Williams cherishes interactions with Ali

Williams cherishes interactions with Ali

CHICAGO -- Ken Williams has gone through many "pinch-me" moments during his 35 years in baseball, but more specifically, his 16 seasons as White Sox general manager and executive vice president.

He was the architect of the 2005 World Series champions. He has met and had pictures taken with three Presidents of the United States. He's on a first-name basis with two of them.

"These blessings have never been lost on me," Williams told MLB.com. "But never more so then getting a phone call from the Alis saying, 'Hey, is it OK if we come out and watch a ballgame with you?' Just Muhammad and Lonnie [Ali's wife] and just me? Is it OK? Well, hmm, let me think about that.

"Or to get a phone call and say, 'Hey, the Oscars are on. What are you doing?' And then to be sitting on his couch watching the Oscars with him, and Billy Crystal is impersonating him. And then you look and see his face, and then ... to be able to then meet Billy Crystal and tell him, 'You should see this man's face when you do that.'"

Williams, Muhammad Ali and his extended family developed a friendship over the years. Williams will be in Louisville on Friday for Ali's funeral, after "The Greatest" passed away this past Friday at the age of 74.

Ali, along with his wife and sister-in-law, Marilyn Williams, who Ken Williams said both took expert care of the champ, visited White Sox Spring Training on March 8, 2011. Although the effects of Parkinson's disease were clear physically, Ali showed amazing charisma and presence without saying a word. Williams presented him with a White Sox jersey with the name Champ and the No. 40 on the back, in honor of the 40th anniversary of Ali's first fight with Joe Frazier, and the mention of Frazier made Ali playfully recoil and ball his fist as if he was ready to fight.

There were other humorous moments like that one witnessed in person by Williams.

"I've never had anyone hit on my wife without talking. He did it with his eyes and his expressions," said Williams with a laugh. "And then had the nerve to ball his fist up at me when I took exception to it.

"Yeah, I wish I knew him when I was younger. But I'm fortunate to have experienced what little interaction I have with him."

While Williams is hesitant to state there will never be another athlete or even individual with Ali's far-reaching, world-wide impact, he thinks the possibility is unlikely. He treasures their interactions, including a moment at the 2009 Civil Rights Game in Cincinnati where Ali was a MLB Beacon Award winner.

"He leans over to me, he pulls me over and he whispers, 'I'm proud of you,'" Williams said. "I got chills right now just thinking about it, because the Parkinson's had taken its toll on him.

"Our interaction was few and far between with the whisper here and there. But to get that affirmation from that man, oh my goodness. I can't tell you what that meant."

Scott Merkin has covered the White Sox for MLB.com since 2003. Read his blog, Merk's Works, follow him on Twitter @scottmerkin, on Facebook and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.