James “Jimmy” Lee is a Mississippi native who moved to Saint Paul in the 1920’s. He attended Mechanic Arts High School, and also became a member of St. Peter Claver Catholic Church.
Jimmy Lee became one of the leading African American sportswriters in the Twin Cities during the late 1930s and ’40s, chronicling the exploits of the area’s black athletes at all levels. He was also a talented athlete, and later, one of the top sports officials or “sports arbitrators.”
As an athlete, Lee’s baseball career started with the Uptown Sanitary Shop, after which he played with the Twin City Colored Giants, among other teams. According to Jim Griffin, as quoted in the book A Son of Rondo by Kwame McDonald, “Jim was an excellent baseball player and had a special knack for getting along with people regardless of color or age.”
Lee was also an outstanding golfer – an instrumental talent in his career, as he began writing “Golf Divots”, an article on golf tips for the Minneapolis Spokesman – St. Paul Recorder. Soon, and for many years thereafter he was writing his “In the Sports Lights” column for the Recorder, keeping the community informed of highlights from local and some national athletes. (It is worth noting, his column was also an invaluable resource for this book.) Lee’s success on the golf course continued, and he would become one of the leading golfers in the Twin Cities. He went on to win the Negro Open Golf Tournament in 1939 (see photo); this tournament is called the Bronze Golf Tournament today.
In addition to his playing and writing career, Lee was one of the most sought-after and respected sports officials in Minnesota. During much of his time officiating, he was nearly always the only black person on the field or court. His reputation would get the attention of the University of Minnesota’s head baseball coach, Dick Seibert, who hired Lee on a regular basis, making him the first black umpire to work in the Big Ten baseball conference. Lee’s efforts were so exemplary that he was also hired to work the National Collegiate Athletic Association District 4 baseball tournament (see photo) in 1960.
When the Minnesota State High School League had a one-class basketball tournament, Lee worked in twenty of the thirty-two districts and six of the eight regions. Due to his race, however, he never had the honor of officiating in the state basketball tournament. Joe Hutton Sr., Hall of Famer and Hamline University basketball coach, called Jimmy Lee one of the finest basketball officials in the Midwest.
In addition to working football, basketball, and baseball games at the high school and collegiate level, Lee also umpired in the Southern Minnesota Semi-Pro baseball league. Major League Stars such as Bill Skowron (New York Yankees), Toothpick Sam Jones, (Chicago Cubs), Howie Schultz (Brooklyn Dodgers) and many others noted athletes played in the Southern Mini. When Negro League teams barnstormed through Minnesota, Lee would work the games at the Lexington and Nicollet ballparks. As he traveled all over the state, Lee was not only a respected official but also a fine ambassador for the black community. He was extremely popular, and it was common for him to be greeted by half the fans in the stands.
In 1972, Lee was inducted into the Minnesota Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame – the first black official to achieve that distinction. Paul Giel, former major league pitcher and Gopher athletic director, was the main speaker at the induction ceremony. When Lee was called to the podium to receive his plaque, the three-hundred-plus attendees rose to their feet in a standing ovation.
In 1974, Jim Griffin would lead the effort to have the Oxford Recreation Center renamed the Jimmy Lee Recreation Center by the City of Saint Paul. In the book A Son of Rondo, Jim Griffin shared that if anyone asked him, “who was your hero?” the answer would be simple: “Without a moment’s hesitation, my response would be ‘Jimmy Lee!’”
I am proud to say that I worked with several people to get Jimmy Lee inducted into the Minnesota State High School League Hall of Fame in 2013, an honor long overdue. In remarks for the ceremony, Donald “Bill” McMoore, former outstanding athletic in Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota and director for Minneapolis Public Schools, put it best: “Jimmy Lee … was not only a fine person and a real gentleman; he was also one of the finest football, basketball, and baseball officials Minnesota has ever seen.”