This week I had the opportunity and pleasure to meet and interview one of AN’s favorite sports writers, Oakland Athletics beat writer for the San Francisco Chronicle Susan Slusser*. Susan has covered the A’s since 1999, is a Hall of Fame voter, and active in the Baseball Writer’s Association of America, having served as the first female president and on the Board beginning in 2014.
I was curious about women’s roles in baseball sports writing from her vantage point, not so much the idea of equal pay for equal work as was the focus of much of the 2016 election debates, but more in terms of how it feels to be a woman writing in baseball—a traditionally male-dominated profession.
It’s only fair for me, especially as a woman who grew up in the East Bay, to unveil my own observations (biases?) as I entered this interview at Goodyear Park. Here they are:
1. It appears that women have equal access to players, coaches, and other baseball personnel;
2. It appears that both men and women have credibility as writers based on their skill and experience with little or no gender influence on that credibility;
3. It appears that both men and women have access to the latest breaking news as they report breaking news within a short time period of each other and both women and men lead in the “breaking” of news via tweets and articles.
It also seems fair to share my assumptions going into this interview:
A. I assume that certain cities or states are more challenging for women writers to navigate than other cities and states (e.g. Oakland, California versus Atlanta, Georgia);
B. I assume that for this current generation of ball players, most players see men and women sports writers as writers, not men writers or women writers…just writers;
C. I assume that for certain cultures where the ballplayers come from matriarchal versus patriarchal homes, this may influence how a player speaks to a female versus a male writer—meaning in a matriarchal culture, the respect and attentiveness to a woman would be higher than from someone who came from a patriarchal culture;
D. I assumed that Susan Slusser would be as personable and honest which is how I have encountered her through her writing.
Other than “C,” all of these were addressed in the interview. Have a look at the excerpts below and read the primary source transcription of this fun and educational interview with Susan Slusser.
Praunlinde: In a predominantly male-dominated field, I wanted to get your thoughts on the evolution of gender equity in baseball sports writing:
Susan Slusser: Yes, I do work in a field that is predominately male-dominated, and it’s interesting. In terms of pay, I don’t know how much equality there is…I think that I am compensated equally with others at my newspaper. There are opportunities for women in sports writing and it’s growing. Certainly MLB.com has made a concerted effort to hire women. I think, actually, the greater concern for me in sports writing is the lack of minorities. It tends to be very, very white press boxes…
The NHL has a large number of women covering. Football probably has the most number of women covering. Football is the one sport where it’s easier to be a mom in football because it’s more of a 9-5 job during the week and there’s not that much travel so there are tons of women that cover football. Baseball has probably the fewest women and I would say that it would be nice to see more women; the opportunities are definitely there.
Praunlinde: As far as the early years of your career, did you face more difficulties than you do now? Was it tough to break into baseball sports writing?
Susan Slusser: I was part of the second wave of sports writers, and I came in at a time where there was a big push to diversify newsrooms in general which I think helped. I started off at the Sacramento Bee, which at that point had a woman covering the A’s, Susan Fornoff, so the Bay Area has always had a large number of women sports writers. [Author insert: Susan Fornoff faced much in her career including receiving a rat purchased at a local store and wrapped up by Dave Kingman; it was sent to Susan Fornoff in the press box with a note: “My name is Sue.”] Stephanie Salter was at the Examiner, Joan Ryan** was at the Chronicle; obviously a number of others have come through and very high profile: Ann Killion, Gwenn Knapp, lead AP sports writer is Janie McCauley and the A’s have always had a large number of women covering the A’s.
Praunlinde: Are there particular states or cities that you travel to that are a little more difficult as far as how people respond when you’re interviewing them?
Susan Slusser: No, I think women have been covering sports so long that certainly this generation of players and even coaches has been covered by women at some point whether high school, college, certainly the minor leagues and major leagues. It’s not uncommon. I think this is where things like ESPN have helped because ESPN had women on the air right away when they started, so I just don’t think seeing a female (after having the first women in clubhouses in the early 70’s)…at this point I don’t think there’s really anybody in the game that hasn’t had time to become accustomed to seeing women (writers). For the most part, I think the women in the business are very good which has also helped.
Praunlinde: Yes, definitely, because of the credibility piece, right?
Susan Slusser: Yes.
Praunlinde: Favorite part of the job?
Susan Slusser: Everyday is different. I like the travel. I don’t like the deadlines always or the early morning flights, but it’s a creative job and you’ve got something new to do every day. And, it’s also really nice people to deal with so that is a plus.
Praunlinde: So, any players who stand out?
Susan Slusser: Well, since he’s retired I can talk about Eric Chavez who was always a real treat to talk to. Absurdly honest and he would say things that would get him in a little bit of trouble because he was so honest. My favorite thing about him was that a ton of athletes in that situation would say, “Oh, my comments were taken out of context” or “I was misquoted.” He would always say, “Nope, that’s what I said. That’s what I believe, so that’s why I said it.” Yeah, he was a treat, and thoughtful, and just great to deal with. Plus he was here for 12 years, which obviously is far longer than anyone else.
Praunlinde: How about someone that has left the A’s that you miss.
Susan Slusser: You know a lot of really good guys have come and gone as everyone knows. Josh Donaldson is one that I had a very good relationship with. We had known him as a minor league catcher who we thought was sort of a borderline catcher for a long time. I can remember thinking during some springs, ‘This is such a nice guy and I enjoy talking to him. I’m so sad that he’s probably never going to be a big leaguer.’ And obviously now he is gone for very different reasons, and I’m very happy for him.
Praunlinde: Ok, so last question. A lot of our readers are high school students, college students who are thinking about their career paths. Whether male or female, if they are going into sports writing, what would you recommend for them?
Susan Slusser: Most media outlets don’t really look at where you’ve gone to school or what your grades are or what you majored in. They care about experience, so I always tell people, work at your high school paper. If there’s a radio station or any other media outlet at your high school, work there. Try to get work stringing like if a newspaper needs help covering the high schools, and same in college. Get internships with real media. That’s the only way to do it. And from there, try to learn every job at whatever outlet is where you are working because you want to be the indispensible one and that’s how you go from being an intern to being an employee…And, when you go into sports writing, you don’t get to choose one sport; you have to know every sport. So have a good baseline of everything and know how to keep score and how to keep stats in the major sports because as a young kid you’ll get sent out to cover everything. I’ve covered rodeo, motorcycle racing, rowing, you name it.
As mentioned in the beginning of this article, I assumed that Susan Slusser would be as personable and honest as we encounter her in writing. Absolutely true! She was professional, warm and honest. She took the time in the middle of a very busy work schedule to speak with Athletics Nation because she reads AN regularly and cares about AN fans. So, my special thanks to Susan Slusser and the Chronicle for continuing to move with us on our journey through the seasons in the best sport and community there is! (Insert tip-of-the-cap here.)
* Susan Slusser’s 2015 book is available on Amazon: 100 Things A's Fans Need to Know and Do Before They Die.
** Joan Ryan is a pioneer in women’s sports writers and has published four books. She has a new one coming in 2018 that is on team chemistry. Joan Ryan also co-wrote, with Stanford and Olympic coach Tara VanDerveer, Shooting from the Outside: How a Coach and her Olympic Team Changed Women’s Basketball.