NJSGA People: Former National League President, Leonard Coleman
In 1966, Leonard Coleman was a three-sport star at Montclair High School – a standout football, basketball and baseball player whose outstanding reputation was known throughout the country. As a high school senior, he became New Jersey’s top football star, an All-American halfback, and one of the most highly recruited athletes in America. Coleman was part of an All-State backfield that included three NFL legends, Franco Harris, Jack Tatum, and Joe Theismann, the latter three destined to become Super Bowl champions.
Golf, however, was not high on his list.
“I distinctly remember showing up for my first day as a caddie at Glen Ridge Country Club, and I put the shoulder strap on backward. Things could only get better from there, and they did. Caddying was the perfect job for me because I needed my evenings free to play American Legion baseball.”
This same Leonard Coleman, president of Major League Baseball’s National League from 1994-1999, now finds golf as one of the most significant parts of his life. He is a member of various clubs, including The Loxahatchee Club in Jupiter, Florida; Ladybank Golf Club in Scotland, and in New Jersey at Somerset Hills Country Club and Baltusrol Golf Club, where he was the second African American member.
“When Baltusrol asked me to join, it was in 1993, right before Lee Janzen won the U.S. Open played there. Milton Irvin, Hall of Famer Monte Irvin’s nephew, was the first. We both said we’d be happy to join as long as Baltusrol would continue to add more African Americans. The club has been true to its word. In 2000, Baltusrol had more African American members than any club that was hosting major championships,” said Coleman, who resides locally in Atlantic Highlands and also in Palm Beach, Florida.
Coleman’s caddying experience during his teenage years helped guide him to the college of his choice, Princeton University.
“I liked it because I met a lot of people. I learned many life lessons in the caddie shack. I remember getting $12, plus a $2 tip for my loop. Once, I joined a card game in progress, and after working hard for four hours, lost all my money. That was the one and only time that happened.”
While caddying during his junior year of high school, he met a golfer at Glen Ridge Country Club named Dick Emery, a Montclair resident.
“He asked me where I was thinking of going to college, and I mentioned Princeton. Well, he put me in touch with Royce Flippin and other local alumni, and they recruited me to go to Princeton.” (Flippin, a Montclair native, captained Princeton’s football team in 1955 and would become its athletic director in 1972.)
Coleman joined the football and baseball teams at Princeton. During his sophomore season, he became the first African American to score a touchdown for Princeton. That would be his last season of football. He joined two others in a protest charging the program with violations of the university’s policy of equal opportunities for minorities. All three were dismissed from the team, but a panel investigating the complaint urged greater sensitivity toward minority students in the athletic program.
“Before 1972, only one African American had made it through four years on the Princeton football team. That speaks for itself,” Coleman said.
He played four varsity seasons of baseball at Princeton and earned a bachelor’s degree. He next graduated from Harvard University with dual master’s degrees in education and public administration.
“Education in my household was at a premium. My grandfather, Thomas Henry Kiah, was the president of Princess Anne Academy, the University of Maryland - Eastern Shore’s forerunner, and is buried there. My mother was born on the campus.
“My parents let me play all the sports I wanted, as long as my grades were okay. Even at a young age, they were steering me toward an Ivy League college. In my class at Princeton, I was one of only 15 African Americans,” Coleman noted.
In 1976, at age 27, Coleman undertook one of the most important journeys of his life. He served as a missionary in Africa for the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States, providing consultation services in health care, education, and church and community development.
“I really grew up in Africa. It gave me an international perspective during my years there. It ripped down my Americanism and allowed me to gain a global perspective,” said Coleman, who while there gained the friendship of South African Bishop Desmond Tutu. Coleman would later become United States chairman of the Bishop Tutu Scholarship Fund.
Upon returning to the United States, he joined New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean’s cabinet as Commissioner of Energy. Later, he was named state’s commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs. He also served as chairman of the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission and the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency.
“Tom Kean really gave me my big break in life,” Coleman remembered.
Coleman was the vice-chairman of the State Commission on Ethical Standards and a member of the Economic Development Authority, Urban Enterprise Zone Authority, Urban Development Authority, State Planning Commission, and New Jersey Public Television Commission. He also served as president of the Greater Newark Urban Coalition.
Next, Coleman became a municipal finance banker for Kidder, Peabody & Company.
“In a way, I’ve been lucky. I ‘stumbled up.’ Working for the state government, I really hadn’t made any money. I joined Kidder, Peabody & Company on Wall Street as an investment banker and then made some money. I had kids and a mortgage and had to put money away for their educations.
“I played semipro baseball in Bergen County in the Met League until I was 36. Around that time, Major League Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent was searching for someone to work in the marketing department. Debbie Kean, the former governor’s wife, had gone to dinner with someone from Vincent’s team, and she suggested he call me. Next thing I knew, I was working in Major League Baseball,” recounted Coleman, who joined MLB in 1992 as Executive Director-Market Development.
His task was to revive fan interest that had begun to slip away in many markets. He was instrumental in the RBI initiative (Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities). His support helped RBI expand to more than 30 cities, providing teenagers with new fields, equipment, and organized programs.
In 1994, National League owners unanimously voted for Coleman to succeed Bill White as president of the National League, a high-profile position he held until 1999 when the job was eliminated.
Next, Coleman became an advisor to Commissioner Bud Selig. He also spearheaded efforts to build a major sports arena in Newark, the Prudential Center, for the New Jersey Devils.
Today, he takes pride in having served as honorary chairman of the Jackie Robinson Foundation board, which he chaired for 18 years. In late January, he accompanied Rachel Robinson, 98, the widow of Jackie Robinson, for her COVID-19 vaccine shot.
“Chairing that board was one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. I was a big Brooklyn Dodgers fan. Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider were my two big heroes. It was amazing that I grew up a Jackie Robinson fan, and as an adult, I’m chairing the Foundation started by his wife. To me, it’s a thrill. My mother was a Dodgers fan in my household, my father a Giants fan, and my uncle who lived upstairs, a Yankees fan,” Coleman said.
“The only thing we agreed on was Jackie Robinson. The way it turned out, we ended up with the same passions, baseball, and golf. Jackie was a forerunner of the Civil Rights Movement. Jackie made the Major Leagues in 1947, a year before President Truman desegregated the Armed Forces. 1947 was seven years before Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, a case that ruled against segregation in public schools, and eight years before Rosa Parks initiated the Civil Rights Movement. And it was 17 years before President Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting discrimination in voter registration, schools, and employment.”
Jackie Robinson's widow, Rachel Robinson, said of Coleman’s role in the Foundation, “Len joined us over 25 years ago. He led us through a fantastic growth period as chairman of the board. I am forever grateful for his vision, his generosity, and his enduring friendship. He is family to us.”
Coleman currently sits on the Board of Directors of the Omnicom Group, Hess and Santander Consumer, and Electronic Arts. He also serves as a director of several other organizations, including the Metropolitan Opera and the Schumann Fund. Coleman is a former chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Presiding Bishop’s Fund for World Relief.
He is also on the Board of Directors of the Honda Classic in Florida, which benefits many charities, including the First Tee.
“I’ve known Lenny since we played Little League ball together, and later I was the quarterback at Montclair High when he was a sophomore. He was never out of his depth. Even as a young guy, he could always figure things out,” said Ron Burton, who joined Coleman as a Board member for the Jackie Robinson Foundation after enjoying a successful career in finance. He was also a record-setting quarterback at Colgate University who received a tryout with the Dallas Cowboys, then led by Roger Staubach.
“Lenny is a very intelligent guy, a knowledgeable guy who always commanded respect as well. The most important thing about Lenny is his great leadership ability. He leads by example. People want to be around him. He is confident, charismatic and has demonstrated great courage throughout his life. People gravitate towards him,” Burton added.
Coleman’s competitive fire still burns brightly.
“I’d still like to be able to play football and baseball, and I know I can’t, but I can certainly play golf. I love everything about the game. The great thing about golf is that everything evens out with the handicap system, and you can still be competitive no matter who you are playing. And I always very much enjoy the social camaraderie that golf offers.”
Through Major League Baseball, Coleman was able to foster many relationships with the greats of the game.
“It has been a very difficult past 12 months. I spent the past 12 Christmases having dinner with Hank Aaron. We have lost so many Hall of Famers. I was very close with Joe Morgan and Tommy Lasorda.
“My regular playing partner was the late Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, who said he found it easier to hit a 95 mile an hour fastball than it was to hit this little ball just sitting here,” Coleman kidded. “He said, ‘This ball here never goes where I want it to.’ That’s the fascination with golf. It seems so simple, but you can never master it. And every day is different.”