sports journalism. Which is very good for a grand old man who became the Washington Post‘s sports editor at the ripe old age of 20 and raised that sports section all by himself. “Shirley Povich is the only reason I read your newspaper,” Richard Nixon once told then-Post publisher Katherine Graham. Well.

Damon Runyon—He may or may not be remembered more on Broadway, but Runyon is actually a Hall of Fame baseball writer (elected posthumously in 1967) who’s credited with being perhaps the first to highlight the unusual, the eccentric, the weird, and the surreal, on field or in the stands. (If you don’t believe me, you might have a gander at Guys, Dolls, and Curveballs: Damon Runyon on Baseball.)

Claire Smith—The Padres tried to manhandle her out of their clubhouse after Game One of the 1984 National League Championship Series. Padres first baseman Steve Garvey said not so fast, then buttonholed Smith to give her an interview. It provoked then-commissioner Peter Ueberroth to rule equal clubhouse access for writers regardless of gender. From the Hartford Courant (the first woman assigned to the daily Yankee beat, in 1983) to the New York Times, from the Philadelphia Inquirer to ESPN (she was a news editor before the network included her among 300 staff cuts in 2020), Hall of Famer Smith’s career can be described in two words: baloney proof.

Red Smith—He may have been as close to a poet laureate among daily baseball writers as the art got. Winning his Pulitzer Prize in 1976 helps his case. So does being big enough to do what the comparative few have done, admit when he got things wrong in the past, whether it was coming to see baseball’s owners weren’t exactly among the pure or whether it was seeing the International Olympics Committee was (and too much remains) a 19th Century relic.

Wendell Smith—He was the first black member of the BBWAA, not to mention the first black sportswriter to be enshrined in Cooperstown. His writings for the Pittsburgh Courier carried the heaviest water on behalf of ending baseball segregation. He also planted the name of Jackie Robinson into Branch Rickey’s ear, when Rickey seized upon Kenesaw Mountain Landis’s death to put into motion what he’d long wanted, bringing black players to the “organised” game. Smith’s criminally un-anthologised; the Hall of Fame has a considerable collection of his thanks to his widow’s donation, but this Smith deserves far deeper recognition and honour.

That might be a far tougher group from whom to choose renaming the BBWAA’s Hall of Fame award. But on this we might agree once and for all: “Career Excellence Award” simply swung and missed.