October 30, 2013


How an apocalyptic cult invented baseball beard power : A century before the 2013 Red Sox, the House of David captivated the nation with the shaggiest team of all time. (Christopher Klein,   OCTOBER 27, 2013, Boston Globe)

WHEN IT WAS founded in 1903, the House of David wouldn't have struck anyone as a future sports powerhouse. It was more of a minor apocalyptic cult.

A Christian commune founded in Michigan by Benjamin Franklin Purnell, a self-proclaimed messenger of God, the sect sought to reunite the 12 tribes of Israel in preparation for the return of Jesus Christ at the onset of the new millennium. Members gave all their worldly possessions to the commune and were required to refrain from sex, alcohol, tobacco, and meat.

With nearly a century left before the second coming, members were left with plenty of time to kill. By 1914, Purnell began to field a baseball team as a recreational outlet for his members--and, as a growth-minded religious leader, he realized that the team could be an effective vehicle for spreading the word to new recruits.

The House of David team found early success against local ball clubs, and by 1917 it began to barnstorm around the Midwest. It quickly became a sensation. This was in part due to the players' flashy fielding, hitting prowess, and speed on the base paths, but even more for their distinctive look. Like the other men in Purnell's sect, the House of David ballplayers sported extra long beards and hair that flowed down to the belts on their heavy woolen uniforms. Their personal grooming fulfilled a divine edict in Leviticus 19:27: "You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard." They also saw facial hair as a way to live in the likeness of Jesus and his apostles.

The House of David team was a strange sight, especially in a clean-cut era. Handlebar moustaches had become relics of 19th-century tobacco cards; ballplayers of the time were all freshly shaven. Billboards on Fenway Park's famous left-field wall hawked Gem Safety Razors as a way to "avoid 5 o'clock shadow."

Their beards and long locks separated the House of David from the competition. By the 1920s, posters advertising appearances by the bearded troupe shouted, "Whiskers! Whiskers!" Playbills touted them as the "most unique attraction in baseball."

Millions of fans filled sold-out ballparks to watch them play. They were dazzled by the House of David's invented game of "pepper"--a baseball version of the Harlem Globetrotters famed basketball weave--in which the players with lightning speed tossed the baseball from behind their backs and between their legs and used sleight-of-hand tricks that included concealing the ball inside their bushy beards. The team began to take on all comers, including exhibitions against major league and even Negro League squads at a time when the rest of the sport was rigidly segregated.

In 1927, however, the sect was rocked by a public scandal: Purnell stood trial for sexual assault against young girls in the commune, and for embezzlement. Five weeks after being convicted of fraud, the charismatic preacher died. The religious colony fell into receivership. It would never recover, splintering into factions and eventually ending recruitment of new members in 1947.

Remarkably, despite the negative publicity, the House of David continued to thrive as a baseball enterprise. Numerous factions inside the sect fielded teams using the now-famous brand name, and generic knockoffs of the cult's teams even began to appear.

By the 1930s, House of David teams began to hire professional players, including future Hall of Famers Grover Cleveland Alexander and Satchel Paige, the Negro League star who wouldn't be allowed in the major leagues for another 15 years. These ringers were not required to be converts. But, except for the stubborn superstar Alexander, there was one requirement: an immense beard, real or fake. With facial hair marking their celebrity, they traveled the country, carting their own portable lighting system to stage night games, which were a novelty at the time.

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Posted by at October 30, 2013 12:43 PM

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