White Sox GM a breaker of barriers
Williams knows there is still unfairness to be battled
TUCSON, Ariz. -- Leaning against a wall located steps from his team's clubhouse at the Kino Sports Complex, Ken Williams shifts his spring focus away from baseball and the 2008 White Sox for a moment.
One of the topics today is politics, specifically honing in on the Democratic presidential primaries involving Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Williams has been an eloquent and direct leader since taking over as White Sox general manager on Oct. 24, 2000. He doesn't seek out media attention but certainly has never shied away from a controversial topic.
During Ozzie Guillen's five primarily successful and always entertaining years as manager, Williams actually has needed to make a few extra speeches than he probably ever envisioned. But politics rarely, if ever, served as the focus of his particular platform.
That focus changed on this March morning. With a woman and an African-American man competing for their political party's nomination to seek the nation's highest post, Williams couldn't help but address how the times have changed.
"I never thought I would see such a thing in my lifetime or my children's lifetime," said Williams, the architect of the White Sox 2005 championship and the father of five. "I've had the pleasure of socializing with Barack Obama and Michelle [Obama's wife], and they are just two extraordinary people.
"So, yes, I've been watching and following and certainly support him -- as much as someone can support someone. But to be honest, if Barack was a white man and articulating all of his ideas and issues and messages for hope and change and a new way of politics, he would have my support just as much. I would be just as in tune."
Obama truly has become a barrier breaker through this historic race for the presidency, and Williams, to some extent, knows how he feels. When Williams was hired following the 2000 season, he joined Bill Lucas (Atlanta, 1979) and Bob Watson (Houston, 1994-95; Yankees, 1996-97) as the only African-American general managers in Major League Baseball history.
To this day, Williams serves as the lone African-American general manager in major Chicago sports history. While baseball can become all-encompassing to Williams, in an attempt to put together the second championship of his regime, Williams understands the inherent responsibility behind how he handles his job. It's similar, in a vastly different arena, to how Obama carries himself each day on the campaign trail.
"Well, I think about the responsibility all the time," Williams said. "If I don't take care of the business at hand and I'm successful in doing so, that might have an adverse effect on the next person looking to take a step forward.
"Absolutely. Do I dwell on it? No, but I recognize what it is."
As spoken about by White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, who presided over baseball's first African-American tandem of general manager/manager with Williams and Jerry Manuel, Williams still gets e-mails or letters that criticize him for something other than the job he's doing. Williams said that sort of uneducated diatribe doesn't come remotely as frequently as it did when he first took the job.
These messages of hate go deeper than simply being related to his status as a public sports figure, in Williams' estimation.
"Partly it's just being black in America," Williams said. "These things are going to happen. There are times it will happen when someone doesn't know who I am, so I don't view it as a product of who I am and what I do. It's moreso about what society is.
"Within the game of baseball, certain things have happened over the course of the years where you wonder where certain things are coming from and certain opinions are coming from. Would they be coming or so scrutinized if you weren't the race that you are?"
During this upcoming weekend's festivities as part of the second annual Civil Rights Game in Memphis, Tenn., Williams will be part of an impressive Friday-night roundtable discussing the topic, "Baseball and the Civil Rights Movement." The panel will also include Hank Aaron, Martin Luther King III, Belize Ambassador Shabazz, Sharon Robinson and Mets general manager Omar Minaya.
The White Sox plan to visit the Civil Rights Museum as a team Saturday morning. Williams is looking forward to the dialogue and certain insights that people will present, but he also plans to view this weekend as an educational experience.
He remains interested in revisiting the past, while moving forward in the present.
"That's why we have history in school," Williams said. "You must look at the past, revisit it, analyze it and ask questions about the whats and the whys, in order for you to sometime understand the time in which you live and how to move forward.
"Obviously, this is more than a baseball game. It brings the focus back down to Memphis, back down to Civil Rights. What I had urged everyone to do back in December at the Winter Meetings was not just continue to live in the past with this, not just talk about the Civil Rights Museum in the past.
"Let's visit it in current times," Williams added. "There are still civil rights being violated, whether it be different ethnic groups or sexual orientation or whatever, there are rights being violated. Although it's certainly different than what it was, nevertheless, to those people, it's still unfair."
Unfair is a concept Williams understands in this particular arena. He grew up watching it in action.
Jerry Williams, the father of the White Sox general manager, had to sue to become a member of the San Jose Fire Department in the early 1970s, alleging discrimination. As the younger Williams remembers, it seemed strange to him that his father had to fight for the right to risk his life and save others. Ethel Williams, Ken Williams' mother, was an executive for a major corporation, and "had similar fights to establish herself as a black woman in management," according to her son.
Yet, Ken Williams was not taught bitterness. Just the opposite, in fact. The formative conversations involving his parents or family friends such as John Carlos and Tommie Smith, the runners who made their statement at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City with their black-gloved fists raised on the medal stand, helped shape the person and success that Williams is today.
"All these guys were regular visitors," Williams said. "So, political and racial discussions in my household, that was part of the daily routine and how to handle it and how to deal with it. You would think these people who had to go through all of this would have bitterness and animosity and pass some along to children.
"Instead, they instilled in me the ability to look at people of all races, colors or sexual orientation and have no prejudices. Like I explain to my children, the best thing you can do for people is to explain to them, especially when we are talking about racial issues which is the hot-button topic, but when you look at it, there are too many prejudices in society as a whole.
"People are too short or too fat or too skinny or their nose is too long," Williams added. "You walk through the door for a job interview and people are sizing you up based on some of those traits. We have to get rid of all those prejudices, not just the racial part of it."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.