Len Coleman: The National League's New President Takes Charge

Article excerpt

In every job he has held--from banking to government to his most recent efforts as Major League Baseball's director of market development-Leonard S. Coleman Jr. has made an impact. And now, as president of baseball's National League, he's at it again.

Since the 14 National League owners voted unanimously in March to replace Bill White with Coleman--making him the highest-ranking African-American in professional team sports--the former semipro outfielder has been making his presence felt, especially when it comes to making the game more appealing to fans. "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 says. "We have to understand that the business of our game is the fans."

In addition to promoting the game and maintaining its integrity, the 45-year-old Coleman--a likable and well-respected man with a boyish grin--has a list of presidential responsibilities: suspending or fining players for on- or off-field infractions; approving all players, contracts before they become valid; asserting himself as a central figure in the sensitive area of labor negotiations, scheduling of games, and the scheduling, hiring, firing and disciplining of umpires.

Coleman's route to the presidency took a number of turns, but he came with a wealth of experience and a strong athletic background. He grew up in Montclair; N.J., and excelled in baseball and football at Montclair High School. In his senior year, he was an All-American halfback, and the ling he still wears today is evidence that he was a part of New Jersey's All-State backfield that included Joe Theismann, Franco Harris and Jack Tatum, all of whom went on to the NFL. "I guess that's the great irony," Coleman laughs. "Each of them is now wearing a Super Bowl ring and I'm still wearing my high school ring."

In 1967, he enrolled at Princeton University and continued to excel in baseball and football. But during his sophomore year, Coleman and two other Blacks accused the football program of racism, charging that the athletic department had violated the university's policy of equal opportunity--a move that Coleman says led to his dismissal from the team. However, his scholarship--an academic one--remained intact.

Although he was more talented in football, he had a deeper passion for baseball, having grown up at a time when Jackie Robinson was his hero and his parents and uncle were avid fans. With football aside, Coleman stuck with baseball and remained a member of Princeton's outfield until he graduated with a degree in history. Then came graduate school at Harvard, where he got two master's degrees, one in public administration and one in education and social policy.

But before entering the workplace Coleman embarked, in 1976, on what he calls "one of the greatest experiences of my life." In Nairobi, Kenya, as a representative of the Episcopal Church of the United States, he began working as a missionary, providing management consultant services in health care, education and church and community development. By the time he finished his four-year stint, he had worked in 17 African countries and had begun a friendship with South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. (He later chaired Tutu's scholarship fund in the U.S.) "I matured while I was overseas, and I found out about the warmth and affection of the people," he says. "Everywhere I went, there was a new and exciting experience."

Alter returning to New Jersey--where he still lives with his wife, Gabriella, and their two children-Coleman began to hone his executive skills, putting together an impressive and diverse resume. …