Lee Leonard, an urbane host of sports and entertainment programs who introduced ESPN to a small audience on the day of its debut in 1979, died on Sunday at his home in South Orange, N.J. He was 89.
His wife, Kelly Bishop, confirmed his death.
Mr. Leonard was a well-regarded veteran of local and national sports studio shows when executives at ESPN, which was just getting off the ground, asked him to be a co-anchor of “SportsCenter,” envisioned as the network’s flagship news and highlights program. And it was “SportsCenter’s” inaugural broadcast that launched the network, with Mr. Leonard delivering its first words, on Sept. 7, 1979, setting ESPN on its path to becoming a television empire.
“If you love sports — if you really love sports — you’ll think you’ve died and gone to sports heaven,” Mr. Leonard said.
After a montage of sports footage, he added, “Yea, verily, a sampler of wonders.”
George Grande, his co-anchor that night, recalled that their first show fell eight minutes short and that they had to ad-lib until the end.
“I said to Lee, ‘Are you in favor of a football playoff?’ and we flipped a coin and took sides to show what SportsCenter could be,” Mr. Grande said by telephone.
Mr. Leonard brought maturity to the fledgling network. By then he had been a disc jockey, radio talk show host and the co-host with Bill Mazer of a pioneering Sunday night program — “Sports Extra” on WNEW-TV in New York — that provided extensive highlights, scores and commentary.
“I loved his attitude,” Bob Ley, a longtime ESPN anchor said of Mr. Leonard in a telephone interview. “Sometimes he’d say, ‘Let’s get this show written so we can hang out and tell some lies.’ He was straight out of ‘The Front Page.’ ”
Mr. Leonard stayed at ESPN — which stood for the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network — for about six months, disappointed that it did not live up to the entertainment part of its title and give him a platform to cover show business.
“I was tired of sports,” Mr. Leonard said in an interview with the author James Andrew Miller for “Those Guys Have All the Fun” (2011), an oral history of ESPN. “So when it became obvious to me that there wasn’t going to be any entertainment, brilliant me, I thought this thing was never going to work. So my agent called me and said, ‘There’s this crazy guy, Ted Turner, who’s doing a news network.’ ”
The network was CNN, which started up in 1980, and it gave Mr. Leonard the entertainment outlet he wanted, a show called “People Tonight.” But his time as its host did not last long. He was replaced in 1982 by Mike Douglas, the longtime syndicated talk-show host.
Mr. Leonard subsequently returned to CNN for several years in the 1980s to host “Showbiz Today.”
In 1986, Mr. Leonard published a novel, “I Miss You When You’re Here,” about a disc jockey who becomes the star of a network television show. Mr. Leonard gave the lead character, Maxwell Lefkowitz, his real name.
Maxwell Lefkowitz was born on April 3, 1929, in New York City to Daniel Lefkowitz and Estelle (Cohn) Lefkowitz a beautician. After graduating from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, he attended Columbia University but did not graduate. He served in the Army in Germany during the Korean War.
Mr. Leonard became interested in broadcasting in the military, and after his discharge he worked as a disc jockey in various cities, including Norfolk, Va., and Cincinnati. In 1964, he was hired by WNBC-AM in New York as the host of a daytime talk show. Early on in his radio career, he changed his name to Lee Leonard.
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Mr. Leonard moved to local television in 1971 as the host of “Midday Live,” a talk show on WNEW-TV in New York, and a year later was teamed with Mr. Mazer on “Sports Extra,” which was something of a prototype of ESPN’s SportsCenter. Mr. Leonard’s sophisticated and occasionally sarcastic style blended well with Mr. Mazer’s passionate approach and encyclopedic recall of sports facts and figures. (Mr. Mazer died in 2013.)
Mr. Leonard moved on from both jobs within several years to NBC Sports, where he hosted “Grandstand,” a pregame studio show, and later “NFL ’77,” with Bryant Gumbel. Mike Weisman, a former top producer at NBC, recalled in an interview that Mr. Leonard could be flippant; in one instance he told viewers that a football game with many close plays that had ended with a 3-0 score “had no highlights.”
Writing in The Chicago Tribune in 1976, the media critic Gary Deeb said that Mr. Leonard’s erudition had elevated “Grandstand,” which had previously been hosted by Jack Buck, the longtime announcer for the St. Louis Cardinals.
“Besides being able to talk intelligently,” Mr. Deeb wrote, “Leonard also possesses a talent shared by few other sportscaster — he’s a fine writer.”
But he was fired in 1978 by Don Ohlmeyer, the executive producer of NBC Sports, freeing him to join the fledgling ESPN when it called.
“He knows his sports,” Mr. Ley said, “but there was a lot more to him than highlights.”
In addition to Ms. Bishop, an actress who met Mr. Leonard when he interviewed her on “Midday Live,” he is survived by his daughter, Norma Sheryl Leonard, and a grandson. His marriages to Rona Rosenberg and Salome Jens ended in divorce.
After his second stint at CNN, Mr. Leonard coached corporate executives on handling media interviews and for several years, starting in the mid-199s, was a news anchor and talk show host for News 12, a New Jersey cable station.
One of his regrets was leaving ESPN as soon as he did.
“He loved sports,” Ms. Bishop said in a telephone interview, “but he loved doing talk shows and interviews, so he got pulled in that direction to CNN. Through the years, though, he said he should have stayed with ESPN. He was kind of always starting something new.”
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