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’re a fan — if you’re a fan — what you’ll see in the next minutes, hours and days to follow may convince you you’ve 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, said in a phone interview that their first show fell eight minutes short and that they had to ad-lib till the end. “I said to Lee, ‘Are you in favor of a football playoff?’ ” Mr. Grande said, “and we flipped a coin and took sides to show what SportsCenter could be.”
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