By Michael LeCompte
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century it was common for baseball teams to tour the country, playing games and making money wherever they could. The House Of Davids from Benton Harbor, Michigan were one of the most interesting and successful of these teams.
Unable to shave or cut their hair due to their religious beliefs the team always drew a curious crowd and although they kept no official statistics, it’s estimated that the House Of Davids won about 70% of the games they played.
In 1903 Benjamin and Mary Purnell founded the Israelite House of David in Benton Harbor. The goal of the religious commune was to gather the 12 lost tribes of Israel and await the millennium.
Eventually over 1,000 people joined and Ben Purnell set about making money to support his community. He opened an ice cream parlor and later an amusement park to raise funds. However, his most memorable endeavor was the House Of Davids baseball team.
The team was formed in 1913 and began barnstorming in 1920. With their long hair and beards they were an immediate attraction on the road. The goal of the team was to raise money for the commune and to spread the faith. (Which may have been why they kept no statistics).
The House Of Davids played town and semi-professional teams around the country. They also frequently played Negro League teams and even travelled with the Kansas City Monarchs for a time.
By the mid-1920’s Purnell recognized that to keep making money with his team they needed more talent than the members of his small community could provide.
As a result The House Of Davids began letting non-commune members onto the team. The one stipulation, though, was that any player who signed a contract could not shave for the duration of the contract. This was done to keep up the appearance and thus the attraction of the team.
Purnell once offered Babe Ruth a contract, but was turned down. However, the famous pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander did accept a contract offer after he’d retired from professional baseball, once famously quipping that “if you want to see the world join the Navy, if you want to see the United States join the House Of Davids.”
In 1926 Benjamin Purnell’s community fell apart when he was accused of the sexual molestation of the children in his commune, as well as fraud. 13 women testified against Purnell and he was convicted.
During the trial it was revealed that Purnell had amassed a $10 million personal fortune off the proceeds and fundraising efforts of his followers. He was ultimately banished from the community he founded and died of tuberculosis in 1927.
Although the community split into two factions after Purnell’s death, the baseball team continued. In 1930 the House Of Davids played the first unofficial night game in baseball history (a full 5 years before Major League Baseball’s first night game), when they set up portable lights for a game in Kansas. The team barnstormed until the late 1930’s.
The House Of Davids began as an act of faith, but are remembered today for the spectacle of long hair and beards, their willingness to cross the color line in the 1920’s, and some pretty good baseball.