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McGRATH: Ken Williams tells kids to learn from past in creating future

White Sox General Manager Kenny Williams smiles before Chicago White Sox 9-6 wover New York Yankees Monday August 20 2012

White Sox General Manager Kenny Williams smiles before the Chicago White Sox 9-6 win over the New York Yankees Monday August 20, 2012 at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 26, 2013 6:32AM



Social activism is Ken Williams’ birthright.

His mother was a founding member of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s, and celebrity radicals Huey Newton and Angela Davis occasionally babysat for him. His father sued the city of San Jose, Calif., to become a member of its fire department in the 1970s.

“He had to go to court for the right to risk his life to save other people,” Williams said.

Since relinquishing his role as head of day-to-day baseball operations to Rick Hahn, Williams has been a less visible presence within the White Sox organization. But he was front and center this weekend as the team served as host of Saturday’s Civil Rights Game, along with related events designed to take an unflinching look at the role baseball played (or didn’t play) in making equal opportunity more than a constitutional concept.

Amid discussions of what the game is doing to promote more African-American involvement, Williams spoke of a larger struggle, one that’s far from over.

“Young people in urban areas are more at risk than ever,” Williams said at a panel discussion examining baseball’s presence in a larger society. “The dropout rate in our schools is pathetic. Too many men are not spending time with their children because they’re incarcerated. It’s not a baseball problem, it’s an urban-America problem.

“There are life issues at play in society. The right to walk out the door safely . . . to go to the park or go to school without fear of being harmed — that’s a civil right today. That’s what we should be fighting for.”

Chicago Urban League executive Shari Runner, MLB senior vice president Wendy Lewis and sports agent Larry Reynolds joined Williams on the panel, along with Thomas Tull, executive producer of “42,” the film chronicling the ordeal Jackie Robinson endured in breaking baseball’s “color barrier” 66 years ago. MLB Network analyst Harold Reynolds served as moderator.

Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson were in attendance, along with fellow baseball greats Willie Horton and Willie Randolph. But the 20-plus members of the Sox’ urban-youth initiatives were the target audience for the discussion. The team’s commitment to inner-city baseball, along with chairman Jerry Reinsdorf’s track record for hiring and promoting minorities, helped the Sox land the Civil Rights Game.

“Learn history,” Williams told the kids. “You have an obligation to those who came before you, who fought for you, to understand the sacrifices they made so things could be better for you. If we don’t learn from the past, if we don’t appreciate the struggles of those who came before us, then we’re living without purpose.”

Progression to college is the purpose for each participant in the Sox’ youth initiatives, but progressing via baseball is no guarantee when NCAA rules limit schools to the equivalent of 11.7 scholarships.

“That limit is cutting the legs out from African-American participation in college baseball,” Harold Reynolds said. “I worked the College World Series for nine years, and I could count on two hands the number of African-American players there. It’s not realistic. I understand the economics, but if they’re not going to pay the players, couldn’t they take some of the money they make from basketball and football and apply it to other sports?”

Fifty-seven years after his departure from the game and 41 years after his death, Jackie Robinson remains the indomitable symbol of baseball’s reluctant conversion to inclusion. He was a strong presence at the weekend’s events, beyond the involvement of his daughter. Sharon Robinson honored Bo Jackson and Aretha Franklin, who’s ill and couldn’t attend, with Beacon awards.

“We’re known for making superhero movies — ‘Batman’ and ‘Superman,’ ” said Tull, whose company has produced major blockbusters. “The greatest superhero movie we’ll ever make is Jackie Robinson’s story.”

More than 25 years after Robinson’s breakthrough, Aaron endured a torrent of hostility and harassment as he sought to wrest the career home-run record from the sainted Babe Ruth. “What I went through was a tidbit compared to what Jackie went through,” Aaron said.

“Despite those trials and tribulations, Jackie showed everyone that if we were given the opportunity to play the game, we could excel.”

If an aspiring young ballplayer were to seek his advice today, Aaron would make the same point Williams made so emphatically during Friday’s discussion.

“Think baseball second,” he said. “Education comes first.”

Amen, Williams said.

“If there are no opportunities for these kids beyond their sports dreams or their entertainment dreams,’’ Williams said, ‘‘we’re doing them a disservice.”



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