Here lies Bill Akers, an infielder who became the first major-league baseball player to join the U.S. Army Air Corps. He had a 20-year career in the military, taking him through World War II and Korea. He played for the Detroit Tigers (1929-31) and Boston Braves (1932).
William G. Akers was born in Chattanooga, Tenn. On Christmas Day, 1904. His career in baseball began with 12 games for the local Chattanooga Lookouts of the Southern Association in 1924. The teenager, called a “local phenom who came right off the sandlots,” hit .205 in his brief outing. He would have returned to the team the following season, but fans who refused to believe that a local boy could make the team rode him so hard that he lost his nerve. Manager Sammy Strang decided he would do better elsewhere, so Akers joined the Jonesboro (Ark.) Buffaloes of the Tri-State League.
There was also a minor charge of forgery that required Hamilton County Sheriff Tom Selman to go to Miami to fetch Akers. The rookie shortstop was “now under indictment here on the charge of taking property conditionally out of the state and forgery,” according to The Tennessean. That happened in February 1925, and I can’t find any other reference to it or a resolution. So maybe a simple misunderstanding? The fact that Akers played for the Buffaloes and not some Tennessee prison team would indicate that the charges didn’t stick.
Akers’ career in the minors progressed steadily, including a .330 campaign for the Durham Bulls in 1927. He became known for his hitting, his rifle arm at second base and his “chesty” attitude – that meant cocky in 1929. He apparently earned a $25 fine for arguing with Decatur manager Frank Dessau, but he played well and lived up to his own hype. After he lit up the Texas League with a .309 batting average and 17 homers for the Beaumont Exporters in 1929, the Tigers brought him to the majors in September 1929 and made him their starting shortstop.
The deal cost the Tigers two players and $10,000, but Akers held up his end of the deal. In 24 games, he hit .265 with 9 RBIs and a couple of stolen bases. His .935 fielding percentage at shortstop was a little sub-par, but he showed flashes of brilliance there. He started 4 double plays in a September 22 game against the Browns, helping Elon Hogsett to his first career shutout. Two days later he belted his first career home run off the Browns’ General Crowder — a clout that was compared to a Babe Ruth blast.
The Tigers tried six different players at shortstop in 1930, but Akers had the best overall season. He batted .279 in 85 games while moving between shortstop and third base. He also drove in 40 runs and homered 9 times, including a game-winner against Cleveland on August 6 off Mel Harder. He hit a 3-run blast off the Yankees’ Lou McEvoy with 2 outs in the bottom of the 9th, with the Tigers down 10-7. They won that game 11-10 after a 5-run ninth inning. One of the other tigers who had a try at shortstop was a rookie named Billy Rogell. He’d go on to have a long career in the majors, but as a rookie, he was intimidated by Akers, who practically chased Rogell off the field if he tried to play shortstop in Spring Training. Rogell went on to have some fine years in Detroit – after Akers was long gone.
There were a good number of stories written about Akers, who had the kind of personality that piqued the interests of newspaper writers. He earned a fine from Tigers’ manager Bucky Harris after he bunted into a triple play and then smashed a dugout water cooler in anger. Another time, he lost a fly ball on a sunny day and ended up chasing the shadow of a pigeon flying overhead. It doesn’t come as a surprise, then, that the Detroit press dubbed him “Wild Bill” Akers.
Akers’ batting average dropped to .197 in 1931, and his playing time dropped as well to 29 games. He ended up spending most of the season with the minor-league Kansas City Blues, where he hit .331 with 20 homers. His offensive prowess helped the Blues climb out of the American Association cellar and move up to second place. As a result, the Boston Braves acquired Akers in October 1931 for the upcoming season.
Akers came into training camp in 1932 with a chance as the Braves’ second baseman, but 39-year-old Rabbit Maranville ended up with the bulk of the playing time at that position. Akers played mostly at third base, where the Braves had a revolving door of average to below-average players. He batted .258 for the Braves in 36 games, with 1 home run and 17 RBIs. He and two other players were traded to the minor-league Baltimore Orioles on August 5 for slugger Baxter “Buck” Jordan, who would spend the next few seasons as the Braves’ first baseman. Akers never returned to the major leagues.
In his 4 seasons in the majors, Akers had a .261/.349/.404 slash line, with 124 hits, 11 homers and 69 RBIs in 174 games. He walked 63 times and struck out 64 times. He played in Baltimore and Little Rock for the remainder of his baseball career, retiring after the 1934 season.
Akers stayed in Little Rock for a couple of years and became a state policeman. The Detroit Free Press reported in 1936 that Akers was playing for a semi-pro team in Chicago (the fearsome Duffy Florals). He claimed he was driven out of baseball by the lights. Of course, night games didn’t start in baseball until 1935, but it was a creative excuse at least. He also had a job in the State Attorney’s office in Chicago and was a Democratic precinct captain as well.
Akers signed up for the Army Air Corps in July 1940. He started his military career as a mechanic in Selfridge Field in Michigan with the Thirty-Ninth Pursuit Squadron. Akers served in the Pacific for 31 months during World War II. According to excellent resource Baseball in Wartime (www.baseballinwartime.com), he was awarded the Presidential Citation with two Oak Leaf Clusters and four battle stars.
Akers told a reporter from the Decatur Daily Review that he was with the 32 Division, which was the first to land at Port Moresby in New Guinea. They then traversed their way through the Owen Stanley Mountains.
He stayed in the service until 1960, retiring as an Air Force Tech-Sergeant, according to The Baseball Necrology (www.thebbnlive.com).
Bill Akers died from liver cancer on April 13, 1962 in Chattanooga. He was 57 years old. He is buried in Chattanooga National Cemetery.