Mesmerized by their memories, Ken Williams looked in awe at the distinguished company he kept on a stage inside the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn. — the former Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.
"It remains one of my most impactful experiences in baseball," the White Sox executive vice president said of the panel discussion in March 2008 before Major League Baseball's Civil Rights Game.
Home run king Hank Aaron recalled the days of staying in different hotels from white teammates. Sharon Robinson detailed discrimination her father, Jackie, encountered breaking baseball's color barrier in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Martin Luther King III waxed eloquently about how sports can help keep his dad's dream alive.
By the time Ambassador Shabazz, Malcolm X's daughter, articulated the importance of society changing before baseball can, Williams practically needed to pick his jaw off the floor.
"At one point, I turned to Martin and said, 'What's wrong with this picture? Why am I in it?' " Williams said.
As out of place as Williams considered himself, he always has felt comfortable promoting the cause of civil rights. The godson of John Carlos, the U.S. sprinter stripped of his bronze medal at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City for saluting black power with a raised fist, Williams believes in the power of symbolism.
So when MLB executive vice president Frank Robinson, the Hall of Famer who became baseball's first African-American manager, broached staging the 2013 Civil Rights Game in Chicago, Williams quickly volunteered U.S. Cellular Field before checking with Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf. Reinsdorf, who as an 11-year-old was at Ebbets Field the day Robinson integrated Major League Baseball, embraced the opportunity once Williams finally asked.
"I knew how strongly Jerry feels about diversity, so my knee-jerk reaction was the correct one," Williams said.
It seems just as right to have the event Saturday night at 35th and Shields, across the street from old Comiskey Park, which was host to the first Negro leagues All-Star Game in 1933 — the East-West Game — two months after it had been host to MLB's first All-Star Game. The South Side is where Andrew "Rube" Foster, the "father of black baseball," starred and "Double-Duty" Radcliffe thrived. It is where Minnie Minoso, the majors' first black Latino with the Indians in 1949, became a Sox legend.
Not many remaining Sox games in this forgettable season have meaning, but this promises to be a weekend that carries great significance at The Cell. Baseball caretakers will study numbers more revealing than WAR or WHIP and evaluate progress in the game that goes beyond advancing from first to third.
"It makes me proud to be an American that baseball honors and recognizes individuals whose lives and careers exemplify the spirit of the civil rights movement," Robinson said. "The White Sox wanted this game. They are a model organization for giving blacks opportunities."
Besides locally running a version of the league's popular RBI program — Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities — that nationally provides 200,000 boys and girls chances to play baseball and softball, the Sox expose African-American teens in the city to colleges and universities. Since implementing its ACE program in 2007 — Amateur City Elite — the Sox have helped 71 players earn scholarships after participation in a travel league that offers quality competition and life-skills education.
"The things that Kenny and Jerry are doing for inner-city kids is a godsend," said Bo Jackson, who will be honored before Saturday night's game. "It has to start somewhere.''
For Williams, it starts somewhere deep within him. Only winning the 2005 World Series might elicit more pride from Williams than discussing ways the Sox have improved lives of at-risk youths. Ask Williams about growing concerns over the shrinking number of African-Americans in the majors to 8.5 percent and his answer comes back to the 100 kids enrolled in the Sox's ACE program.
"I know what I'm supposed to say, but I don't really care how many African-Americans are playing baseball," Williams said. "Now, the way individual clubs like us and Detroit through (the ACE program) are teaching kids things that enhance their character, give them experiences and promote academics so they have greater opportunities outside of baseball, I'm all in."
Living amid the everyday violence in Chicago reaffirms Williams' belief that the complexion of major league clubhouses will begin to change only after urban neighborhoods do. That's where Williams' mind wanders when somebody brings up the future of African-Americans in baseball.
"It's not just baseball, the educational component is exciting," Williams said. "I'm excited because I worry about the incarceration rate in these areas, about teen pregnancy, fathers not spending time with their children. Those are things that also have been improved by what's happening here. The measuring stick for that is incalculable."
The commitment in Williams' voice was much easier to gauge.