I grew up around the corner from a recreation center that bore the name of a Minnesota sports legend. Of course while I attended several of its programs, I never gave one thought to who Jimmy Lee might have been.
Today the old, dark-brown, brick building of my childhood has been replaced by a shiny, new state-of-the-art rec center, St. Paul’s newest and finest. The new Jimmy Lee Rec Center and Oxford Pool additions include a community meeting room, commercial kitchen, offices, a concession stand, an outdoor basketball court, softball and baseball fields—and, of course, the big new water park/swimming pool. The $15 million facility occupies 10.65 acres, and was funded by the city of St. Paul, Ramsey County Soccer Partners Program and the Saint Paul Public School District.
I stopped by the new center, ready to learn all about its programs, but also ready to finally discover the man whose name still graces the center. I must admit that I was not expecting that the first three center employees whom I asked would be just as clueless as I was about Jimmy Lee. I did gather from the plaque adorning the wall in the entrance that he was the first black sports official in the state of Minnesota.
After striking out at the rec center, I took the old-school route and called up some folks who would know and if they didn’t know then, they could tell me who may have known Jimmy Lee personally.
The phone trail started with a resource at Soultouch Productions, which led to a former baseball player, and then to one of St. Paul’s sports aficionados, Kwame McDonald, who co-wrote a book, Jimmy Griffin: A Son of Rondo. Jimmy Griffin, an accomplished former sports official himself, among many other things, dedicates an entire chapter to his hero, Jimmy Lee.
Jimmy Lee migrated north to St. Paul during the 1920s. Mr. Lee worked odd jobs at various places around St. Paul including the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center. He got the opportunity to start working as an umpire for softball games through Jerry Flathman, then the recreation director for the city. Flathman recognized Lee’s excellent judgment calls and hired him to also officiate basketball, football and baseball games. Most of the teams were all-white in an all-white environment. Nonetheless, Jimmy Lee garnered respect and officiated in the Southern Minnesota Semi-Pro Baseball League, NCAA Regional Baseball Tournament, and became the first African American umpire officiating for the very competitive intercollegiate Big Ten Conference.
Later in his career, he was honored as an inductee into the Minnesota High School Football Coaches Hall of Fame. According to Griffin, “He developed an unquestionable knowledge of the rules, the respect of both managers and players and an uncanny adeptness for keeping the game under control…it wasn’t hard to understand his popularity.”
Sports management and leadership historically has been riddled with exclusionary practices which denied opportunities to many talented black people like Mr. Lee. His inspiration lives on not only through brick and mortar, but also in people whose lives he changed by making a way.
Sherine Crooms is a media educator.