Willie Mays Aikens: Hard Living, Hard Times and Hard-Cover Books
Willie Mays Aikens once had a promising major league baseball career that came to a premature end in 1985 because of his personal demons. Although his problems robbed him of his career and led to serving a 14-year prison sentence, he pushed through and is finally back on track after a detour that lasted more than two decades.
Aikens grew up in difficult circumstances in South Carolina. He attended South Carolina State University, but when the school dropped its baseball program after his freshman year, he wound up playing semi-pro ball. His talent saw him through, and in 1975 the California Angels made him the second overall selection in that year’s draft.
A left-handed hitting and right-handed throwing first baseman, Aikens made his MLB debut in 1977 and went on to have an eight-year major league career with the Angels, Kansas City Royals and Toronto Blue Jays. He hit a combined .271 in 774 career games with 110 home runs and 415 RBI. His best season came in 1983, when he hit .302 with 23 home runs and 72 RBI for the Royals.
Aikens was also the star of the 1980 World Series, hitting .400 with four home runs in a six-game loss to the Philadelphia Phillies.
Despite the great numbers, 1983 ended horribly for Aikens. Following the season, he and teammates Jerry Martin and Willie Wilson pled guilty to attempting to buy cocaine, and were sentenced to three months in prison.
Aikens never played for the Royals again. Following his incarceration, he was traded to the Blue Jays and spent parts of two seasons there before finishing his playing career with six excellent seasons in the Mexican League.
In addition to his legal problems, Aikens developed a self-confessed daily cocaine addiction and was an unrepentant womanizer. By 1994, his life was out of control and he wound up being arrested for selling 2.2 ounces of crack cocaine to an undercover police officer in his home in Kansas City, Missouri.
Because of the tougher federal sentencing guidelines for crack at the time, Aikens was sentenced to 20 years in prison after being convicted on four charges related to distribution. He received just over 15 years on the drug charges and had an additional five years tacked on to his sentence because of having a loaded gun in the room where the drugs were sold to the officer.
Many lesser men would have spiraled even further down following such a blow, but Aikens saw a chance to change his life. He got himself clean for the first time in years and was able to reflect on the wrong turns that had landed him in a federal penitentiary.
In 2008, after serving 14 years of his sentence, Aikens was released from prison. Hal McRae, a former teammate, helped him find a construction job, but before long bigger and better opportunities presented themselves.
In recent years, Aikens has become an inspirational speaker, telling crowds of his travails. He was also hired as a minor league instructor by his former team, the Royals.
And of course, there is the book.
Last year, Gregory Jordan wrote Willie Mays Aikens: Safe at Home. It has been described as a starkly honest account of Aikens’ life, including openly discussing his most painful experiences.
Recently, Aikens and Jordan were guests of Williams College to discuss their book and take questions. Aikens’ journey is truly remarkable and one that any fan of baseball or a comeback story should explore.
Aikens stands out as a memorable figure in a sport that is littered with captivating storylines. It’s great to see the success he has achieved and hopefully his book will be a springboard to even bigger and better things.
Willie Aikens Interview:
As you neared your release from incarceration, what plans did you have in place about what you were going to do with your life on the outside?: My original release date was May of 2012, so when I was released in June of 2008, it came as a total shock to me. I had already started to communicate with Gregory Jordan, who is the author of my book. I had plans to finish my book with Gregory and hopefully find a publisher. I had made plans to marry Sara, who was the mother of my second-oldest daughter. I truly wanted to get back into baseball in some kind of way. I wanted a better relationship with my daughters. I wanted to experience a spiritual life away from prison, where more temptations were at. I wanted to do speaking engagements and share my testimony to help other. By the grace of God, all these plans I had before I left prison are realities now. Praise God.
How difficult was it for you to have your whole life laid out in a book- warts and all?: It was very difficult at first. I had to be honest about things that happened in my life. I had to be honest talking about my family. Some of the things I said about my mother were truly painful. My daughters didn’t want me to write about them in my book. Neither one has read my book to date. They didn’t want to read about how they treated their father. I had to be honest about things I did, being a dead-beat dad. Making bad decisions that made me lose years being separated from my daughters. Going back over my baseball career and seeing how my baseball career was cut short because of stupid choices I made. As time has passed, things have gotten better.
What has the response to your book been like so far?: Most people that have read my book have enjoyed it. I get comments all the time from people that have read my book and have gone through problems like mine. Some are still facing those problems and my book has given them the confidence that they can overcome those problems. Hopefully a movie will be made one day. The responses have been positive and uplifting.
What do you miss the most from playing professional baseball?: Being in the spotlight and having plenty of money. I really don’t miss all the female companions and all the drinking and drugging I used to do. I know these are material things, but that is what I enjoyed most about being a professional baseball player. Also, my relationship with all my teammates, and just being with a great bunch of guys on a daily basis. That lifestyle would have been better with a spiritual life, but it didn’t happen that way. I do miss those things, but as time goes by, we adjust to getting older. Just being back in baseball now and coaching the young players is a tremendous blessing for me. Being a part of baseball and doing something I enjoy is the place where I want to be.
Andrew Martin is the founder of “The Baseball Historian” blog where he posts his thoughts about baseball on a regular basis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also reach him on Twitter at @historianandrew.