PRINCETON, N.J. -- White Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf led a club contingent on a day trip on Thursday to accept the prestigious Steve Patterson Award for Excellence in Sports Philanthropy.
Reinsdorf said the award, honoring the success of the White Sox Volunteer Corps, belonged to his team's fans and he got a rise from the crowd by noting his team's one-game lead over the Tigers. The two clubs wrap up a key series Thursday night.
"The White Sox are honored to have our Volunteer Corps receive this prestigious award," he said. "Actually, the way the White Sox have been playing lately, I was afraid they were going to withdraw the award. In the last week alone, four people canceled lunch reservations with me."
The Volunteer Corps, which last offseason received the 2011 Commissioner's Award for Philanthropic Excellence, has brought together more than 5,500 fans, players, coaches and club executives to assist underserved Chicago neighborhoods through volunteer work.
Since it was founded in 2009, the Corps has logged more than 17,000 hours of service, including participating in blood drives that have helped save up to 1,200 lives, repacking more than 150,000 pounds of food that has fed approximately 40,000 hungry families and individuals in Chicago, and taking part in renovation and beautification projects for Chicago public schools and Boys & Girls Club locations. Several other professional sports teams have replicated the first-of-its-kind Corps model.
"It makes you proud as an American to realize what wonderful philanthropic attitudes our citizens have, not just with the money they give away, but also with the time and effort," Reinsdorf said. "Baseball teams really are owned by the community, and it's an obligation on the part of the team to give back.
"Our fans and our community get so much joy. When we won the World Series in 2005, after not having won it in 88 years, you could have gone into any cemetery in the Chicago metropolitan area the next day, and the graves were decorated with White Sox paraphernalia. I had people stop me, who said: 'I had to tell my mother-in-law, my grandmother, my grandfather -- they had to know that we won it.'
"The same people who were out there have joined our Volunteer Corps."
The Steve Patterson Award celebrates and promotes those in sports who are improving lives of others by using the unique influence of sports. Also honored during the ceremony at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation was the Notah Begay III Foundation and the Women's Sports Foundation.
Patterson was a former college basketball player who started at center for UCLA after Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and before Bill Walton as part of John Wooden's famed dynasty that won seven consecutive NCAA titles. He then went on to play in the NBA and became known for his belief in and practice of using sports philanthropy to make a difference. Patterson died of lung cancer in 2004 at the age of 56, and in 2005 the RWJF established the award in his name.
His widow, Carlette, president of Patterson Sports Ventures, was a moving speaker during Thursday's ceremony, at one point telling the group of leaders: "You are making choices of greatness."
Those six words rang true for Reinsdorf.
"I think we all have to make choices every day," he replied. "Our Volunteer Corps are making a choice between sitting and home and watching television or going to a movie, or giving their time to help other people. That certainly is a decision or choice of true greatness."
Reinsdorf told the audience: "I really have a very small role in it. I just tell Christine O'Reilly, 'Do something good,' and she goes out and comes up with all these wonderful ideas. She's really the hero of our organization."
O'Reilly is senior director of community relations for the White Sox, and she said it has been astonishing to see the evolution of a program that began the day after President Barack Obama's 2009 inauguration, when the President emphasized the need for public service.
"One of the things that was sort of missing, we'd have fans calling all the time saying, 'Can we help? If you need a volunteer, I want to be there,' " O'Reilly said. "So we knew that there was this interest from the fans, but we never had a sophisticated way of organizing them. So we said let's just put a call out and say, 'Do you want to be part of a volunteer team?'
"I thought we'd get a couple hundred people and we'd try to do some things. I don't think it was two days later that we had 2,000 people. So it was kind of that 'Oh my gosh, now what do we do?' moment. We had all these people and all this enthusiasm.
"We realized that as a baseball team with this passionate fan base, we kind of had just a part of the recipe. The rest of the recipe came through collaboration. We reached out to community partners, organizations that had some experience and expertise, in creating service days, in relying on volunteerism for them to do whatever it is they do."
The White Sox also established a Volunteer Corps All-Star Award. Those individuals are recognized once each month before a White Sox home game, and each time State Farm donates $1,000 to the winner's charity of choice.
"The White Sox don't get involved in anything for awards," Reinsdorf said in his acceptance speech. "You really shouldn't be getting anything back for doing things that you think are right and appropriate. But the one thing about awards that is good, it's a good marketing tool. It gets us more volunteers. When people see the things we are doing and the fact that we need more, it brings more people. So for that reason we are happy."