“Let me write an article or I’ll kill your family.”
~Cal Van Buren
It’s widely believed that in order to become a writer for America Fun Fact of the Day, you must first survive the whiskey challenge (drink a bunch of whiskey), then the hot dog challenge (eat a bunch of hot dogs), then the murder someone without asking questions challenge (RIP Dan Bilzerian).
And that’s pretty much true. But our latest writer to pass that test is our newest editor, Cal Van Buren, who decided to tell you about the House of David. We’ll let Cal take it from here as he tells you about the crazy religious communes, baseball, and hair hair HAIR. Enjoy.
The House of David: The Religious Commune That Took Baseball By Storm
Benton Harbor’s Arts District, where you can see an art.
Benton Harbor, Michigan, isn’t known for much these days. It’s a town on the shoreline of Lake Michigan, about 60 miles south of the summer vacation homes of Holland. It’s the home of Whirlpool Corporation, who probably made your (landlord’s) dishwasher, and Joique Bell, who probably made your roster as an RB2 off the waiver wire. Benton Harbor’s seen better days — its poverty rate hovers between 40-50%, with an average household income under $20,000 per year. There isn’t much to say about this town. Not today.
But about 100 years ago? Well, Benton Harbor was the center of the goddamn baseball universe.
The House of David
The baseball history of Benton Harbor begins as all good stories do — with a crazy religious commune. In the late 1800’s, religious communes were all the rage. Benjamin and Mary Purnell ran across a group of preachers who were claiming that some guy was the Sixth Messenger. Ben and Mary decided to believe it for a little while, did some reading up on this whole messenger thing, and decided to tell everyone that actually the Seventh would be here soon. By the way, the Seventh one is the last one, Revelations says, so hold on to your tits because it’s about to get crazy.
“Okay good, because the Seventh Messenger is actually us,” they said, probably. “The spirit of Shiloh bonded with both of us which makes us the Seventh Messenger, so you should definitely listen to what we have to say.”
Wow, the very people who predicted the Seventh Messenger’s coming actually became the Seventh Messenger! Both of them! What are the odds, right? Champions of the long con, they waited seven years after joining up to make this announcement. These two knew how to take a crowd from a slow simmer to a boil, because hundreds of people did believe them and decided to follow them anywhere.
Ben and Mary decided to set up shop in Benton Harbor, Michigan. The setting was probably as good as any, and certainly better than their last town. They weren’t well liked in their hometown of Fostoria, Ohio, ever since their sixteen year old son died in a fireworks factory accident. Tale as old as time, really. But they didn’t exactly “have a funeral” or “give a shit that their son died” because they ain’t got no time to fuck with the dead. Their view was that dead bodies are useless, even if you birthed them, so why bother? Ohioans wouldn’t approve of this level of sociopath behavior until the arrival of Urban Meyer and once again in the 2016 election, so the Purnell’s took their still alive and useful child and set up the House of David, along with a few hundred other followers.
As far as communes go, the House of David was pretty sweet. At over 1000 acres, it was filled with apple orchards, gardens, a cannery, carpenters, tailors, a steam laundry, a zoological garden, and its own danged power plant. If I put all that in a brochure for a New Urbanist community outside Atlanta, Bloomberg and Southern Living would sing its praises and you’d already be picturing the private school your kids would attend, while wondering if you could get in for around $600k (You can!). For entertainment, the commune even had some brass bands playing live music for everyone. It really does sound like the most insufferable planned community, where kids today also named Tucker and Jeb will grow up and get a religious education.
Oh one more thing: in addition to the nice life, if you join up at the commune you’re going to get to Heaven and all that stuff. That just comes standard with any good religious commune membership.
So you want to move in right? Well in 1905, you didn’t need a mortgage. But you do have to relinquish your possessions to Ben Purnell. Also no sex, booze, tobacco, or meat. And no shaving your hair or beard. You might bend the other rules but not this one. The commune was the Portland of its day, where minimalism was in and everyone stayed away from vices, followed a vegan diet, had long hair and kept bushy beards. Time is a flat circle, y’all.
Benton Harbor’s Boys of Summer
People living in the House of David commune worked to sustain the community much like any other modern city. There were farmers and factory workers, teachers and tailors. The residents had time for labor and leisure. At one point, the commune built an amusement park which became one of the most visited tourist attractions in the Midwest. It was the shining star of a religious community with a few forward-thinking attitudes. Women were allowed to vote and hold office, which was unheard of in many other places in America at the time.
People working in the factories generally had a respectable amount free time, too. While Upton Sinclair had to write The Jungle to open the eyes of the American public to the backbreaking work and exploitative nature of urban factories (and give you some required reading for your high school English class), Ben Purnell was encouraging his workers to take up sports with their free time. Ben especially loved baseball.
In 1910, Purnell built a baseball field in the commune. Soon after, not only were people playing, but more people were coming out to watch. In fact, they came out in droves.
Benton Harbor’s Park, where you’ll never bitch about beer prices.
By 1915, the House of David’s baseball team was in a formal league. They won the county championship in 1916. Even the New York Times was raving about them. By the 1920’s, they’d be barnstorming the country on tour.
But how did they go from weekend warriors to touring stars so fast? Same way the Beatles got out of Liverpool: undeniable talent, and a sick flow of hair!
Instead of John, Paul, George, and Ringo — a whole mess of Mordecai’s
Unlike the 2004 Red Sox, crowds across America seemed to never grow tired of these long-haired ball players from a cultish religious town. You see, to play for the House of David, you had to pull a reverse Steinbrenner — if you wanna get paid, you can’t ever shave or cut your hair. Not a problem for those who abided by the religion’s rules, but the House of David also brought in a few ringers. The long hair and mysterious religious commune background made them a real curiosity. The shaggy-haired Boys of Benton Harbor drew crowds everywhere they went, playing semi-pro and amateur teams across Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and eventually across the United States. They played the best teams in the Negro Leagues when nobody else would. They’d play a double-header against a white team and a Negro League team, and make the white team eat dinner and stay at the hotel with everyone else. Promoters went with it, because if they didn’t, House of David would threaten to not play and thousands fans would riot. And in that time, making people love a baseball team more than they loved racism was quite a feat. The Cardinals still can’t pull it off.
They were innovators in other ways, too. The House of David Baseball Team claims to have played the first ever night game, and frequently brought portable lights wherever they toured. The baseball team could pack in crowds of 10,000 people at a given game, and the ability to play at night meant that double-headers were easy to arrange. The money went back to the commune, of course, but the team also served as ambassadors for the House of David. Out of those 10,000 people, maybe, just maybe, a few of them would think that giving up all of their belongings to move to Benton Harbor to achieve absolution and watch baseball was a worthwhile trade.
Now, this team wasn’t just a circus act. These guys could flat out ball. They were known for aggressive base-running, batting skill, and a real knack for flashing the leather in the field. Oh, but also they were a circus act. Ever the showmen, the House of David team could play the crowd like the Harlem Globetrotters of their day. In addition to the beards and flowing locks, they became known for their “pepper game,” wherein two players would use tricks and sleight of hand to obscure the ball (read: hide it in their owl’s-nest-like beards) and then toss it to their teammate, with increasing speed and even more impressive tricks as the game progressed. They brought out the silly gimmicks, too. Fielders would occasionally ride donkeys during an inning, and field fly balls while riding. Nothing was off limits. Well, except booze, sex, smokes, and meat. And cutting the hair. Don’t even dream of it.
The tours continued. The wins continued. The crowds ate it up. While on this incredible ride, the House of David team notched wins against the St. Louis Cardinals and the Philadelphia Athletics. They toured with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League. They once had a pitcher strike out The Babe himself, not while on a cigar and whiskey fueled bender, but while he was playing in a New York Yankees jersey. Actually, he probably still was on a cigar and whiskey fueled bender, but still impressive! The House of David even made a play to hire The Great Bambino for themselves and had the cash to do it. A contract was drawn up, but the commune figured his vices were somewhat at odds with the team’s culture, given that their “banned activities” list read like a calm Wednesday night for Babe Ruth.
The Fall Begins
Unfortunately, the ride wouldn’t last forever. Again proving that time is a flat circle, Ben Purnell got caught up in scandal involving embezzlement (ed. note: I don’t fully understand this, given that he straight up told you he’s taking everything you own for the commune). Far worse, he was also sexually assaulting young girls in the commune, which fortunately was viewed as fucked up in the 1920’s as it is now. Actually given that the fans viewed this as a problem bigger than sports puts the House of David on better footing than Baylor and Penn State.
Turns out, people generally don’t want to support a team when the profits go to an abuser (Baylor and Penn State excepted). The scandal divided the commune, causing splinter groups to form and separate from the original House of David. The chaos eventually led to the disbanding of the baseball team. Though the House of David played their last game in the 1950’s, their time as the toast of the baseball world was well and truly over by the 1930’s.
Further, the team never copyrighted their name, so anyone could set up a bullshit House of David-esque team for a one-off game and nobody could prove you wrong because the internet didn’t exist. These jamokes couldn’t play like the House of David players, and the fake games diluted the brand much worse than a million fake-ass Chinatown Louis Vuitton bags, because nobody knew they’d seen a fake.
Also, come to think of it, the Great Depression probably didn’t help either.
So to recap: a child rapist owner, terrible copycat teams, and the Great Depression created a shitstorm of events that took down America’s then-greatest show on the diamond.
Though the sordid history of the religious commune behind the team ultimately led to their undoing, the contributions of the House of David team are worthy of remembering. They brought excitement to a growing sport. Though they never had a person of color on their official teams, their willingness to play games against the Negro League in the time of segregation was groundbreaking. You won’t find their players in Cooperstown, but their part in the weird and wacky history of early 1900’s baseball is undeniable.
Spring is upon us, and the warm climates of Arizona and Florida will give rise to another MLB season. The biggest teams in the biggest cities will pack tens of thousands of fans into stadiums, night after night. Millions more will watch these games live on TV or the internet. Gazing upon the Chicago skyline from the bleachers at Wrigley, or the 55,000 fans in Yankee Stadium, it may be hard to believe this — but humble Benton Harbor, Michigan was once the epicenter of the baseball universe. The big, hairy, crazy center.