Solomon gives back while expanding diversity
VP of baseball development heavily involved in social causes
NEW YORK -- Jimmie Lee Solomon is constantly meeting people who wonder why he's so heavily involved in social causes.
Solomon -- leading Commissioner Bud Selig's efforts in launching the Civil Rights Game and Urban Youth Academies, both of which focus on African-American involvement in baseball -- is a product of the Ivy League. He did his undergraduate studies at Dartmouth, went to law school at Harvard, and spent 10 years as a partner in a Washington, D.C., law firm.
"People say, 'What do you know about the civil rights movement?'" Solomon said. "They see me as an Ivy League kid."
Then Solomon, Major League Baseball's executive vice president of baseball development, talks about his upbringing.
Growing up segregated
Solomon grew up on a small farm in a small town called Thompsons, located in a rural section of Texas roughly 40 miles from Houston. His father did what he could to support Solomon and his five siblings while working as a cattle rancher, and his mother chipped in as a domestic worker.
Solomon didn't attend an integrated school until fifth grade, and the family didn't have indoor plumbing until two years after that.
"I was very poor," he recalled. "I didn't have much."
Solomon didn't have baseball, either.
An issue currently facing the Houston Urban Youth Academy -- which Solomon helped sprout in April 2010 -- is the struggle to promote baseball in a state where football is king. Solomon knows that full well from his experiences growing up in the racially turbulent 1960s.
Baseball, at that time and especially in that part of the country, wasn't an after-school program. The local communities ran it, and it was only available during the summers. For Solomon, the closest baseball league was 10-12 miles away. That was simply too far.
"I wanted to play baseball," he said, "and I could not get there."
Solomon was a huge baseball fan. He grew up idolizing Willie Mays, and he still vividly remembers his first game -- when his father took him to watch the Houston Colt .45s, before they changed their name to the Astros. But when football was offered at his school when he reached seventh grade, there was no turning back.
Soon, he and his friends were dominating the neighborhood and gaining popularity around town for excelling on the gridiron. Off the field, though, things were different.
Solomon had started to go to school with the white kids.
A tough exterior
"I wasn't the only black kid that came over, but I was the only black kid in advanced classes," Solomon recalled. "I would go to school, and I'd have some numbers -- other friends, black friends of mine -- but when we got to the school and they put us in our separate classes, I was the only black kid. I was all alone."
Because of that, Solomon regretted, he established a tough outer shell that was difficult to break.
Hard evidence of that has been sitting on his desk for a full year.
Last February, one of Solomon's classmates from that time sent him a letter for closure's sake. In it, the writer voiced his regrets for his previous feelings toward Solomon and for eventually picking a fight with him. He also called Solomon a bully and added: "I was the only white kid with the stones to take a swing at you when I was in fifth grade."
Solomon has been sitting on that letter for quite some time because he just doesn't know how to respond. He admits the author was right, but perhaps a bit misguided.
"What he's not understanding is, I wasn't a bully to be a bully," Solomon said. "I was a bully because I was scared. I was scared that maybe I wasn't good enough, I was scared that maybe I wasn't smart enough, I was scared that maybe I didn't belong. I was scared that all the things that I feared might be true."
Those insecurities continued through high school and at Dartmouth, where Solomon became an elite sprinter and wide receiver, but he struggled with trying to prove himself as one of few African-Americans at the school. As he described: "I was trying to be black and proud at a time when they were saying be black and stay back."
"I was a little man playing a big man's game, so I was trying to show them, I'm going to be as tough as you, I'm going to show you that I'm going to start, and it worked well for me," Solomon continued. "But it didn't help me make the relationships that I probably would have made that would've helped me later on. I got a second chance, though, because I happen to work in sports."
Going the MLB route
After a failed tryout with the NFL's Houston Oilers, Solomon became the first black attorney in the Baker & Hostetler law firm upon graduating from Harvard. But after practicing law for a decade, he wanted out of the business.
That's when he had a chance meeting with former Commissioner Fay Vincent. Solomon voiced his opinions about Minor League Baseball -- which he had read up on quite a bit -- and was suddenly in the middle of a search that would eventually make him director of Minor League operations in 1991.
Initially, his greatest MLB achievement stemmed from turning a previous weakness -- communication and people skills -- into a strength.
When Solomon was brought in to oversee the Minor Leagues, its relationship with the Majors was essentially broken. But he peacefully worked with both sides and greatly improved the situation. For the Majors, he began a revenue-generating model that allowed it to profit more from its farm systems. For the Minors, he helped improve facilities and grant national exposure with the Futures Game.
"When he first took over, the economic relationship was terribly one-sided in favor of the Minor Leagues," said White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, who has worked rather closely with Solomon through the years. "He's been able to, over the years, negotiate new contracts that are much fairer to Major League Baseball. And yet he's never alienated the Minor League people. He's always gotten them to understand when they've had to give stuff back to us, that it's fair and makes sense. His ability to get along with people on the other side of the table is truly outstanding."
Solomon went on to be ranked seventh in Sports Illustrated's list of the 101 Most Influential Minorities in Sports in 2004. He's the highest-ranking minority official in MLB, and under the direction of Selig, has served in countless roles through 20 years in the Commissioner's Office.
He said his proudest work -- and something that is still very much a work in progress -- has been leading Selig's efforts to promote African-Americans in the game.
By opening the first UYA in Compton, Calif., in 2005 -- thus offering free, year-round baseball to inner-city kids who otherwise wouldn't have the resources to play it -- he looked toward the future by giving kids the opportunities he didn't have. And by starting the Civil Rights Game concept in 2007, he reached back to the past to honor the rich history of African-Americans in baseball.
"Jimmie Lee has done a tremendous job, a terrific job, and I commend him for it," Hall of Famer and close friend Hank Aaron said. "It takes more than just Jimmie Lee, but we have to start somewhere. I'm just so pleased that somebody has started."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and 'The Show,' and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.