Williams' dad taught him to work hard
White Sox GM passes life lessons down to his children
CHICAGO -- By Ken Williams' estimation, he was somewhere around 17 or 18 years of age, not too long after he had picked up his driver's license, when the following realization came to life during one afternoon watching his father work.
"I saw his fire truck going down the street, sirens blaring, and I decided this was the time to follow the truck," said Williams, describing this past situation while sitting recently in the White Sox dugout. "I watched him run into a burning house and come out of there with someone.
"It's a lasting impression. Believe me, on my toughest days, I'm not running into burning buildings."
The irony of this chosen profession for Jerry Williams, the father of the White Sox general manager, is that he had to file a lawsuit simply to overcome discrimination and to be given "the privilege of running into a house to save lives," according to the proud son.
But Ken Williams, the baseball player and the only general manager to build a World Series champion in Chicago during the past nine decades, learned an important lesson from his father's determination and dedication. Whatever you want in life, you cannot expect it unless you put in the work.
"That was one of my earliest and most long-lasting lessons. I've tried to pass that down to my kids, as well," said Williams, the married father of four sons and a daughter, with a smile. "Sometimes successfully, and sometimes not so.
"Today, I live by that idea," Williams added.
Williams gave greater depth to this specific hard-work theory by talking about a phone conversation he had with his father many years ago, when the younger Williams was a struggling ballplayer with Detroit and a parent. Ken Williams called his father at a time when he wasn't getting much playing time and kind of feeling sorry for himself about the way things had turned out, "the old why me kind of attitude," as Williams remembered.
The response coming from the other end of the conversation was a bit surprising.
"His reply was, 'Why not you?'" Williams said. "He asked me, 'What makes you so special that you deserve more than the next guy? You want to change your situation? Well, then put in the work.'
"He told me then at least if it doesn't work out, you can look yourself in the mirror and hold your head up high," Williams added.
Every day Williams spends in charge of the White Sox brings this particular look in the mirror, and he can look back comfortably and with confidence, knowing that he's doing everything possible and then some to bring another winner to Chicago. Jerry Williams was an outstanding athlete, just like his son, running track with some of the greats such as Olympians John Carlos and Tommy Smith and beating them in San Jose, Calif.
Those were the people Williams grew up with, in socially tense times. But he remembers learning another very valuable lesson in the midst of this tension.
"I was taught this by my father and my mother and also John and Tommy, and all the people they were around at the time," Williams said. "Even though they were going through their own social struggles for equality, I was always taught to take a man for who he is, regardless of color or any other prejudices.
"Until I got a little older and heard of people being oppressed and yet teaching their children to not accept that and be above that, I didn't understand that irony. That's a gift that has helped me in what I do today."
When Williams put these life lessons into play to achieve baseball's highest reward, the 2005 World Series title, his parents were in Houston to watch their son hoist the championship trophy. Williams explained how his parents certainly were happy for him and the organization, but it was almost a sense of relief where their son was concerned.
"They see the work and the worry and the sleeplessness and the stress level away from the ballpark," Williams said. "It was more relief. Little did they know it would only be 24 hours and I would be right back to it."
If caught in a private moment, Williams believes his father, a retired battalion chief who lives in San Jose, would have been happier or at least as happy for the championship going to White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf. It was Reinsdorf who personally came to the Williams' house when he was drafted by the White Sox as an 18-year-old and has become almost a second father to Williams and many others in the organization over the years.
Reinsdorf and Jerry Williams have similar personalities, more social than the White Sox general manager. All three have become great successes, both on and off the field, with the older two having a profound influence on Ken Williams' life.
"My dad, wherever he goes, he's going to be the life of the party, and he's a very outgoing talkative person," Williams said. "I'm the guy who stands in the corner and does more observing.
"The only time I have to veer outside of my comfort zone of being naturally quiet is to do this job. Other than that, I would just assume if you could do this job like the Wizard of Oz, behind the curtain, I would do it that way. I don't need the other stuff to go along with it.
"We couldn't be more different in personality, but in terms of being stern with your children, there are similarities there," added Williams with a smile. "I've been accused of being a little nicer with my kids. I give out money easier. You had to explain yourself why you needed that dollar to my dad. You had to present an itemized list."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.