Baseball: Game of Beards

March 30 2014

With this week marking Opening Day of the 2014 season, we thought it would be a perfect time to look back at an oft-forgotten chapter in American baseball. To most Americans, baseball holds a special place in the hearts of nostalgic sports lovers everywhere, even dubbed “America’s National Pastime.” To some, just the crack of the bat and the din of a cheering crowd is enough to evoke pleasant childhood memories. It’s often said that spring doesn’t officially start until the first pitch on Opening Day is thrown. Baseball is consistent amongst other things, the game dating back more than 200 years. However, if you were to head north to Michigan nearly a century ago, beards would take precedence over bats and you could follow an unlikely winning team that would never be forgotten.

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In the late 19th century and into the early 20th century, America was simply…”figuring itself out.” Religion, politics, infrastructure, cities and laws were being created everyday. With so much of the country yet to be populated, a handful of religious sects found their way to odd corners of the nation in hopes to avoid these laws and attract members.

In the early 1900’s when Benjamin Purnell and his wife Mary, wanted to take a shot at gathering the 12 lost tribes of Israel for the “ingathering”, they quickly chose Benton Harbor, Michigan. This small commune, which he called House of David, quickly attracted followers whom were strictly forbidden to fornicate, eat meat, smoke tobacco, drink alcohol, or cut their hair. Instead of picking up girls at the local diner, House of David members farmed, developed one of the first cold storage facilities in the world, became the first to preserve jellies in jars, and were even credited for inventing the sugar cone. One thing they certainly did not do was shave.

With celibacy being practiced everyday, the members of the commune were left with some time on their hands. That was until one bearded fellow picked up a baseball. How the members became so good at the sport is still unknown, but Purnell quickly realizing their talents decided to form a team with the goal of making some money. And that he did.

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1914 gave birth to the House of David Baseball Team and hours of excessive grooming. The team traveled throughout the Midwest and East Coast providing audiences with their “barnbuster” style of play. Because teammates refused to cut their hair or shave their beards, they were prohibited from playing in the big leagues. This might have been a blessing in disguise because House of David beat just about every team they played. The team has been credited to winning over 70 percent of its games against semi-pro teams, town teams and the occasional friendly game with a MLB team.

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House of David was making money and spreading word about their colony at the same time. Within a few years the bearded men were famous throughout the clean-cut United States. In order to squeeze more money making opportunities into the day, House of David is accredited to being the first team to play “Nite Baseball” with lights they brought in themselves. The first night baseball game was officially played on April 17, 1930 in Florence, Kansas, a whole five years before the MLB picked up on the trend.

Besides the beards and good looks, members of the team saw past current race issues at the time. With new colony members not being up to par as the team became more popular, House of David openly hired new players “not of the faith” including African Americans and women. The only requirements besides fielding skills were to grow a beard (or wear a fake one) and not cut your hair as long as you played on the team.

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As they traveled with Negro teams, members of the HOD would tell promoters that not only would their team be playing the Negro team first followed by playing the House of David, but they would also eat at the same restaurant as them and stay in the same hotel as them. This was unheard of at the time.

The team thrived until WWII. After the war, televisions began to replace stadium attendance and teams like the House of David began to fold.  They are still known today as the Harlem Globetrotters of baseball. Their team, so eclectic, even invited Babe Ruth to play near the end of his career. Ruth’s manager at the time informed House of David that the Babe loved to drink and was rarely on time. What started out as a way to pass the time ended up in one of the most memorable teams the sport has seen.

Photos courtesy of the House of David Museum.