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Sports Saturday

In sickness, as in health, Shirley Williams has Hall of Famer husband of 60 years at her side

Cubs great Billy Williams urges all of us to stay home if we can. That’s what he’s doing — with a heavy heart — as he cares for a wife who’s experiencing late-stage dementia.

Divisional Round - Washington Nationals v Chicago Cubs - Game Three
Williams would love nothing more than to be back at Wrigley Field.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Everything about the way Billy Williams stood in the batter’s box and swung his club of ash in 1961 said “fearless.” He was a young man turned loose on 25-home-run, 86-RBI, NL Rookie of the Year destiny.

He was a Hall of Fame-bound swatter who would, for a decade of his brilliant Cubs career — from 1962 to ’71 — miss an average of one game per season, never wavering, routinely taking his turns at-bat and delivering excellence.

“Billy Williams never gets excited, never gets mad, never throws a bat,” manager Leo Durocher once said. “You write his name down in the same spot every day, and you forget it. He will play left and bat third. Billy Williams is a machine.”

The machine found his baseball people in ’61, in particular the duo — Ernie Banks and Ron Santo — he’d link arms with throughout a storied period in Cubs history.

But Williams had already found his greatest teammate: his girl Shirley, whom he married on Jan. 25, 1960.

Sixty years later, Shirley is up against it in the most serious of ways. And, in this time of the coronavirus pandemic, her devoted husband isn’t feeling very fearless at all.

He’s as terrified as the next guy. And then some.

“Shirley, she’s down with dementia,” Williams said. “She’s about four or five years in now. If you count stages, she’s at about Stage 7.”

Stage 7 — otherwise known as late-stage dementia, the final stage in the progression of the disease. It’s a brutal cognitive decline. Speech and communication are severely, if not entirely, limited. Assistance is needed with eating, swallowing and most everything else.

At home in Glen Ellyn, Williams, 81, cares for Shirley the best he can. Fortunately, he has lots of help. Nurses rotate in daily, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and the couple’s four daughters — all live nearby in Wheaton or just a bit farther away in Naperville — take turns swinging by at night to tuck their mom in.

Even in these unsafe times, Dad needs a little attention once in a while, too.

“They’re good girls,” Williams said. “We’re lucky to have them.”

Physically, Williams is hanging in there all right. Mask on, he walks the streets of his neighborhood. He uses a treadmill and stationary bike at home, too.

“I’m doing pretty good,” he said. “I hope. Because this virus is something, man.”

Shirley isn’t the only girl in his life about whom he frets these days. There’s also a granddaughter, Nicolette, an intensive-care nurse at a hospital in Palo Alto, California, who’s on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19.

“I really worry about her,” Williams said. “I worry so much. They say they have all the equipment and stuff. I ask, ‘Do they really? Can they interact with the ones who have the disease?’ I just don’t want anything to happen to her.”

There’s another granddaughter in Des Moines, Iowa, a teacher, who’s sheltering at home like most everyone else. Billy and Shirley have six grandchildren in all, four of them boys.

Oh, if they could all be near right now. Their grandpa misses them so.

“It’s just kind of a tough time,” he said. “It’s not so easy, I guess.”

Williams spends a lot of time in front of the news on TV. He has become a fan of Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot and, especially, of New York governor Andrew Cuomo. When the weather is springlike, or close, he watches out the window as families walk and children ride their bikes.

Yes, he misses baseball, too.

“I was watching [MLB Network] for a while and they were showing old World Series, but I got bored with that because, well, I never played in the World Series,” he said.

“But this whole thing without baseball and all sports is kind of tough for everybody. Sports take away a lot of worries and burdens. They give people a chance to take away from a lot of problems.”

Home is where the heart is. Sometimes, Williams’ heart just plain hurts.

Still, he has a message for all.

“Everybody, please stay safe,” he said. “It’s tough after the coldness here in Chicago to have this happen in the spring, but we have to stay inside. You take care now. Please tell everybody to take care.”