Solomon, Jimmie Lee 1947(?)–
Jimmie Lee Solomon 1947(?)–
Baseball executive Jimmie Lee Solomon is among just a handful of African Americans in top management positions within the world of professional sports. A Harvard-educated attorney, Solomon advanced in 2001 to become senior vice president of baseball operations for Major League Baseball (MLB), the organizing body for the professional teams of the sport. Solomon’s duties have included serving as liaison between the league’s top franchise teams and the minor-league farm system, and coordinating the annual Futures Game, the All-Star week showcase event for emerging talent.
Solomon was born in the late 1940s in Thompsons, Texas, a small farming community of just 200 people. His mother worked at the Kmart in Houston, some 40 miles away, and his father was a cattle rancher. The six Solomon children helped out on the farm and sometimes picked cotton to make ends meet. Solomon recalled in an interview with Texas Monthly writer Michael P. Geffner that his father “believed two things: that laziness was a curse and that his sons were made to be farmhands … I ran from it as fast as I could. As a kid it was the motivation for me to play every sport I could and do well in all my classes—anything, than to come home and be at my father’s mercy.” One of Solomon’s earliest role models was his grandfather, who was college-educated. Solomon told Geffner that as a youngster, he’d once heard his father and grandfather arguing about him. His grandfather told his father: “’Just leave that boy be. That boy’s got brains, and if you let him alone, he’ll make you proud someday.’ I never forgot that.”
During Solomon’s early years, Texas was still very much a part of the Deep South, and he attended segregated schools until he was in the fourth grade. In his teens he earned top grades and also emerged as a star athlete. It was his grades, however, that won him a scholarship to prestigious Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. There he majored in history and played wide receiver for the Dartmouth football team. He also set a track team record at the school in the 60-meter dash. Attending an elite Eastern college was a turning point in Solomon’s life. “My priorities just changed,” he told Mensah Dean in an interview with the Washington Times. “I still wanted to be a ballplayer … but I started really, really seeing the need and the benefit to do well in academics.”
When Solomon graduated from Dartmouth with honors in 1978, he decided, on a lark, to attend tryout camp for the Houston Oilers. He was devastated when he was one of the first players cut. Solomon recalled to Geffner that Oilers’ coach Bum Philips took him aside and said, “’I understand you were accepted to law school. Well, you were my son, I would tell you to go do that.’” Solomon took the coach’s advice and enrolled in Harvard Law School. After graduating in the class of 1981, he began at the Washington law firm of Baker and Hostetler, where he was the first African-American attorney on staff. “By that point, I started getting comfortable with that ‘first and only black’ thing,” Solomon explained to Geffner. “In fact, it had become a challenge for me to succeed as that. I sort of wore it
At a Glance…
Born ca. 1947, in Thompsons, TX; son of Jimmie Lee (a cattle rancher) and Josephine (a retail employee) Solomon; children: Tricia. Education: Dartmouth College, B.A. (honors), 1978; Harvard University School of Law, J.D., 1981.
Career: Baker and Hostetler (law firm), Washington, DC, attorney, 1981–90, partner, 1990–91; Major League Baseball, New York, NY, director of minor league operations, 1991–95, executive director, 1995–2001, became senior vice president of baseball operations, 2001 –. Also co-owner of travel agency and restaurant in Washington D.C.
Addresses: Home —Washington, DC. Office —Minor League Operations, c/o Office of the Commissioner, 350 Park Ave, 17th FI., New York, NY 10022-6022.
as a badge of honor. Although I think that after a while people forget that I’m black, which is what I strive for.” During this time, Solomon sought out influential mentors in the city, such as former National Urban League president Vernon Jordan.
After eight years at Baker and Hostetler, Solomon was made a partner in 1990. Over the years there, he had done legal work for the National Football League, one of his firm’s clients, and still felt himself drawn to the world of sports. He briefly considered becoming a sports agent, but then learned about an executive position open with Major League Baseball. He interviewed for the post, which entailed serving as a mediator between the major and minor leagues. These Triple-A and lesser teams were often located in rural areas of the country. According to Geffner, one franchise owner asked Solomon during the interview, “What are you going to do when you go into areas where blacks aren’t welcomed?” Solomon, unfazed, pointed out his own background. “Look, there’s no stronger group of tobacco-chewin’ good ol’ boys than the ones I grew up with,” he told the team owner. “And I dealt with them very, very well. And I think they ended up respecting me, and I also think I may have even helped enlightening them a bit.”
Hired for what was only the second job of his career at that point, Solomon entered into a fractious situation when he began working at the MLB offices in New York City in 1991. He was to oversee 170 teams, with 4,500 players spread out among 17 different minor leagues. The teams themselves were owned by the major-league franchises in what had become known as the “farm” system. The minors have traditionally served as MLB’s player-development sector. Rookies are often brought up from try outs in the minors, and recovering injured players or older athletes are sent there to fill out the remainder of their contracts. Relations between the two leagues, however, had disintegrated into acrimony the year before Solomon came on board. Contract negotiations had taken place but had gone so badly that the major franchises threatened to abandon the minors altogether and start a new farm system.
Solomon ended the strife, spending time in his new New York City offices as well as on the road, meeting with owners and managers and visiting facilities. One of his first tasks was to assess the 1903 Professional Baseball Agreement, which spells out the contractual obligations between the major franchises and the minor leagues. He saw several holes in the agreement, which made enforcing its terms difficult. “When I looked at the contract, there were just so many missing aspects,” he recalled in an interview with Black Enterprise’s Cassandra Hayes. He smoothed over rough spots regarding finances and player contracts, and began forcing the owners to renovate the minor league ballparks and player facilities, many of which were considered substandard at the time.
Within a few years, the MLB named Solomon its director of minor league operations. Under his watch, the 1997 contract talks went much more smoothly, and some in the League have called the success of these negotiations Solomon’s greatest legacy. Moreover, during the 1990s the minors grew in popularity, attracting new fans with better ballparks. The valuation of several of the Triple A clubs doubled during his tenure. Solomon is also credited with luring top athletes from other sports to take a crack at the bat in the minors for some good two-way publicity; Deion Sanders and Michael Jordan are perhaps the best-known examples.
All decisions involving the minors at that time had to cross Solomon’s desk, and he was often accused of wielding too much power. When one of the farm leagues wanted to expand to Puerto Rico, for example, MLB team owners opposed it, and the plan fell through. Solomon has contended that he would not have lasted long in his job if he was unfair to either side, but he does recognize the particular autonomy that his position offers. “Unlike a lot of people in this game, I started at the top and came with a hammer,” he joked with Geffner in Texas Monthly. “I’m definitely somebody to deal with.”
Solomon became a senior vice president at MLB in 2001. He still has much to do with the minors, including overseeing the scouting bureau, the Arizona Fall League, and international operations. He is also responsible for new special projects begun during his tenure. These include the Futures Game, a talent showcase for players in the minors that takes place during the annual mid-season All-Star break. His time is divided between New York City and Washington, D.C., where he has private business interests in a travel agency and restaurant. His name is sometimes mentioned as possible future president of either the American League or National League, or even as baseball’s first black commissioner. Solomon shies away from discussions about his personal ambitions. He asserted to Dean in the Washington Times that his primary goal is to “help other minorities get opportunities in sports, because sports is a very attractive industry. But it’s also very closed in a lot of respects to a lot of African Americans.”
Solomon traveled back to his hometown of Thompsons, Texas, in the late 1980s to receive an alumni award from his high school. He had never married, but while visiting there he was introduced to a teenager and was informed that she was his daughter, the product of a brief romance that occurred just before he left for Dartmouth. Tricia was being raised by her maternal grandmother and had grown up in rather reduced circumstances. She began spending summers with Solomon in Washington, and moved in with him permanently in 1992 when she was 17. Solomon told Dean that the decision to have her live with him had never been a dilemma. He said in the Washington Times interview, “The only thing that was important was to make sure that this young kid had a life. I think a society and a people should be judged by how they deal with their young and old.”
Black Enterprise, February 1995, p. 68.
Texas Monthly, August 1997, p. 68.
USA Today, May 8, 2001.
Washington Times, June 5, 1996, p. 8.
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