- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
- 0 Shares
CHICAGO -- Jerry Reinsdorf was 11 years old when he went with buddies to see his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers on an April day in 1947 and witnessed the major league debut of Jackie Robinson at Ebbets Field.
"Years later, I was so proud that Jackie Robinson played for my team," Reinsdorf said. "But when I was at that game, I didn't realize how momentous it was because I went to school with a lot of black kids. What I saw two years later had more of an impact on me."
It was then, while changing trains in San Antonio on a trip with his mother, brother and sister to visit an aunt in Mexico City that the 13-year-old saw signs that read "Colored" water fountain and "White" restroom.
"I had never seen anything like that," Reinsdorf said. "It actually stunned me and obviously affected me. I never understood why the color of a person's skin should mean anything. I just always felt it was your brain, not the color of your skin."
Some 60 years later, the chairman of the White Sox and Bulls is regularly recognized as one of the leading examples in sports in the areas of minority hiring and programs dedicated to helping inner-city youth. Last June, Reinsdorf was one of 13 recipients of the 2011 Jefferson Awards, considered the Nobel Prize for public service, and in August was given the Barnes and Thornburg Jackie Robinson Award for diversity in the workplace.
"Every team in its own right does their best to promote diversity, but the White Sox are superstars," said Jimmie Lee Solomon, Major League Baseball's executive vice president for baseball development. "Jerry Reinsdorf has shown a commitment to diversity and inclusion in virtually every aspect of his ownership with the White Sox and the Bulls, and his record shows that very clearly.
"He's been phenomenal as an example of someone putting their money where their mouth is, especially for young people in the Chicago area. Everybody will tell you that. He changes lives."
Jamell Blue is one of many Chicago-area kids who will attest to that. A small scar on his jaw is the only outward sign of the terrible day five years ago when he went to pick up dinner for his family at a Chinese restaurant near his South Side home and ended up shot four times in a robbery attempt.
One bullet in his back just missed his spine and Blue nearly died. But within two months, he was back playing baseball for Harlan High School and the next summer was enrolled in the White Sox Amateur City Elite program.
Spearheaded by Sox national scouting crosschecker Nathan Durst in 2007 and run completely in-house, the ACE program is a travel baseball organization for five teams and 100 players between 13 and 18 years old. ACE addresses the disadvantage inner-city athletes face when it comes to the proper training, opportunity for college scholarships and the exposure to pro scouts their suburban counterparts enjoy.
Kids are recruited to try out for now-coveted spots in the program, which allows them to work out at U.S. Cellular Field as well as at the Sox and Bulls' training academy in Lisle, Ill. They also have access to top coaching and, perhaps most importantly, travel to tournaments and showcases nationwide, where college recruiters and pro scouts can evaluate them.
"Unfortunately, with the stereotype that stigmatizes inner-city kids, [college] coaches don't always want to take the time and put forth the effort to find [potential recruits in the inner city] when it's easier to go to suburban schools or attend showcases and tournaments that for some families are too expensive to attend," said Chris Maliszewski , pitching coach and recruiter for the Iowa Hawkeyes' baseball team.
Since ACE's inception, six players have been drafted by professional baseball teams. Last November, five athletes gathered at U.S. Cellular to sign letters of intent for scholarships to Division I programs, bringing the number to 29 ACE players who have gone on to play collegiate baseball, including Blue, now a sophomore pitcher at Texas Southern majoring in sports management.
"It has made me stronger, wiser, smarter and more determined to get out of my neighborhood," Blue said of both the shooting and the opportunities ACE provided afterward. "The [Sox program] helped me get through it all and now here I am in Texas, playing baseball. It's just been a blessing."
Add ACE to a long list of other Reinsdorf-headed contributions, which include a $4.5 million donation in 1996 by CharitaBulls to build the James Jordan Boys and Girls Club and Family Life Center two blocks from the United Center and $3.5 million to the Bulls Scholars program, an afterschool tutorial program. In 2009, the Chicago Bulls College Prep School opened on the West Side.
In conjunction with an $8 million donation from the Ray and Joan Kroc Foundation, the Sox and Bulls each donated $1 million toward the construction of a state-of-the-art community center to open next summer in the Pullman neighborhood on the city's South Side.
Reinsdorf's contributions to diversity in the workplace have had a similarly large impact. He chaired Major League Baseball's Equal Opportunity Committee at its inception and in 1998 was instrumental in the formation of the Diverse Business Partners program, prompting the purchase of hundreds of millions of dollars in goods and services from minority- and female-owned businesses.
When the White Sox recently hired Robin Ventura, who is white, to be their new manager this fall, barely a peep was heard regarding minority hiring, in all likelihood because of the team's long and meritorious record that in recent years has included Latino manager Ozzie Guillen and baseball's lone African-American general manager, Kenny Williams.
"Without degrading what other teams do, occasionally you hear, 'We have to do this or that because of the minority situation.' With us, it's never talked about because it's never an issue," said Doug Laumann, Sox scouting director. "We really have the feeling of one big group of people but obviously that has to come from somewhere and it's passed down from the top. We hire the best people and that's just what we do."
While Reinsdorf tries hard to deflect credit for programs such as ACE that his leadership has inspired, he said it boils down to a sense of what is right and what is wrong that has guided him since childhood.
"I have this strong belief that teams not only have an obligation but a unique opportunity to give back to the community and my biggest thing is education. This [ACE program] is great," he said of the idea that began with Durst and was initiated by Scott Reifert, the team's vice president of communications and president of White Sox Charities, and Christine O'Reilly, director of community relations and executive director of Sox Charities, and commits $300,000 annually to its operation.
"We give a bunch of kids a chance to play baseball and stay out of trouble," Reinsdorf said. "But the five college scholarships is what I love."
On the day in November that the five ACE graduates sat together at a long table, simultaneously signing their letters of intent, there were few dry eyes in the house, including the Sox GM.
"Last year was such a miserable year on the field, and then to walk into that room with those kids getting such an amazing opportunity put a lot of things into perspective really quickly," Williams said. "I understand that what we have done on the field has not been up to par, but here was an example of how we can affect people beyond the playing field, and I get great satisfaction in that."
"Signing day made it all real to me," said Desiree Hickman, whose sons Blake and Christian have gone through the ACE program and received college scholarships. "As a parent, when you know your child has gone to college it's a relief; they will do better than we've done. I have a picture on my computer of all of them sitting there, and every day when I log on at work, it's the first thing I see and I smile because I know I'm doing right with him.
"We see every day what happens to kids on the other side and this is just so surreal and so beautiful that their hard work and effort is paying off."
Major League Baseball sponsors the RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities), a youth outreach program in 200 cities worldwide, including the homes all 30 MLB clubs. But the White Sox and ACE go a step further than the primarily recreational program in putting their players in the most competitive tournaments and showcases designed to get them the most exposure.
"It's not just about putting a glove and ball in as many kids' hands as possible and having a good time," said Dan Puente, hired by the White Sox to specifically manage their youth baseball initiative. "It's about identifying top players and putting resources in coaching. It's really about developing players as much as we can in a year-round program."
Iowa baseball coach Jack Dahm said he expects other major league clubs to follow the Sox example. "The ACE kids are at a higher skill level than others," Dahm said. "Talk to any baseball coach in the country and they know that program. It's really making a difference."
Some say programs like it may also address the dearth of African-American players in the major leagues in the future.
"These kids are developing into pro prospects right under our noses," said former major leaguer Lou Collier, scout for the Kansas City Royals and an ACE instructor. "That wasn't always the case and not always the skill level. Kids always had the talent, but they didn't always have the chance to develop it."
ACE monitors its players' academic progress, and because they have to play on their high school teams to stay in the program, it requires them to stay academically eligible. Kids also regularly have the chance to interact with Sox players, often while doing required community service at food pantries or Boys and Girls Clubs.
"I realized when I went to help others out and saw the smiles on the kids' faces, that helping inner-city kids not as fortunate as we are and just giving back is something I want to do," said Devin Pickett, who recently signed a letter of intent to attend Iowa along with ACE teammate Blake Hickman.
Hickman was blunt in stating his goals.
"I want to be successful in the major leagues," said Hickman, who already has the look of a major leaguer as a 6-foot-5 catcher. "I want to play for a lot of years, like a legend basically, Hall of Fame."
But Hickman knows where his priorities lie in the meantime.
"Education is very, very important," he said. "If baseball doesn't work out, I want to earn a degree in business management so I'll have lots of options."
It is a message Williams pushes with ACE players every chance he gets.
"He tells us, 'When you're on the field, play the game we love and chase the money. Scholarship money,'" said outfielder Corey Ray, a junior at Simeon who has verbally committed to play at the University of Louisville, ranked 15th in the 2012 preseason rankings.
Zebedee Thomas' son, Ako, is 14 years old but a top prospect in the ACE program having already traveled to Venezuela with the USA Baseball program, an association made possible through the Sox.
"I always told my sons, 'If you're going to make it, go for a scholarship,' and I'm still holding onto that dream," the father said. "The Sox have opened doors we could not have done ourselves."
For every kid who receives a scholarship, however, is the one who simply has a better opportunity for a successful life. Coaches tell of one player who does not have a mailing address because he does not have a permanent home. Another with deep gang ties in his family is playing baseball in college.
"A lot of kids in our program, if we hadn't interceded, there's no telling what they would have done," said Kenny Fullman, an ACE coach, Chicago police officer and coach the last 20 years at Harlan High School, where he coached Blue. "A lot of our kids just need a male role model to help build character, teach life skills and just get positive feedback. Most of us are college educated and we talk about stepping up, being a man and succeeding not just in baseball but in the game of life."
Inspired by one of Reinsdorf's favorite players, Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe, one of the great Negro League stars who died in 2005 at 103 years old, the Sox sponsor the Double Duty Classic. Now in its fourth year, the Classic recreates the historic Negro League's East-West All-Star Games played at the old Comiskey Park and pits the top players from the ACE program against an all-star team of high school players from across the country.
Played at U.S. Cellular Field with players wearing throwback uniforms, it's a highlight of the program.
"Words don't do it justice what it felt like to play in that game," said Ray, one of the top Class of 2013 college prospects. "The fact that we got the opportunity to play on that field and put on those uniforms was more than I thought it would be. It was unimaginable."
For Reinsdorf, it was simply a natural progression in a life dedicated to offering such opportunities.
"If not for Jerry pushing and challenging us to have the most robust programs and be the leaders in philanthropy and the leaders for inner-city kids, none of this would happen," O'Reilly said. "Other clubs don't have the extensive outreach staff we have and that's very indicative of his expectation and compassion that we do what we need to do.
"I've asked him, 'What if something happens and we don't have the funds to continue?' and Jerry says, 'We will always have the funds for this.' That's how important it is to him."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN 1000.
Jerry Reinsdorf makes an impact by focusing on diversity.