White Sox big part of MLB's cancer initiatives

LUNGevity auction features experiences from all 30 clubs

White Sox big part of MLB's cancer initiatives

SAN DIEGO -- Gerald Penner was a close friend and trusted colleague of White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf for more than 45 years, until Penner lost his battle with pancreatic cancer at the age of 69 on Jan. 21, 2010.

Penner served as outside general counsel and secretary to the White Sox board of directors beginning in 1981. He also served as outside general counsel for the Bulls beginning in 1985. The two met in 1964, according to Reinsdorf, at the law firm of Chapman and Cutler.

This Penner/Reinsdorf bond held deeper ramifications than the Chicago sports scene.

Without their friendship, an important connection between Major League Baseball and Stand Up To Cancer might never have been forged. Reinsdorf explained the chain of events leading to MLB's initial contribution prior to the announcement of each team's respective auction items on Monday at the 2014 Winter Meetings.

Funds raised from this year's auction will be donated to LUNGevity, the largest national lung cancer-focused nonprofit organization, in memory of the late Baltimore Orioles public relations director Monica Barlow, who fought a valiant battle with lung cancer until her passing in February.

White Sox auction items include VIP for a day for a 2015 regular-season contest, an exclusive Spring Training experience and ceremonial first pitch and a 400 home run club autograph package, including Frank Thomas, Jim Thome, Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn. The auction will be live on MLB.com until Thursday at 10 p.m. CT.

It was Michelle McBride, a friend of one of Penner's daughters and a Chicagoan, who wanted to talk to Reinsdorf about a cancer project as requested by Penner. Reinsdorf didn't act upon that first request.

"I put him off. I get approached all the time," Reinsdorf said. "But he bugged me two or three times and finally I said, 'Have this person call me.' I was in Arizona at the time, and she asked me if I would meet the five or six women involved in the entertainment business so I could hear what they had to say.

"They really wanted to get baseball involved. I was going to be in Los Angeles for the [Pro Baseball Scouts Foundation fundraiser] dinner. Just to get her off my back, I said, 'OK, I'll meet with you.' We had a meeting at the SONY lot. They make the pitch, and I was overwhelmed by what they were talking about doing."

What impressed Reinsdorf was the Dream Team plan as part of this program presented by the group including McBride, Sherry Lansing, Sue Schwartz and Laura Ziskin. They weren't throwing money at cancer, trying to find a general cure. Instead, those Dream Teams brought together specific researchers to do work in trying to solve breast cancer or pancreatic cancer as examples.

"And they would be giving money to people who were really experts in their field," Reinsdorf said. "I said to them that he only problem is you are talking to the wrong person.

"You have to talk to Bud Selig, He's the only one who can do anything for you. I said, 'He's going to be here tonight, so let me call and see if I can set something up where you can come over and make your pitch.'"

Reinsdorf's original request to the Commissioner was met with a response to have the women come to Arizona the week after. Schedules didn't match up for the women, so Reinsdorf made another request to Selig for a half hour that particular evening. That 30-minute meeting produced a story that has been previously recounted involving Reinsdorf, Selig, the Commissioner's wife, Sue Selig, and how this association began.

"I'm sort of being a pest like Penner was to me," Reinsdorf said. "They come in and meet with him, same pitch they make to me and it's overwhelming. He hears the pitch.

"Typical Selig, he says how impressed he was but let me think about it, I'll get back to you. His wife, Sue, was standing next to him. She jabs him in the ribs and says, 'Come on, Buddy. Just say yes.' And it all went from there."

Cancer is an illness that touches everyone: young or old, rich or poor, physically healthy or working to get to that level. Reinsdorf mentioned an SU2C broadcast from a few years back that involved at one point asking the crowd at U.S. Cellular Field to stand up if that illness had touched their lives. The entire place stood up.

Bob Shepp, a popular, conscientious and kind family man who was a longtime pressbox attendant at U.S. Cellular Field, lost his fight with cancer last week. Reinsdorf said that Penner's 26-month battle with cancer ended with dignity.

"For a while, it didn't really show," said Reinsdorf of his departed friend. "Then he got weaker and weaker. He always had his faculties. He accepted it as fate. Literally, I've never seen anyone die with the dignity that he had."

"Personally and professionally, there's a hole in my life and it's not as raw as it was a number of years ago. But it's still something I think of often," said White Sox senior executive vice president Howard Pizer, a longtime friend and business associate of both Reinsdorf and Penner. "One of the smartest lawyers I ever met in my life: just a loveable great guy, a very special person."

Thanks to Penner's persistence, Major League Baseball has contributed greatly to this cancer fight. Selig has the people from SU2C come to the owners meetings once per year with their Dream Team people, per Reinsdorf, and the presentations remain just as astounding.

"When I hear some of the progress they have made in various areas of cancer, it's phenomenal," Reinsdorf said. "I don't know if they will ever solve it all, but people are living longer and they are doing phenomenal work."

Bringing awareness for early cancer prevention stands as a crucial side-note from this program. People literally standing up to Cancer during the World Series or the All-Star Game provides a high-profile avenue to help others go down a healthier route.

"Well, when they approached us, they were looking for what you call initial sponsors, they really wanted founding sponsors," Reinsdorf said. "They thought with baseball, there would be a lot of visibility that would really help above and beyond the money, and I think it has."

"Major League Baseball, its involvement, it's an important piece of people having that awareness," Pizer said. "You don't like to think about it but it's there. Sometime we need a reminder to think about things we don't necessarily want to think about."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Merk's Works, and follow him on Twitter @scottmerkin. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.