The former Chicago White Sox player Ken Williams became the team's newest general manager after the end of the 2000 season, and its first African American to hold that title, too. Since then, Williams has won accolades for pursuing an aggressive series of trades and other maneuvers that revitalized the Sox roster and brought them their first World Series appearance since 1959. In 2008 he was the highest-ranking African-American executive in Major League Baseball (MLB).
Williams was born in 1964 in Berkeley, California, and was the only child of Jerry and Ethel Williams. His father endured his own struggles just as the gains fought for during the civil rights movement became enshrined in the U.S. legal system. Hoping to be a firefighter, Jerry Williams filed a lawsuit with another black firefighter-trainee to win a job with the city of San Jose in 1972. Williams was eight years old at the time and attended the trial. "It was ironic," he recalled in an interview with Ken Rosenthal of the Sporting News, "that you had to sue for your right to risk your life to save others' lives." His father then endured several rough years in an already stressful work environment from co-workers who were hostile to the court-ordered integration order, but Williams said his parents were both determined and optimistic. "I grew up in an environment where nobody ever told me, ‘You can't do that,’" he said in an interview with New York Times writer Lee Jenkins. "That's the greatest gift I ever got."
Played Football at Stanford
Williams was a standout football player at Mount Pleasant High School in East San Jose, but he also played baseball because that sport came less easily to him and he relished the challenge. He entered Stanford University in Palo Alto with a plan to study economics and finance and was a freshman wide receiver for the Cardinals during the annual Big Game, as the match between Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley, is known. He was sidelined during an infamous moment in college football known as The Play, when the University of California made five sideways or backward passes during the final seconds of the game, with one player even going through the Stanford band for the final touchdown.
During his first year at Stanford, Williams's talents came to the attention of the Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who personally recruited him. Williams was the third-round draft pick for the Sox in 1982, and he then spent the next four seasons with the organization's farm teams, which allowed him to stay at Stanford. In 1984 the hard-luck lives of minor-league players were chronicled in a New York Times article that profiled his team, the Glen Eagle White Sox, and noted that he was the sole African-American player on its roster. The reporter, Edward A. Gargan, noted that few of these young farm-team ballplayers ever make it out of the minors, but said of Williams that "everyone, from the manager to the baseball writers, thinks he will be in the major leagues soon." Williams told Gargan that spending his summers in small Midwestern towns was a challenge. "You're talking about 18-year-old kids moving 3,000 miles from home and have what, five minutes to adapt," he said in the interview. "I think it really builds character."
Williams went on to play just a few seasons of major-league baseball. Called up by the Chicago White Sox in 1986, he was a center fielder before being traded to the Detroit Tigers in 1989. He played the 1990 and 1991 seasons for the Toronto Blue Jays and the Montreal Expos, respectively. When the 1991 season ended and he was released from his contract, he formally retired though he was just twenty-seven years old. He felt ready to move on, he said in a 2001 Ebony interview. "I didn't have sports on the brain. I always thought I had more potential in other areas."
Promoted to General Manager
Williams became a talent scout for the White Sox organization before Reinsdorf, the owner, made him his special assistant in 1994. A year later, he was promoted to director of minor league operations, and in 1997 he became vice president for player development. After an informal six-year fast-track internship, Reinsdorf made Williams the Sox's new general manager in November of 2000. At age thirty-six, he was one of the youngest general managers in MLB history and just the third African American to hold the job title. It was also the first time that an MLB team had both an African-American general manager and African-American manager, in this case Jerry Manuel. However, Williams was forced to fire him a few seasons later when the Sox failed to capture a division title yet again. Williams said this was the low point of his professional career, describing it to Ebony's Walter Leavy as "an intense internal battle. Ultimately, I have a responsibility to run this organization and do things that I believe gets us to a championship level. We had just gotten to the point where we needed a little different direction."
Williams replaced Manuel with Ozzie Guillén, his former White Sox teammate. The two had also been longtime friends despite their vastly different personalities—Guillén is known for his temper and has sometimes even vomited after a particularly tough loss, whereas Williams is cool, cerebral, and famously even-keeled. "Ozzie respects the whole G.M. title thing, but not a whole lot," Williams told Jenkins. "He tells me when I'm wrong. Sometimes I defer and sometimes he defers. But we always meet at the same spot afterward. Usually, it's the hotel bar."
Williams, Guillén, and the Sox were the subject of enormous press as the 2005 MLB season wound to a close and the team won the American League pennant for the first time since 1959. That put them in the World Series, too, and they swept the Houston Astros in a stunning 4-0 shutout in a best-of-seven series that gave the White Sox their first World Series win in eighty-eight years. Williams, who is known for his long hours and dedication to his job, said he finally allowed himself to feel a bit of success just before the first pitch of Game 1 of the series, telling Leavy that "as they were about to play the national anthem, the crowd began to swell, and you could feel the raw emotion; you could see people crying, and I was like ‘Wow,’ I was a part of these people realizing some of their dreams and passions about the White Sox. I felt humbled by it."
At a Glance …
Born Kenneth Royal Williams on April 6, 1964, in Berkeley, CA; son of Jerry Williams (a firefighter) and Ethel Williams; married Jessica; children: Temeka, Dedrick, Ken Jr., Kyle, and Tyler. Education: Attended Stanford University, 1982-86.
Career: Played for the Glen Falls White Sox and other minor-league teams, 1982-86; Chicago White Sox, center fielder, 1986-89; Detroit Tigers, 1989; Toronto Blue Jays, 1990; Montreal Expos, 1991; Chicago White Sox, player scout, 1992-94, special assistant to Jerry Reinsdorf, 1994-95, director of minor league operations, 1995-97, vice president for player development, 1997-2000, general manager, 2000—.
Addresses: Home—Blaine, MN. Office—Chicago White Sox, U.S. Cellular Field, 333 W. Thirty-fifth St., Chicago, IL 60616.
Williams is married and lives in Blaine, Minnesota, when he is not in his Chicago office at U.S. Cellular Field, the Sox's home field. He and his wife, Jessica, have five children, one of whom followed his father's career path, but opted for the other sport: his son Kyle was a forty-seventh-round draft pick for the White Sox in 2007, but he chose to play football for Arizona State University instead. In the interview with Rosenthal in the Sporting News, Williams acknowledged how much sports—and racial discrimination in the United States—had changed since his father's era. "My father's mother and father had a more difficult time than he did," he reflected. "He had a little more difficult time than I have. My children will have it a little less difficult than me. These are things that are getting better generationally, I believe. There's hope. Maybe one day none of this will matter."
Ebony, April 2001, p. 48; May 2006, p. 168.
New York Times, August 14, 1984; October 22, 2005.
Sporting News, November 20, 2000, p. 61.
"Ken Williams, Senior Vice President/General Manager," Chicago White Sox, http://chicago.whitesox.mlb.com/cws/team/exe_bios/williams_ken.html (accessed May 17, 2008).
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