By Robert Havey
A professional game was special itself in the early 1900s, but a visiting team comprising men from a mysterious Michigan religious colony? That was a must-see event. Besides their trademark hair and beards, the team was known for its warm-up game called “Pepper,” which involved fancy fielding tricks and routines. They were the Harlem Globetrotters of semi-pro baseball.
Benjamin Purnell founded the Israelite House of David in Benton Harbor, Michigan, in 1903. His stated mission was to unite the lost tribes of Israel to prepare for the coming apocalypse, but on the way he created on of the most popular and unusual attractions in the Midwest. Purnell turned the acres of colony property into a multi-million-dollar industry featuring an amusement park, an ice cream stand, a mini railway and even a vegetarian restaurant. The colony sold lumber, grain, fruits, and vegetables, but its most famous export was their baseball team.
The team played all over the country, from their first game in 1910 until their last in 1955. In the 42 years they were active, they played against and with some of the most famous names in baseball. Satchel Page made frequent appearances in their games. World Series champion Grover Cleveland Alexander pitched for the team during the twilight of his career. Even Babe Ruth was offered a contract (it led to a photo of Ruth wearing a fake House-of-David-style beard). Ruth never did play for the team, possibly because his drinking may have clashed with the team’s upstanding image.
The House of David baseball team remained popular, even as their colony faded. Purnell died in 1930, and his empire collapsed after years of infighting. The rise and fall of the colony is documented in the D.C. Allen House of David collection at the Bentley. Allen was a Three Oaks, Michigan, book dealer and an avid collector of House of David ephemera. The collection includes photographs, colony publications, scrapbooks, recordings of sermons, and—yes—more photos of the uncanny baseball team.