Pioneering Female Baseball Writers

By Lisa Saxon
Special to the Palisades News

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y.— Honestly, none of this was staged. That simple fact is what makes the photograph of the moment that Claire Smith, Melissa Ludke and I stood alongside each other for the first time all the more wonderful— and remarkable.

We found—and embraced—one another in front of the Character and Courage exhibit inside the National Baseball Hall of Fame, where we attended a private reception after a July 29 ceremony in which Smith became the first woman to receive the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for meritorious contributions to baseball writing.

As my husband, Reed Saxon, took the snapshot that appears alongside this story, onlookers noted that the backdrop was perfect, saying the three women standing in front of the bronze statues of Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente had left a lasting mark on the game, too. Our names—Smith, Ludke and Nehus Saxon—are forever linked because of the role each of us played in helping to push open some heavy doors in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when there were few women working in the field of sports journalism. And just three women were assigned to cover one the most cherished beats of all, Major League Baseball.

From left, Melissa Ludtke, Claire Smith and Lisa Nehus Saxon pose in front of statues of baseball immortals, from left, Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., Saturday, July 29, 2017. Smith received the J.G. Taylor Spinks Award for for meritorious contributions to baseball writing earlier in the day. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

Ludke covered baseball for Sports Illustrated in the late 1970s. Smith took over the New York Yankees beat for the Hartford Courant in 1982, a year before I began covering the California Angels (now the Los Angeles Angels) for the Daily News. But it wasn’t until late last month when Smith was honored that the three of us found ourselves in the same place at the same time.

Closely examine the photo taken by my husband, a Pulitzer-prize winning photographer for the Associated Press, who often introduced himself as Mr. Lisa Nehus Saxon while we were in Cooperstown.

On the left is Ludke, the woman who prevailed in a lawsuit against MLB and the New York Yankees after she was wrongfully barred from the entering the clubhouse\ during the 1977 World Series. She is standing in front of a statue of former Yankees great Lou Gehrig. Perfect. That’s Smith in the center. A lifelong Dodgers fan who fell in love with baseball after watching “The Jackie Robinson Story” when she was a third-grader, Smith is in front of the statue of Robinson, her hero,her inspiration. Perfect.

Finally, that’s me, standing in front of the bronze of Clemente, a talented ballplayer known for his empathy and his kindness, traits that Hall of Famer Rod Carew says come to mind when he thinks of me. Perfect. 

Click. Click. Click.

Once the photo was taken, we briefly talked about the remarkable progress we’d witnessed, and of the need to never stop fighting for social change.

In her acceptance speech, Smith stated it best, saying: “I stand here representing every person in my profession stung by racism and sexism and any other insidious bias but who persevered. You are unbreakable.” Smith, Ludke and I didn’t waste time sharing war stories. We didn’t see the need to do so. And, in hindsight, that mentality is likely what allowed each of us to move forward during the toughest challenges we faced in our careers.

Lisa Nehus Saxon at Husky Stadium in Seattle circa 1995. (Photo by Scott Howard-Cooper)

In the weeks leading up to the induction ceremony, I spoke frequently with Smith, who today is the baseball news editor at ESPN. Nearly every conversation included a reminder to use the Hall of Fame platform to focus on the good we had accomplished and on the “good guys,” the men who saw our struggles and decided that part of their job included making sure we could do ours.

Johnny Bench was at the top of Ludke’s list of good guys. He helped her do a centerpiece story for Sports Illustrated in 1978, and, coincidentally, the former Cincinnati Reds catcher was the first superstar both Smith and I interviewed.

Smith’s list includes Don Mattingly, Don Baylor and, of course, Steve Garvey, who helped Smith after she was forcefully removed from the Padres’ clubhouse after a playoff game in 1984. When he learned what had happened to Smith, Garvey politely ended a post-game interview with male reporters inside the clubhouse, found a teary-eyed Smith in the hallway outside the locker room and promised to stay as long as it took for her to get the information she needed to do her job.

Lisa Nehus Saxon and baseball Hall of Famer Rod Carew at National Baseball hall of Fame party in Cooperstown, N.Y., Friday, July 28, 2017. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

My list includes George Hendrick, Orel Hershiser and John McNamara, the former Angels manager who talked me out of quitting baseball after my first season. That conversation began just before midnight and ended at 5 a.m. “You can do this, Lisa,” he said. “You must do this. And if you think about quitting again, we’ll have another talk.”

I never really gave serious thought to quitting again. I love the game of baseball, and, as a young girl, I dreamed that one day a woman reporter would be honored at the Hall of Fame. In the sixth grade, I set out to become a baseball writer, though I was much too young to recognize any of the potential obstacles I might face.

In 1984, I was the only woman assigned to cover a team in the National League.

When I took over the Dodgers beat at the All-Star break, half the locker rooms in the league were closed to women. I was physically carried out of one locker room and barred from others. When I asked my sports editor for help, he told me: “You’re a big girl. Take care of it.” I did what I could on my own, writing letters and petitioning team and league officials.

By the end of the 1984 season, all the doors were open, with Smith and Garvey providing the final push needed to convince Commissioner Peter Ueberroth to take action during his first month on the job.

“You ladies are my heroes,” ESPN baseball reporter Marly Rivera told Smith, Ludke and me while we were in Cooperstown in July.

Heroes? Nah. We’re just women who chased a dream. Now, it’s our job to encourage others to do the same.

(Lisa Saxon is the new assistant athletic director at Palisades High School.)

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