March 23, 2002

March 23, 2002 - OBITUARY: MAURICE WIGGINS, ballplayer and Palmer House waiter.

The color of his skin was not on his mind when Maurice Wiggins hopped a train at age 12 from Water Valley, Miss., to Chicago. He just wanted to pay a surprise visit to his father, a barber on the South Side. But Mr. Wiggins grew up fast in the big city. And as one of the first blacks to play professional baseball, his race became central to his identity.

Mr. Wiggins, known at the Palmer House Hilton for 50 years as the baseball-playing "Waiter to the Stars," died March 23 at Michael Reese Hospital. He was 92. Mr. Wiggins' mother, who was white, didn't want him to go to Chicago, but she relented. His father was there because jobs for black men--and interracial couples--were scarce in tiny Water Valley. Carrying the phone numbers and addresses his mother had written down for him, Mr. Wiggins showed up at his father's barbershop. It was a tearful reunion, granddaughter Maurita Ward said. Mr. Wiggins attended St. Elizabeth High School but dropped out after the ninth grade.

He fell in love with Artie Johnson and married her Christmas Day 1942. While she designed hats, Mr. Wiggins began working as a waiter at the Palmer House, where he learned table-setting and dining room etiquette. Mr. Wiggins took that training with him to the Navy in World War II, where he so impressed his commanding officer by teaching the sailors in his barracks to set tables that he was made chief petty officer. "For him as a black man to get that promotion was a big thing," Ward said. Mr. Wiggins returned to Chicago and the Palmer House, where he formed a baseball team with co-workers that was called the Palmer House All-Stars.

They played against churches and other local teams. Word of his talent on the field spread fast. Mr. Wiggins joined the Gilkerson Union Giants, which produced several prominent Negro Baseball League players. He also played for the pro Chicago American Giants and the Chicago Colored All-Stars. Mr. Wiggins eventually got out of baseball but stayed on at the Palmer House, where he rubbed elbows with the likes of former President Jimmy Carter, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Oscar Brown Jr. and Carol Channing. He was the quintessential career waiter, Palmer House spokesman Ken Price said. "He was quite a guy, a very gentle man," Price said. "All those guys, they just knew how to handle people, be them celebrities or non-celebrities, with such diplomacy." An active member of the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, Mr. Wiggins also volunteered with the American Diabetes Association--his wife, who died in 1995, was a diabetic. For 20 years, Mr. Wiggins also wrote a weekly column for the Chicago Independent Bulletin. In addition to his granddaughter, he is survived by a son, Maurice Wiggins Jr.; a grandson, Maurice Wiggins III, two nieces and a nephew.