The House of David
In a brief but laden history, America has achieved unequaled distinction in five arenas. Here are four: money, religion, scandal, and baseball.1 That quartet is a fixture on our nation’s timeline, defining and coloring the winding path we’ve taken since Lincoln secured the union. And when a single, quintessential institution embodies each of these vital imprints, it will be regarded as the witness regards America itself. Observe: the zealot stiffens with defiant patriotism; the guilt-ridden soul lowers his head in dutiful shame. And others still, those pragmatic denizens of the gray area, experience an ambivalent flush of warmth that is at once proud, abashed, and unmistakably native. I submit now, for further consideration, an obscure commune of celibate vegetarians approaching a sad extinction- the Israelite House of David.
Roughly thirty percent of the people I know have a deep, complicated relationship with baseball. The rest find it impossibly boring. Common ground is virtually non-existent. One theory, which I happen to believe, is that the game must be instilled early in life. In the same way that a child isolated from other human beings will be unable to master language past a certain developmental stage, so too must baseball’s rhythms become familiar in youth. And even if those first experiences are miserable, full of the public humiliation sports dole out so readily to innocent children, the exposure itself is what matters. Baseball is slow poetry, and poetry will never leave the system.
How is baseball different? In the first place, the majority of sports dotting the athletic landscape are founded on a simple, territorial tenet- two teams attack each other’s goal for a set length of time. In a nutshell, that mission statement defines football, soccer, basketball, hockey, lacrosse, rugby, etc. These games are reductions of mankind’s experience- ‘I want what belongs to you, and I will march into your land and take it by force. If my strength fails, I will retreat, and you will attempt to take what’s mine.’
Baseball, in its unfiltered strangeness, turns the opposite trick and expands on life. Long known by the honorific ‘America’s Pastime,’ it is a bizarre and implausible invention, full of anomalies and deceptions and caveats that reflect human nature with more lucidity than we should ever expect from mere sport. Consider a few curiosities: the game was ostensibly ‘invented’ in America, derived in part from an arcane British diversion called ‘Rounders,’ and has since been altered more than any sport in history.2 Most of its terminology comes from seafaring life, rather than war. Entire games can pass without two players making the slightest bodily contact. Instead of invading enemy territory, points are scored by returning to the point of origin: ‘home.’ It is the only sport where the coach wears the same uniform as the team.3 No two fields in Major League Baseball have the same dimensions. Its greatest legend was an obese alcoholic. People who have studied the game for decades still don’t know all the rules.4
If you can see the reflection of world history’s digressive, unpredictable course in these oddities, you’re halfway to understanding baseball. The complexities confuse and entice; we’re drawn in by the same sophistication, swelled from basic premises, that arises in the real world. Like a femme fatale, entrancing and ultimately unknowable, it becomes an addiction. And please permit me one prejudiced opinion: those who call soccer ‘the beautiful game’ have utterly missed the point.
To the children of baseball, the experience can be repressed, but never shed. Springtime’s verdant appeal to memory evokes the game with an almost-unbearable insistence. Personally, the smell of cut grass is enough to set my mind wandering in the direction of a once-known diamond, and here I’m not alone. If the sport is unfamiliar into adulthood, on the other hand, I sincerely hope you have a deep fascination with history, athletics, and American culture, or you may be left perplexed and alienated by the cult-like devotion of its adherents. Still, we are not an exclusive bunch; we will welcome and expound and illustrate and even cajole. But, God help us, we can never explain.
Which is why it’s good luck that my stepfather was a high school baseball coach. By the age of eight, I was traveling on the team bus across the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, keeping the score book5 and being a general pain in the ass.6 Immaturity aside, I learned the game intimately from a man who managed his teams with equal parts strategy and instinct. I can vividly remember how he’d hit sharp ground balls with a taped red fungo7 in warm-ups, exploring the infield terrain. Or how he’d stand and wave both hands from the dugout, signaling across converted farmland to shift the right fielder a few steps closer to the line moments before a powerful lefty laced a drive to the predicted spot. Or how he’d bring in a power pitcher at the precise juncture when the starter was losing his stuff and the opposition had become acclimated to slower speeds. These subtleties made their impact, wove their way into my subconscious, and hatched an obsession.
My father, a high school basketball star, took this in stride. He accommodated the yen for baseball by driving me to the local fields on summer weekends and throwing pitch after pitch until his arm tired.8 Later, he built a wire backstop in our front yard and a tee for me to hit off. And each summer, we journeyed across the border with my grandfather to see the woeful, and now defunct, Montreal Expos.
Contributing to the growing fixation was the fact that my stepfather was a masterful storyteller. He grew up on Long Island in the 50s, at a time when New York City had three professional baseball teams and the country was in the throes of the same obsession I was undergoing in the ‘90s. He told of weekends when an entire community of kids would convene at the fields for morning-to-dusk pick-up games.9 He told of school days in October when a student with a wireless radio would run down the hallway shouting the score of World Series games before he was apprehended and taken to the principal’s office. And he told of the Yankee mystique, spearheaded by Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris and Whitey Ford, that inspired love and hate in equal measures. Soon, I felt a deep nostalgia for an era I’d never experienced.
By the time of my childhood, important baseball games were not held in the afternoon. My classmates, by and large, didn’t care about the sport. I spent summer mornings from ages nine to twelve were phoning other young athletes, hoping to recreate the pick-up games of my stepfather’s youth. But it was a different time and place; vacations and mountain sports and Nintendos and apathy stymied me at every turn. I’d drag a worried finger further and further down the list of my peers, forced to resort to those who didn’t belong within ten miles of a baseball field. And they’d reject me, too. In the end, the result was almost always a bitter concession.
The game kept me going. I made Little League All-Star teams, started at shortstop and third base in high school, and generally had a nice career. But once senior season came along, it brought an awful curse: I could no longer hit a curve. My batting prowess disappeared overnight, and those final games became a nightmare of timid stances and flailing strikeouts. Soon, I hated baseball with the fresh, betrayed anger reserved for something you thought you would love forever.
As it turned out, the disenchantment was short-lived. I was already hooked. The lover’s quarrel came to a quiet end, and I returned with hat in hand, full of apologies and promises. And somewhere along the line, in those early days of ardor, a short segment in a ten-part documentary film by Ken Burns10 gave me the first inklings of a story that seemed to be pure, artistic fiction. Or, more accurately, the type of indisputable fact so mysterious and unlikely that it can only be true in this particular world. I became captivated by the long beards of baseball- the pioneers of pepper, the knights of the night.
Despite their name, the Israelite House of David is not Jewish.11 In fact, they’re Christian. Sort of.
Like any cult, it started with a single, charismatic human. Benjamin Purnell was born in 1861, and thirty-four years later he had a vision. God had sent him, the seventh and final messenger from heaven, to save mankind. All who followed his path would be protected as descendants of the twelve lost tribes of Israel. By 1903, he and his wife Mary had made a pilgrimage to Benton Harbor, Michigan and were officially incorporated as the ‘Israelite House of David, the New Eve, the Body of Christ.’
Their commune quickly grew to four hundred members, which is surprising, because the man who took to calling himself “King Benjamin” set up some very stringent bylaws. First, all persons joining the cult must cede their worldly possessions to Purnell and commit to a life of poverty. Second, no sex: even couples married in the commune’s mass ceremonies were held to a vow of celibacy. Third, no meat and no alcohol. Fourth, all members must wear cheap clothes or robes (and not much else), live in simple quarters, and renounce ownership of all things material. Fifth, men were not allowed to shave or cut their hair.
But apparently King Benjamin had a certain allure. The cult amassed a following of men and women who believed in Armageddon, and that survival amid the storm of God’s forthcoming wrath depended on total submission to the House of David. If Purnell truly bought into the ideas he preached, it’s likely his commune would be no more remarkable today than the other uber-extremists America has known, like the Branch Davidian Compound or Heaven’s Gate or the Jonestown People’s Temple.12 Luckily for posterity, King Benjamin’s chief quality was not fanaticism; his true talent, and the one greatest served by his magnetism, was the acquisition of wealth.
From 1903-1927, Purnell used the House of David as a base for an enormously successful capitalist enterprise. I spoke with Chris Siriano, the helpful owner and curator of the House of David Museum in Benton Harbor, and he filled me in on the commune’s impressive list of inventions and accomplishments. Purnell’s first venture was the foundation an amusement park, one of the country’s first, and by the 1910s he was selling two hundred thousand tickets each summer. The commune was also unique in its encouragement of individual creativity; anything that filled the coffers was officially approved. Cult engineers designed the world’s first mechanical pinsetter for their bowling alleys,13 and workers at the ice cream shop invented the waffle cone.14 After losing two cruise ships in Lake Michigan, members devised the first cross-propeller. They also collaborated with Welch’s to can grape juice.15 When a local trolley car outfit wouldn’t hire the bearded men of the HOD, the commune purchased the company. Additionally, the House of David’s jazz and blues bands became renowned locally, and even toured the Vaudeville circuits during the 20s.
But the lasting aura of the commune comes not from religion, ice cream, bowling, or music. It comes from baseball. And here’s where I like to think the House of David departs from itself, and loses the affiliation with its controversial beginning and dispiriting end. This is where it outshines the ugly motivations of fanaticism and greed and becomes something paradoxical and iconic.
In 1913, the men began playing on weekends for relaxation and morale. It turned out that locals were fascinated by the flowing hair and beards of the talented athletes, and soon crowds flocked to the field in growing numbers. King Benjamin was not one to ignore an opportunity, and within six years a stadium had been built on the grounds. By 1915, the House of David team played a steady schedule, and by 1920 the national barnstorming had begun.16
In an era when Babe Ruth was in the process of cementing baseball’s place in the American conscious, the House of David’s traveling band of religious devotees gained immense popularity.17 They sold out baseball fields across America, and eventually began to play exhibition games with semi-pro and professional clubs. It’s worth noting, too, that their players were very, very good.18 Maybe it was all that extra energy from a celibate lifestyle, or maybe the baseball team was the best gig going in the commune, creating an atmosphere of intense competition that led to excellence.19 In any case, they garnered tremendous profits, and eventually sent as many as four teams across the country.
But in this case, money isn’t the point. For one thing, none of the players became rich. All they had were their beliefs, which would betray them, and a love for baseball, which never did. To see the black-and-white or sepia-toned photos of these men, with their unruly hair, stoic expressions, and pinstripe uniforms with the interlocking “HOD” emblem, framed by the captivated crowds of early stadiums, is to glance into the last days of pre-modern America. The frontier spirit still lingers and infuses, and once you acknowledge the profit motive and the cruelties that go hand-in-hand with every expansion enterprise in history, you’re left with the formidable individuality of men who existed on strength and creativity alone. The barrier between their existence and a difficult world was a thin sheen of ideology and grit. There’s beauty there- the kind that’s almost too exotic to imagine today. And while I’m not a ranting Luddite who would wish those conditions on myself or my world, I can’t help but feel a pang of sadness that such a formative era is so unequivocally buried in the past.
There are some great House of David baseball stories. On April 17, 1930, in Independence, Kansas, they played the first night game with permanent light fixtures in baseball history.20 “Doc” Tally, one of the best and most famous HOD players, invented a game called ‘pepper.’21 It consisted of three fielders standing in a row, tossing a ball toward a batter standing twenty feet away. The batter would bunt the ball to one of the players, and they’d toss it back. But the players added various flourishes, using sleight-of-hand, behind-the-back tosses, and other misdirection ploys to create a sort of circus act. It became a trademark attraction at House of David appearances, and was so popular that the famous St. Louis Cardinals “Gashouse Gang” adopted and used the spectacle before games in their 1934 World Series season. A year earlier, the House of David had faced that same Cardinal team. Their starting pitcher was Jackie Mitchell, a female. She threw a scoreless inning, and the HOD won 8-6.
My favorite story, though, is what I also consider the commune’s finest hour. During some of their barnstorming tours, the House of David would travel with a team from the old Negro leagues; usually the Kansas City Monarchs or the Homestead Grays.22 Needless to say, they did not advertise the fact in advance. When they arrived, they’d inform the hosts that they had to play a double-header- one against the Negro League team, and the headliner against the House of David. Southern towns often took the news poorly, and organizers sought an alternative. The standard cult response was to issue an ultimatum: either the Negro Leaguers played, or the House of David didn’t. Faced with a stadium full of paying customers, some of whom traveled all day to see the exhibition,23 there was only one choice.
Ostensibly, the House of David barnstormed to spread the word of King Benjamin and swell their ranks. They didn’t win many converts through baseball, but they did make a lot of money. By 1927, Purnell’s personal worth was estimated at twelve million dollars.24 The team eventually began to pay professionals to play on the traveling teams. The hired hands wore fake beards and crisscrossed the country with the HOD during the off-season. Grover Cleveland, a hall-of-fame pitcher who signed up in 1931, said, “if you want to see the world, join the navy. If you want to see America, join the House of David.”
The purity of the team began to diminish as the depression wore on. The cult itself, like all cults, came to disappointment. After dodging morality charges for a decade, King Benjamin was finally put on trial in 1927. It emerged that he and Mary had originally come to Benton Harbor because they’d been chased out of their previous Ohio lodgings; it seems Purnell’s daughter died, and he refused to bury her, claiming she would have been immortal if she was free of sin. Worse, despite the House of David’s policy of celibacy, the court found that Purnell had used his regal status in Benton Harbor for “gross immoralities, committed upon the women and girls of the colony, induced by him through his position as spiritual leader and usually upon the representations that sexual intercourse with him was a religious rite.”
King Benjamin was disgraced, and exiled from the commune. His lawyers appealed the conviction, but back then Fitzgerald’s famous quote was still true- there were no second acts in American lives. Eleven days after the verdict, Purnell died of tuberculosis and diabetes, proving at last that he was not the seventh heavenly messenger from above.
The House of David underwent a schism, and Mary Purnell formed the ‘City of David.’ The population of both groups began to age and diminish. When I spoke with Siriano, the curator, he told me that the HOD now has only three living members.25 The City of David is down to one. Lloyd Dalager, an ex-catcher, is the last surviving member of the baseball team. His health is failing, but four years ago, on his ninety-second birthday, he threw out the first pitch at Wrigley Field. It was the final act in the House of David’s storied baseball history.
The legacy of that dying commune will be affecting to some, and irrelevant to others. The distinction can be difficult to explain. At the risk of sounding sentimental, I tend to picture history as a river that is constantly breaking new ground. Its bygone twists and turns assume patterns that appear predictable in hindsight, but are actually as close to random as anything can be. We aren’t privy to its motivations, and we certainly can’t predict how it will bend in the future. It’s subject to the whims of human character- nothing could be less stable. All we know for sure is that its flow has touched and encompassed us along the way. Because of that, we’re connected by time to what came before.
Within that river, there are currents that contain personal meaning. Many of America’s significant streams happened to flow through the House of David; this makes it a profound distillation of our experience, and an essential piece of our history. And the meandering current of baseball- that odd, redeeming game- has its murky origin in a time before the Civil War. In one romantic view, there’s not much difference between a bearded cultist playing under portable lights in a town called Independence, my stepfather hitting deep parabolas on a chalked cow pasture in the Adirondack mountains, and me, struck silent each spring by a luminous vision of green in the south Bronx.
1. The fifth, war, will be absent from this story until a brief mention at the very end. (up)
2. One of its essential components today, the curveball, was considered ‘dishonest’ and briefly outlawed in the 1870s. They had trouble enforcing this ban. (up)
3. Think of the absurdity of this concept in football, hockey, or, God forbid, basketball. (up)
4. To those who love a challenge: a speedy runner is on first base with less than two outs, and second and third are unoccupied. The batter, slow afoot, hits a pop fly to shortstop. Is the shortstop allowed to purposefully cradle the ball in his glove and let it fall to the ground, from there to get the force at second and eliminate the faster runner off the basepaths? Keep in mind that the infield fly rule is not in effect. If you had to look up the answer, QED… (up)
5. A seemingly simple task, using numbers for positions in small diamond grids, that can become endlessly complex with pitching changes and long innings. (up)
6. I idolized the high school athletes, and because it was impossible to get their attention in any positive way, my impish qualities took over- and not without retribution. Once, they stuffed me in a tall garbage can from which I couldn’t escape, and another time I was mummy-wrapped in athletic tape and left in the locker room for fifteen eternal minutes. (up)
7. A long, narrow, light wooden bat used to hit self-tossed balls for fielding practice. (up)
8. Because he’d never played basketball, his throwing motion resembled a basketball shot. His strength gave him enough power to make batting practice worthwhile, but I never tired of reminding him that he threw “like a girl.” (up)
9. A globetrotting friend recently told me that widespread pick-up games are still commonplace in at least one part of the world- Japan. (up)
10. “Baseball” (up)
11. I know, I couldn’t believe it either. (up)
12. My other favorite story involving sports and cults is the survival of Jim Jones’ sons. When federal forces closed in on the group in Guyana, and Jones made everyone drink the cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, three of his sons were gone with the People’s Temple basketball club, playing the Guyanese National Team. They refused an order to return to the compound, and thus were among the only survivors of almost one thousand cult members. Thirty years later, Jim Jones’ grandson plays for the University of San Diego. (up)
13. An invention that was sold to the Brunswick Corporation. One of the original HOD pinsetters is in the Bowling Hall of Fame. (up)
14. Comically, this is by far their most visible legacy. (up)
15. “Previously,” Siriano told me, “it had only been in a bottle.” (up)
16. ‘Barnstorm’ is one of the great words in the English language. It comes from the late 1800s, when traveling theater groups would tour from town to town in the old west, often performing in large barns. (up)
17. “One of the most unique and talented new semi-pro teams in America.” New York Times, 1919. (up)
18. In 1929, they won 110 of 165 games, most of them against semi-pro and pro clubs. (up)
19. Chris Siriano’s take is that many of the early commune members came north from Arkansas, some from the same athletic family (the Tallys), and it was more or less good luck that led them all to the same place. (up)
20. Previously, there had been many experiments, most of which were variations on the theme of lots and lots of torches. The lights, in this case, were portable, and constructed by the House of David. (up)
21. Tally was a phenomenal talent recruited by many professional teams. The media dubbed him “the bearded Babe Ruth.” (up)
22. The commune was known for its belief in equality. Women could vote from the very beginning, well in advance of the 19th amendment. This phenomenon is actually not uncommon in religious cults. It’s more important to recruit members than to enforce prejudices. Part of Jim Jones’ success came because he embraced an African-American population that felt marginalized in American society. (up)
23. Siriano told me that towns up to 50 miles away would be shut down the day the House of David came to town. (up)
24. Adjusted for inflation: 147 million. (up)
25. The commune’s numbers exceeded one thousand at its peak in the ‘30s. (up)