Shirley Cheek is a strong and courageous woman.
That much was evident after a 15-minute interview with her prior to the posthumous induction of her husband, Tom, the legendary voice of the Toronto Blue Jays, into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame on Saturday. Former players George Bell, Tim Raines, Rob Ducey and builder Nat Bailey were also enshrined.
It’s been nearly eight years since Shirley lost her husband to brain cancer, but she has soldiered through the heartbreak thanks largely to the compassion of one of Tom’s twin sisters, Elizabeth, and her husband David.
“We’ve become very close. I’ve traveled with them across the cross country twice,” said Shirley, who now resides in Oldsmar, Fla. “We laugh and we talk, and from the day that Tom passed away, they’re the couple that called me every night.”
So it puts a lump in your throat when Shirley, already dealing with the emotions – mostly pride and joy but some sadness – of her husband being honoured by Canadian ball hall, tells you that she’s deeply concerned about her brother-in-law David.
“He’s gravely ill with melanoma of the lung,” said Shirley, who recently spent six weeks with David and Elizabeth, and after being home for a few days returned when she was told her that spots had been found on David’s brain.
But despite feeling drained, worried and emotional, Shirley pushed onward on Saturday, answering questions about her husband from more than a dozen media outlets – including TV interviews with Sportsnet and TSN. It’s no wonder that Cooperstown-honoured baseball columnist Bob Elliott refers to her as “Saint Shirley.”
And there’s still a twinkle in this Saint’s eyes when she reminisces about her husband, a man she was married to for 46 years and had three children with (Tom Jr., Lisa and Jeff).
“I think that’s why so many fans still remember him because he would talk to the fans like they were his best friends,” said Shirley of his husband’s appeal. “He’d travel with the Blue Jays in the off-season and he loved to find out the history of where he was. He’d be on (Blue Jays winter) caravans in places like Saskatoon and people would say, ‘We listen to you on our tractors and we can’t wait until spring training to hear you again.’ Then people from Ontario would say, ‘We listen to you when we’re out on our boats fishing.’”
She’s clearly proud of her husband who broadcast 4,306 consecutive Blue Jays games. He was also in the booth for all 41 of the franchise’s post-season contests, including Game 6 of the 1993 World Series, which inspired his most famous call. After Jays slugger Joe Carter clubbed his World Series-winning homer in the bottom of the ninth, Cheek quipped, “Touch’em all, Joe. You’ll never hit a bigger home run in your life.”
“He saw Joe jumping up and down, going down the first base line and he told me, ‘Mentally, I was trying to say to Joe, ‘Don’t forget to touch the bases.’” she recalled with a chuckle.
With her thoughts with her ailing brother-in-law, Shirley agreed to hand off acceptance speech duties to her youngest son, Jeff, for Saturday’s ceremony.
“Jeff really wanted to do a speech, so I said, ‘You can do the St. Marys speech,’” explained Shirley, prior to the ceremony. “That will be meaningful for him and for the fans because he looks like his father and he talks like his father. And his wit is like his father’s.”
True to his mother’s description, Jeff resembled his dad in appearance and voice, and with Shirley standing beside him on stage, delivered a moving speech.
“I got my height from my father and my emotions from my mother, so bear with me today,” said Jeff.
Jeff talked about his father’s early roots in sports broadcasting in Burlington, Vt., where his dad once called bowling matches for a radio station. He also spoke of his dad’s early broadcast work with the Montreal Expos and credited Dave Van Horne and Len Bramson for giving his father his first big break. It was also Bramson who later hired Cheek for the Jays radio broadcasts.
Cheek, of course, provided play-by-play for every Blue Jays radio broadcast from the team’s first contest on April 7, 1977 until June 2, 2004, when he missed his first game to attend his father’s funeral.
“He would go to work each day and try to make himself better,” said Jeff, adding that his father’s legendary work ethic has made it difficult for him to take a day off.
And though he wished his father was still alive to savor his induction into the Canadian ball hall, he was thankful that his dad was able to work at a job that he adored for so many years.
“Our dad was able to do something he truly loved for 4,306 games,” said Jeff. “He was who was on the radio. He was a great guy with a great heart.”
And there was nary a dry eye under the induction tent when near the end of his address, Jeff turned to his mother and thanked her for being the backbone of the family.
“Behind every man, there’s a stronger woman,” he said and proceeded to embrace his mom.
And they don’t get much stronger than Shirley Cheek, who will deliver her husband’s acceptance speech for the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s Ford C. Frick Award in Cooperstown on July 27.
“I’m not going to have it memorized because I can’t do that sort of thing,” she said.
In meeting her only briefly, you get the feeling she’ll deliver a wonderful speech. And as this inspiring woman is forced to face more health woes in her family, you want to send her strength and good thoughts. And that’s what we should do. But you also get the feeling that this “Saint” might already be strong enough.