Commentary

Solomon strives to improve African-American connection with MLB

Updated: February 27, 2008, 11:28 PM ET
By George J. Tanber | Special to ESPN.com

Growing up on a 100-acre cattle and pig farm in south Texas, Jimmie Lee Solomon loves to tell the story of competing with his two brothers for the one available hot bath after completing their morning chores.

Young Jimmie Lee would sneak through the bathroom window -- or do whatever it took -- to be first. He rarely was deprived.

He used similar cunning and determination to escape the farm, star in football and track at Dartmouth, graduate from Harvard Law School, make partner in a Washington law firm and then rise to the No. 3 position in Major League Baseball -- becoming one of the most influential African-American professional executives in sports.

Some are touting Solomon, 51, as baseball's next commissioner, but he eschews such talk.

"Someone once told me, 'Try to deal with what is here, what is now. Anything can happen in the future. That's why we call it the future,'" he says.

[+] EnlargeJimmie Lee Solomon
Courtesy MLBOne of the projects Jimmie Lee Solomon worked on was the creation of MLB's Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif.
Solomon is too busy to look ahead. His duties at the MLB office on Park Avenue include directing major league, minor league and international operations; security; facility management; umpires; scouts; and the Arizona Fall League. But it's Solomon's ideas and projects -- particularly those relating to minorities -- that have elevated his reputation. His favorite cause, an ambitious initiative to get more African-Americans playing baseball, resulted in the opening of an urban youth academy in Compton, Calif., two years ago. A number of the program's graduates have already been drafted or earned college scholarships.

And his work has been noticed.

"In a very short period of time, Jimmie Lee . . . has a lot of programs up and running that people only talked about or thought about," says Frank Robinson, the game's first African-American manager, who now works for Solomon. "I look at him as a doer. He gets an idea, he takes hold of it and sees it through to the end. He makes sure it's finished."

Much of Solomon's success, and his sensitivity on racial issues, can be traced to his childhood years on the farm and in the classroom in rural Fort Bend County near Houston. His father, Jimmie Lee Solomon Sr., roused the younger Jimmie Lee and his brothers every day at 4 a.m. for two hours of hay bailing and stall mucking -- before school.

Jimmie Lee loved his father but despised farm work, something the senior Solomon could not understand. His mother Josephine, on the other hand, was pro-education -- she made her son read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica to keep pace with his more affluent, well-traveled classmates.

Jimmie Lee, ever resourceful, quickly figured out that if he volunteered for after-school projects he could avoid the farm.

"I knew," he says, with a hint of south Texas in his accent, "if I stayed over for something educational my father would feel embarrassed to tell me not to do it or my mother would get mad."

After President John Kennedy was killed in Dallas and Lyndon Johnson became president, integration quickly came to Fort Bend County. In fourth grade, Jimmie Lee went from an all-black school to a mostly white school. He had been a good student, so he was placed in an advanced class in which he was the only African-American.

"I wasn't afraid of the kids," he says. "I was more afraid I would be exposed as a dummy. I was always taught that white kids were smarter. So now I'm going to go up against them. My fear of being laughed at made me work hard. I actually found out that I was as smart, or smarter than most of the kids in the room."

The other great equalizer, Solomon learned, was sports. In sixth grade, while completing the President's Physical Fitness Test, he blistered the school's age-group record in the 50-yard dash. Word of his fleet feet quickly spread, but the junior high football and track coaches doubted the PE teacher's stopwatch. So Solomon ran it once more and broke the record again.

He remembers the impact of that achievement, too.

"From that point on I could tell that those guys really gave a damn about me," he says. "I thought, 'Those white guys really like it when I run, so I'm going to run all the time.'"

[+] EnlargeJimmie Lee Solomon
Courtesy Dartmouth CollegeSolomon left his small hometown in south Texas to run track and play football at Dartmouth, a northern Ivy League school.
In junior high and high school, Solomon starred in track and football. But at 5-foot-8, 165 pounds, scholarships were hard to find. Finally, Dartmouth's track coach, Ken Weinbel, invited him to campus. Solomon received an academic scholarship, and went from Thompsons, Texas -- population 236 -- to an Ivy League campus in Hanover, N.H., where there were few blacks. Might as well have been the moon, he says.

As a freshman in 1974, Solomon excelled in sports -- he quickly was snapped up by the football team -- and his outgoing personality won him friends.

The classroom was something different.

"[That's] where I was intimidated," he says. The workload overwhelmed him, and books that he was seeing for the first time already had been read by his classmates.

At Christmas, while back home in Texas, he told Harry Wright, one of his former coaches and a mentor, that he was leaving Dartmouth. Solomon vividly recalls Wright's response: "If you allow this school to break you down this quickly and don't give it a fighting chance, then you're not the person I thought you were."

Wright told him that if he quit, their friendship was over. Within the hour, Solomon changed his mind. A day later, he was back on campus with a different attitude.

He sailed through Dartmouth, graduating in 1978, and Harvard Law, and then joined Baker Hostetler, a top Washington law firm. Ten years later, he made partner. By then, he was searching for new opportunities. Solomon considered joining the NFL, which was seeking minority executives for its new development league. Steve Greenberg, then Major League Baseball's deputy commissioner, called first, asking him to direct the league's struggling minor league operations.

At the time, Solomon didn't know much about baseball. But he quickly learned the game from scouts at the parks. He worked on issues like improving minor league facilities and international player development. He helped direct the first World Baseball Classic and introduced the Futures Game, which showcases minor league talent, to the All-Star Game festivities.

The first Civil Rights Game was held March 31, 2007, with the St. Louis Cardinals playing the Cleveland Indians in Memphis, Tenn., where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The idea for the game came out of a brainstorming session between Solomon and some of his employees.

"We realized that baseball was at the front of the Civil Rights movement but got no credit for that," he says. "The game, we thought, was a way in which we could show our commitment to African-Americans and diversity."

The first Major League Baseball Urban Youth Academy opened in February 2006 on the campus of El Camino College's Compton Community Education Center, near Los Angeles.

Darrell Miller, the academy's director, remembers Solomon approaching him in 1999 when Miller was running the farm system for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

"He was making strong changes in the minor league system," Miller says. "He came from a different paradigm. In baseball, people say, 'That's the way we've always done things.' Jimmie would say things like, 'Why are the fields bad? Why don't the lights work? Why do we pay for this?' Things that made sense but no one ever challenged. So, someone who is fearless, who has a passion, yeah, you want to support that passion."

Miller told Solomon to call when he was ready. He did, in 2005, when the first academy was under construction.

Solomon had done his homework and knew that the number of African-Americans in the big leagues was on the decline. (It has dropped from a high of about 27 percent of the league's players in 1978 to about 9 percent today.) He, like many, knew the reasons: the rise of basketball and football, and the marketing of those sports' stars; the decline of ballparks and baseball programs in the inner city; the loss of fathers who once passed the game down to their sons; and the dearth of college baseball scholarships (11.7 per team) compared to football (85).

"If you're an African-American kid and need help going to college, you do the math," he says.

MLB kicked in $3 million and Solomon raised the other $7 million needed to build the facility through donations and partners. The complex, located on 15 acres, consists of four ballparks and an administration building, which also serves as a classroom center. Miller has 15 instructors with major league experience who work with players ages 8-18, many of whom play other sports but are gravitating toward baseball.

Additionally, the academy has a girls softball component and training programs in umpiring, groundskeeping and sports journalism.

"There are so many jobs in our industry we can bring to bear on any community that's in need," Solomon says. "That's what we're trying to do there."

Miller says 25 academy graduates have earned college scholarships, and 17 have been drafted by major league teams.

"A few who signed never would have signed if we were not here," Miller says.

This weekend, another of Solomon's special projects will receive national exposure when the inaugural Urban Invitational will be held in the Los Angeles area. The six-game tournament will feature UCLA, USC and two historically black colleges, Bethune-Cookman and Southern. Saturday's doubleheader will be played at Urban Youth Academy field and broadcast live on ESPN2.

The urban academy program coincides with another MLB initiative, Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities, which strives to build more playing fields in urban areas. With the success of the Compton academy, Solomon is considering locations in Philadelphia, Miami and perhaps Washington for a second academy, which he hopes to open in a year or two.

Miller, who is the older brother of Cheryl Miller and Reggie Miller, sees the academies as a way to increase the number of African-Americans playing the game and boost baseball's African-American fan base. Solomon, though optimistic, declines to set a goal.

"I don't go by numbers or percentages," he says. "Society has changed. With the constant competition from football and basketball and the influx of the Latin player, I don't think we'll ever get back to [28 percent]. [Even] if it stays where it is I'll say fine. We've done all we can do to bring baseball to all the fans, including inner city youths and African-Americans."

When Solomon reflects on his achievements, he always goes back to his days on the farm and his relationship with his father, who died in 1997.

"My father and I didn't get along because he didn't understand the world I was trying to go to," he said. "I knew there was a lot more than just finishing high school and getting a good job. Learning a trade -- that's what my father wanted for all his kids. So in my constant striving to please my father I worked as hard as I could to make sure I had the capacity to do other stuff. It made me very organized, and it made me prepared all the time. When it got tough in class it wasn't tough enough because I knew what it was like to work on that farm, and I wasn't going back home."

Others watch and listen to Solomon and see greater possibilities.

Before commissioner Bud Selig signed on for another three years last month, extending his contract through 2012, former Sports Illustrated reporter and editor Roy S. Johnson touted Solomon as the perfect replacement for Selig.

"Solomon, like many 'firsts' among his generation, has worked hard enough to make his predecessors proud," Johnson wrote in his blog, "[and] hard enough and smart enough and effective enough to be baseball's next commissioner. Perhaps like Barack Obama, he's the right person at the right time."

Solomon, who is single with a daughter who works as an attorney in Atlanta, deflects such discussion, praising Selig in the process.

"I think if I do a good job working with this commissioner that is enough right now," he says. "I don't want to get into what if the opportunity came."

Still, considering his past, if Solomon decides he wants the commissioner's job, he likely would pursue it as relentlessly as he did those hot baths all those years ago in south Texas.

George J. Tanber is a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at george.tanber@iscg.net.

George J. Tanber is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com's golf coverage.