Change Agent: Jimmie Lee Solomen
Jimmie Lee Solomon has always known that he wanted to be a major player in sports. But it took some detours to show what team the multi-tooled athlete and attorney would lead the best. Under the sway of his childhood idol Muhammad Ali, boxing’s three-time, world heavyweight champion, Solomon was convinced that his smarts and ability meant he was destined to be an athlete.
“Ali was the first person who was an idol of mine, and I was so proud when he spoke up against going into the Army,” he says. “For him to give up all those millions and all those years of productivity in order to take a stand, it made me think about what I would be willing to sacrifice for what I believe in.” Now, as Major League Baseball’s executive vice president of baseball operations, he has found a way to effect change on and off the field, and he hasn’t even had to break a sweat.
Law Firm Lure
A high-school star athlete who ran track and played football in his hometown of Thompsons, Texas, Solomon continued a stellar wide-receiver career at Dartmouth College. Post-graduation, he got a tryout with the Houston Oilers. When they didn’t extend an offer, Solomon entered Harvard Law. He graduated in 1981 and was immediately hired by Washington, D.C., law firm Blake & Hostetler, where sports was again the bait. “They lured me because it had in its practice sports. Baseball was represented out of the Cleveland office. The D.C. office had the National Football League Management Council, the labor arm for the National Football League. I figured that I’d have the opportunity to work on one of those two accounts but that didn’t come to be.”
Solomon didn’t let that discourage him. He lured former Dartmouth quarterback Buddy Teevens as a client and negotiated a head-coach contract for him at Tulane University. By the time he made partner in 1991, Solomon had drummed up a small-time sports agency in addition to handling his corporate litigation duties.
Solomon looked ahead to his next challenge, deciding that he wanted to delve wholeheartedly intosports business. He left the only firm he’d known in his career with two offers in hand. The first tempted Solomon to return to his first love—football. The NFL’s startup World League offered Solomon a position as general manager of the Orlando Thunder. At the same time, Solomon was introduced to MLB Deputy Commissioner Stephen Greenberg, who invited him to discuss a position in development. After their initial conversation, Greenberg was convinced that not only did it make sense to hire a director of minor-league operations, but also that Solomon—who never played the game—was the man for the job.
Solomon, despite his proclamations to the contrary, wasn’t so sure. “I had worked in the same office, same job my entire ten year career at that point. To leave and go to a whole different discipline was very scary. Also, the job I took was brand new. There was no track record, no recipe. Basically, I found that I had to create this department,” he says.
He soon found that the bigger challenge than creating his own staff was bridging the divide between minor-league owners and major-league objectives. “The problem with minor-league baseball is that it’s very intimate. It’s folksy and down-home. The facilities were substandard in most parks. MLB had started investing a significant amount of money in our draftees,” he says. “Everyone used to think that player development had nothing in common with a minor-league owner’s need to generate revenue. I told them that they were not mutually exclusive.”
But for a legion of baseball lifers, ignoring the newcomer was easy at first. Fortunately, money talked louder than Solomon did. In 1997, he persuaded the minors to accept are designed Professional Baseball Agreement that reduced the amount MLB provided to cover minor-league operational costs and set a new standard for minor-league facilities. Seven years into the job, 82 percent of minor-league facilities were either new or significantly renovated. As a result, ticket sales and minor-league franchise values skyrocketed, buttressing the financial withdrawal the majors had made.
A proven fiscal innovator, Solomon rose through MLB’s ranks first to senior vice president of operations, then to executive vice president in 2005. In addition to protecting the interests of Major League Baseball and overseeing day-to-day rules and administrative duties, Solomon has taken the lead in developing MLB’s diversity initiatives, appoint of personal pride for the Texas native.
“I think it’s pretty obvious that I have an affinity toward the struggle of Black and brown people,” he says. “People talk about equality but it’s still a battle that we must keep fighting in the board¬room and on the field. Be it gender or race, national origin, if you ever stop your original fight, you’ll notice a retraction. Things will go back to the status quo if you don’t keep pushing.”
Fight for Diversity
Sixty one years since Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, the number of African-American major leaguers has stagnated at around nine percent of total pros. To address the declining participation rate, in 1997 Solomon proposed a MLB-sponsored inner-city baseball academy aimed at developing Black youth for jobs both on the baseball field and off. The result was the Urban Youth Academy, which opened in Compton, Calif., in 2006. Solomon led the fight for seed money for the 25 acre facility, bundling money from MLB with additional funds from sponsors and leveraging a 30 year, $10 per year lease for the land.
In its short life span, the academy has produced 17 drafted players and 26 scholarship athletes, but Solomon insists the goal is to do more than put Black kids in uniforms. “I think it will be our proudest example of trying to continue diversity one very level,” he says. “We have four umpires and three groundskeepers working in the minor leagues. We just wired it for a broadcast curriculum where you can learn photojournalism, play by play, color commentating. It encompasses the entire gamut of all the jobs we have available in MLB. A lot of people forget about that side.”
Solomon has continued the fight for diversity this year by introducing the Urban Invitational, a nationally televised tournament that pits the baseball teams of Historically Black Colleges and Universities against the traditional West Coast powerhouses, the University of California, Los Angeles and University of Southern California. In 2007, Solomon spearheaded the Civil Rights Game, an exhibition game held in Memphis to commemorate the assassination of Martin Luther King. The game not only celebrates the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement but honors a moment seared into Solomon’s memory.
“I can remember being in the driveway washing my father’s car and my mother just running outside screaming and sobbing, ‘He’s dead. Reverend King is dead’. It’s something I’ll never forget. So when people talk about that time being so distant, it’s really not that far. I rode the bus to a segregated school. I’m a product of segregation and I remember it. It can never happen again.”
With a leader like Solomon shaping the direction of Major League Baseball, it’s a good bet that the organization won’t so on forget, either.
By Elena Bergeron