Maurice Wiggins didn’t look imposing on the baseball field in the early 1930s. But one of his friends knew the five-foot-six 137-pounder could play shortstop and invited him to practice with Gilkerson’s Union Giants, a semiprofessional team based in Bronzeville. The Giants’ manager was so impressed he moved the regular shortstop to the outfield and replaced him with Wiggins.
A little while later the team traveled to Spring Valley, where the team’s owner lived. “The owner had not heard of me,” Wiggins told me in 1998. “When I walked on the field he told the manager, ‘We don’t need a batboy. You’ve got a batboy here.’ The manager said, ‘That’s not the batboy. That’s the shortstop.'” After the game the owner bought Wiggins a new glove.
Last month Wiggins, who’d become a minor celebrity on the south side, died in his sleep at Michael Reese Hospital.
He’d been the sixth of eight children, born in Water Valley, Mississippi, in 1909. He remembered his biracial mother, Lena Wells, singing religious songs to her children after washing, ironing, and cooking all day. And he remembered that she also made him memorize passages from the Bible. “I was the black sheep of the family,” he said. “My mother tamed me by putting a switch on my back.”
His mother died when he was ten, and he went to live with an older sister and started washing dishes part-time in a hotel. When he was 12 his father, a musician who cut hair in a shop on 43rd Street at Cottage Grove, sent him a letter promising to pay for his train fare to Chicago. The money never arrived, so Wiggins hopped a northbound freight train with two older boys and arrived in Bronzeville three days later. His father asked him to tell his siblings that the money for the trip had arrived. Later his siblings told him they’d given their father the money.
In their spare time Wiggins and his younger brother would do baseball tricks in front of the barbershop, catching balls behind their backs and between their legs, then passing a hat. His oldest brother paid the $1-a-month tuition so that he could go to Saint Elizabeth high school. But the school didn’t have a sports program, so after ninth grade he transferred to nearby Wendell Phillips. A year later he dropped out to marry, briefly, Inez Oliver, who bore his only child, Maurice Wiggins Jr.
During the Depression, when “black-eyed peas and neck bones was a big meal,” Wiggins bounced between jobs and played baseball in various leagues, becoming a solid fielder, leadoff man, and base stealer. In the early 1930s, he played for the Bethesda Flames, who won a church league title in 1931. Afterward, he joined the Pullman company, scrubbing railcars and playing on its baseball team until the company laid him off. When the Negro Leagues team the Birmingham Black Barons came to Chicago for a game the shortstop was injured, and they asked Wiggins to fill in. But he turned them down to take a job with the Wilson Packing Company, which also offered him a spot on its team. He knocked in the winning run during his first game.
In 1933 he joined Gilkerson’s Union Giants, which that year played 131 games in Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and parts of Canada. “We ate off a dollar a day, regardless of what city we went in,” he said, “but we stayed in the best hotels.” He didn’t come back the next season. As he later told the Chicago Defender, “I was out there one year, and we didn’t make enough money. It’s better to make a living year-round than play with one of those semipro teams and travel all around and come back with only $20 in your pocket. Then you had to scuffle all winter trying to make ends meet.”
Instead, he took a job at the Palmer House. He worked his way up from busboy to waiter within a few years. During the mid-1930s many black baseball players, including Negro League standouts Norman “Turkey” Stearnes and Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, worked winters at the hotel. The Palmer House sponsored a league of four teams for the employees–three white and one black–that played games starting at 9:30 on Sunday mornings in Grant Park. The black team became the hotel’s best, winning the championship for three straight years. It also beat the University of Chicago’s baseball team in several exhibition games. When the league folded after the 1937 season–Wiggins always claimed the black team was too strong–some of the players formed the Palmer House Stars, which won three straight Illinois semiprofessional championships and placed in the national tournament held in Wichita, Kansas. “Even though the umpires tried to cheat us,” Wiggins recalled, “we got third place three straight years out there.”
By the early 1940s, Wiggins had quit playing, though he remained at the hotel for most of his working life–leaving only to do a five-year stint as a salesman with the John M. Smyth furniture company and two years in the navy during World War II. Among the guests he watched over at the Palmer were Nat “King” Cole, Carol Channing, Diahann Carroll, Sammy Davis Jr., and Jack Benny. “Celebrities asked for him personally when they ordered room service,” says his granddaughter Maurita Ward. “He would knock on the doors to make sure they got their food hot. When he picked up their trays after they were done he would bring a mint. He gave it that personal touch.” The hotel threw him a party when he retired in 1985.
Long before then Wiggins had become known on the south side for his volunteering–people called him “God’s shortstop.” His second wife, Artie, a hatmaker who owned shops downtown and on the south side, suffered from diabetes, so he volunteered for the American Diabetes Association. As a member of Englewood’s Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, he organized youth baseball, volleyball, and basketball teams, and he ran its gymnasium, which was eventually named after him. He also helped establish Old Pros Unlimited, a social club for local former Negro Leaguers, and solicited money from tavern owners on the south side to feed poor children. He laughed when he remembered bumping into an Antioch deacon once as he left a bar: “The deacon thought I had been drinking.”
Maurita Ward took care of Wiggins for the last several years of his life, and she pushed him to call his son regularly. The two men had drifted apart, she says, but finally “everybody came together.”
Wiggins never lost his interest in baseball. For 20 years, until the mid-1990s, he wrote a sports column for the Chicago Independent Bulletin, a south-side weekly. In a 1994 piece he wrote, “Shortstops, tall or short, if you can make all the moves around shortstop, the job is yours. Don’t feel inferior if you are small–so was Luis Aparicio. Don’t feel like an ugly duckling because you’re a beanstalk–so was Marty Marion. Willie Wells was rated as the best shortstop in the old Negro League. Wells had a weak arm, but made up for it with his quickness in delivery, good legs and batter smartness.”
And he never stopped watching baseball games on television. Once he saw former Chicago Cubs shortstop Shawon Dunston misplay a ball that had bounced over the pitcher’s head and knew he would have fielded it better. “Dunston waited till the ball came down,” he said. “When he threw it the runner had crossed first base. I made the same play look easy–I ran and met that ball in the air and threw it.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Michael Marsh, courtesy Maurita Ward.