Coleman, Leonard S. Jr. 1949—
Leonard S. Coleman, Jr. 1949—
When he assumed the presidency of baseball’s National League in 1994, Leonard S. Coleman Jr. became the highest-ranking African American executive in professional sports. A native of New Jersey and a lifelong baseball fan, Coleman faces the task of restoring baseball’s public image in the wake of a lengthy players’ strike. He must also be the final arbiter in on-field disputes, whether they concern rival players, players and umpires, or managers. Coleman is deeply concerned that professional baseball has alienated its fans, who perceive both its owners and its players as greedy and concerned only with their own gains. As president of the National League, he plans to do what he can to restore the old-time feeling of baseball as a source of national pride and local identity. “We have to create a greater focus on the game for the fans so they can enjoy the game and not have to hear as much rhetoric about the business aspects of baseball,” he told Ebony magazine. “We have to understand that the business of our game is the fans.” One of those fans is Coleman himself. “The first thing I can ever remember loving is baseball,” he noted in the New York Times. “There aren’t too many people who get an opportunity to make their living at the first thing they ever loved.”
Coleman was born in Newark, but he grew up in Montclair, New Jersey, a village not far from New York City. He lived in a two-family home which his parents shared with an uncle, and everyone seemed to root for a different baseball team. Coleman and his mother liked the Brooklyn Dodgers. Coleman’s father preferred the New York Giants. To make life interesting, the uncle cheered for the Yankees. “Everything in our house was politics and baseball,” the league president recalled in the New York Times. “That’s all we talked about.”
At Montclair High School Coleman played baseball and football, becoming best known for his football skills. He was named All-State and All-American at halfback during his senior year, an accomplishment that he still points to with pride. “I was part of an all-state backfield with Joe Theismann, Franco Harris and Jack Tatum,” he remembered in Sports Illustrated. “I’m the only one without a Super Bowl ring.”
Coleman continued playing baseball and football as an
At a Glance…
B orn February 17, 1949, in Newark, NJ; married, wife’s name Gabriella Morris (an attorney); children: Leonard III, Christiana, Education: Princeton University, B.S., 1971; John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, M.P.A., 1975; Harvard Graduate School of Education, M.S., 1976.
Missionary in Africa for Protestant Episcopal Church, 1976-80; president, Greater Newark Urban Coalition, 1980-82; commissioner of New Jersey Department of Energy, 1982-86, and New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, 1986-88; municipal finance banker with Kidder, Peabody & Co., New York City, 1988-91; executive director of market development for Major League Baseball, 1991-94; president of National League, 1994—. Has served on numerous boards and commissions, including Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Metropolitan Opera, Waterloo Foundation, and Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities (R.B.I.).
Addresses: Office —National League, 350 Park Ave., New York, NY 10022-6022.
undergraduate at Princeton University, becoming the first black player ever to score a touchdown for that prestigious Ivy-League school. Still he felt that he was not being given enough opportunity to prove himself with the team—and he thought his race was the reason. As a sophomore, he joined two other black players in a protest, charging the Princeton football program with violations of the university’s policy of equal opportunity for minorities. When the complaints drew national attention, Coleman and his two friends were dismissed from the team, but a panel charged with investigating the incident urged greater sensitivity toward minority students in the athletic program. Coleman told the New York Times that the experience “changed my life in many ways,” especially helping him to develop a keen social consciousness.
After earning his bachelor’s degree from Princeton in 1971 Coleman moved on to Harvard University, where he pursued dual master’s degrees in public administration and education. With such stellar academic credentials he might have entered the work force on the fast track, but instead, in 1976, he accepted a position as a missionary to Africa for the Protestant Episcopal Church. There he put his education and expertise to work as a consultant on health care, education, and community services. All told he spent four years in Africa, serving in 17 different countries and cultivating a close friendship with South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. “I matured while I was overseas, and I found out about the warmth and affection of the people,” Coleman recalled in Ebony. “Everywhere I went, there was a new and exciting experience.”
Returning to America in 1980, Coleman began to consider a career in politics. He first served as president of the Greater Newark Urban Coalition, an organization that sought to create liaisons between businesses, community groups, and government. In 1982 he was appointed commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Energy. There he became an important member of the administration of Republican New Jersey governor Thomas H. Kean. During this period he also married Gabriella Morris, an attorney.
Leonard Coleman was hardly the stereotypical public servant, however. Midway through his four-year appointment to New Jersey’s Energy Department, at age 35, he worked his way into the Metropolitan Baseball League, a semi-pro affiliation catering to college players and other young pro baseball hopefuls. His late fling with baseball was the source of much joking in the governor’s cabinet, but on the field Coleman was a serious competitor. Over two years of play, he compiled a .337 career batting average. He explained in Ebony that the semi-pro experience satisfied his aspirations as a baseball player. “I loved playing baseball, but I was realistic enough to know that I wasn’t going to make it to the major leagues,” he said.
Handsome and affable, Coleman proved to be a great asset to the Republican Party in New Jersey. He helped to promote Governor Kean among black voters in such cities as Newark, Trenton, and Camden, and indeed Kean earned more votes in those cities than any Republican had in years. In 1986 Kean named Coleman commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, another cabinet-level position with an annual budget of some $250 million. Coleman had greater ambitions as well, at one time entertaining the idea of running for a Senate seat. He was popular and well-known in New Jersey, especially among Republicans, but when the 1988 Senatorial campaign got underway, Kean supported Pete Dawkins, a white Republican. Dawkins was subsequently beaten soundly by Democrat Frank Lautenberg. Coleman never made an issue of the campaign, and in fact he supported Dawkins as well, but in 1988 he left the public sector for a job as an investment banker with the prominent New York firm Kidder, Peabody & Co. He has expressed no interest in returning to national politics since that time.
Coleman eventually was named vice president of municipal finance for Kidder, Peabody, and he might have spent the rest of his career there. Instead, in 1991, he accepted his first position with Major League Baseball: director of market development. Coleman was charged with the task of reviving fan interest in baseball at a time when attendance was beginning to slip in many markets. He decided that the best way to prepare professional baseball for a bright future was to spark more interest in the game among youngsters. One program that caught his attention was Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities (also known as R.B.I.), an initiative aimed at keeping city teenagers active in baseball after they leave the Little Leagues. The program began modestly but has—with Coleman’s encouragement-expanded to more than 30 cities, bringing with it new playing fields, equipment, and organized baseball programs.
In March of 1994, the owners of the National League baseball teams unanimously chose Coleman to succeed outgoing Bill White as president of the National League. Coleman described his new position in Sports Illustrated as “a dream come true.” At first glance the job does look ideal. League presidents are paid to fly around and attend big-league baseball games. They get the best seats at any sporting event—not just baseball, but everything from the Super Bowl to the U.S. Open tennis tournament to the Olympics. Their philosophies shape the game in ways both large and small, governing everything from the fines levied for a fight between players to the image of the game itself. The National League presidency is a high-profile position, one of the most important in organized professional sports, and the job holder is treated accordingly.
The dream can become a nightmare, however. Coleman began his duties with the National League just as one of the worst players’ strikes in history was taking shape. The strike brought cancellation of a good part of the regular season in 1994 as well as all post-season play, and tarnished the image of the national pastime. To Coleman fell the task of restoring baseball’s image and promoting the game as wholesome family entertainment. Asked what he would like to accomplish as National League president by the Sporting News, Coleman replied: “In terms of fans, we want an exciting product on the field that they can be proud of and relate to.” He added: “I think baseball historically has had the roots within our North American society as the national pastime. Baseball has had an impact off the field and on. I look at some of the problems in our country with education, with getting children immunized. We have a role as hopefully a community citizen to help where we possibly can.”
With such a philosophy in place, it is not surprising that Coleman has proven to be a tougher disciplinarian than his predecessors. “Violence, certainly, has become much more prevalent in our society. And I don’t think it has a place in our sport,” he commented in the New York Times. Coleman has been decisive about handing out fines and suspensions to brawling players. He has joined current and former players in a much-publicized campaign against the use of chewing tobacco during games. And he has actively encouraged players to spend more time reaching out to fans, especially children. “Baseball is going to have to provide hope and provide some type of vision in society so that kids’ lives in this country can be better because of this sport,” he explained in Ebony.
Not surprisingly, Coleman has also been a crusader for the rights of African American baseball players. He was instrumental in persuading Major League Baseball to open its health insurance plan to the players and the spouses of players who participated in the Negro Leagues. He also helped to design a plan that provides pension money to former Negro League players earned from the sale of Negro Leagues merchandise that is marketed by Major League Baseball.
Baseball purists have been relieved to discover that Coleman has no plans to introduce the designated hitter rule to the National League. “I like the National League style of play,” he said in the Sporting News. “It’s not going to be leading any movements for any change.” What Coleman would like to see change is the message professional baseball is sending to its viewers. “It used to be that baseball had a strong connection with society,” Coleman explained in the New York Times. “It was always able to transcend the field in a variety of very positive ways. Now, though, the only message we have been communicating is money, money, money. That is not a message we should be communicating.”
Instead Coleman envisions such improvements as less drug abuse among players, less fighting during games, and more promotion of baseball as entertainment for the whole family. “We need to be role models and try to encourage players to be such,” he maintained in the Sporting News. “If you look at the game of baseball, it’s been one of the great continuities of life.... There’s a certain flow to it. You don’t want to tinker with it on the field. But any ways you can enhance the fans’ enjoyment, you do that.”
Coleman continues to live in Montclair, New Jersey with his wife, son, and daughter. His busy schedule may take him to as many as five different American cities in as many days, and he sees as many ball games in person as he possibly can. “I am thoroughly enjoying my work at Major League Baseball,” he told the New York Times. “I feel blessed that I’ve had several gratifying careers.”
Black Enterprise, July 1995 .
Ebony, June 1994, pp. 116-18; June 1995, p. 41.
New York Times, March 6, 1994, p. NJ3; May 6, 1995, p. A27; September 17, 1995, p. NJ4.
Sporting News, May 2, 1994, p. 9.
Sports Illustrated, March 14, 1994, p. 51.
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