At the baseball owners' meeting in Scottsdale, Ariz., last week, National League senior vice president Phyllis Collins handed a piece of paper to Leonard S. Coleman and asked him for some samples of his signature, which will appear this season on the league's baseballs. With that, Coleman's career as National League president officially began in the manner in which he has spent most of his 45 years: leaving his imprint many times over.
From New Jersey to Nairobi, Coleman has compiled such a diverse and impressive resume that the league's search committee elected him to succeed Bill White as president. "I knew whatever he did in life, he would make a difference," says Arnie Holtberg, headmaster of a private school, who played baseball with Coleman at Princeton. "He made a difference at Princeton for sure."
Coleman entered Princeton in 1967 after excelling in football and baseball at Montclair ( N.J.) High. He was especially passionate about baseball, having grown up in a two-family house in which his mother rooted for the Brooklyn Dodgers, his father for the New York Giants and an uncle for the Yankees. But Coleman was most proficient in football, as evidenced by the all-state ring he still wears today. "I was part of an all-state backfield with Joe Theismann, Franco Harris and Jack Tatum," he says. "I'm the only one without a Super Bowl ring."
As a sophomore at Princeton, Coleman and four other blacks signed a letter accusing the football program of institutional racism, charging that the athletic department operated without regard to the university's policy of equal opportunity. "Leonard was very eloquent about that," says Holtberg. "He spoke out strongly and intelligently but never in a strident manner. The conscience of the university was raised by their stepping forward."
Coleman's impact on the diamond at Princeton was considerably less noticeable. As an outfielder he batted .179 in 39 at bats during two seasons for the Tigers. After graduate school at Harvard—he earned two master's degrees—Coleman spent four years doing missionary work in Africa, where he began a friendship with Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Coleman would later chair Tutu's scholarship fund). "A great life experience," he says of his African sojourn. "No baseball though."
When Coleman returned to New Jersey, where he still lives with his wife, Gabriella, and their two children, he returned to baseball as well. In 1984, at 35, while serving as the state's commissioner of energy, he dropped "several hundred dollars' worth" of quarters into pitching machines and worked his way into the Metropolitan Baseball League, which is stocked mostly with college players. "Here I was in the governor's cabinet, saying, 'I have a game tonight. At three I'm gone,' " Coleman says.
In 1988 Coleman left the public sector for investment banking. Three years later he was hired as executive director of market development for Major League Baseball. In that job Coleman helped expand baseball's inner-city youth programs from 12 cities to more than 30.
Coleman replaces White not only as the league president, but also as the highest-ranking black executive in sports. Still it may not be until May that Coleman's mark on baseball becomes evident. That's probably when the supply of balls with White's signatures will be exhausted and the Leonard S. Coleman models will be introduced. "That's exciting," he says. "But just getting a job in baseball is a dream come true."