Manila resident's brother living out dream in Florida

Wednesday, June 26, 2002

MANILA "All he ever wanted to do was to play ball now, he's living his dream."

Those were the words spoken by Cliff Birklund of Manila as he commented on his older brother, Roy, who is currently living out his dream playing softball in Florida.

Although Roy now has much less hair on his face and head, there was a time in his life when he was paid to play with whiskers and a full head of hair.

In 1949, Birklund was a member of the House of David traveling baseball team of Benton Harbor, Mich.

The House of David team was not just another sandlot group of players looking for a game, but a very unique-looking group of athletes that barnstormed across the country earning money for their cause.

Their cause their own Israelite religious community founded in 1903. Benjamin Purnell, one of the founders of the House of David colony, was a sports enthusiast and encouraged the playing of sports. Since the community was completely self-sufficient, Purnell arranged for the House of David to begin barnstorming across the country, playing games against local teams and semi-pro squads. The House of David team always drew a large crowd due to their unusual appearance. As part of their religious doctrine, members of the House of David were not allowed to cut their hair or beards.

By the early 1920's, lack of colony member participation, in addition to needing better-abled players, the House of David began recruiting "players-for-hire." These players-for-hire were required to grow a beard and let their hair grow out. They were hired for their playing ability, not for belonging to the faith.

Enter Roy Birklund.

Birklund joined the House of David team as a player-for-hire for the 1949 season.

One of the first things he was told was, "If you shave once, we'll fine you $50, if you shave twice, you're out of here."

So, Birklund grew a beard a barnstormed that season for $275 per month.

Birklund said, "That season, (he played from early-June through mid-September) there were only two days we didn't play a game. It was play, hop on the bus and drive all night and day and play again."

Birklund, who was never a member of the House of David commune himself, was asked to join the team because his and Cliff's father, Elijah "Pack" Birklund played on the 1918-1920 House of David teams.

Roy and Cliff were both playing semi-pro ball at the time. Roy was a second baseman and Cliff was a back-up catcher.

"I was never as good as Roy was," Cliff said recently during an interview at his home in Manila. "He could hit the curve balls, that's something I couldn't do. Roy also taught himself how to switch hit. That's something I couldn't even dream about doing."

In addition to playing on the House of David team, the elder Birklund, Elijah, was also one of a handful of men to play on the House of David girls team, who, not surprisingly, never lost a game.

Roy said the quality of teams the House of David faced was top-notch. According to Birklund, teams were of Class AA ability. In addition to teams like the Kansas City Monarchs, New Orleans Creoles, Muskogee Cardinals and Louisiana Travellers, the team also played against the Harlem Globetrotters. It is estimated that the House of David Jesus Boys won 75 percent of their games.

Prior to the 1950 season, Cliff, himself, was preparing to try out for the House of David team, but before tryouts were to begin, long-time House of David player and manager Jesse Lee "Doc" Talley passed away and an era of House of David baseball was over.

At that time, the Korean War was going on, and to keep from being drafted, Roy and Cliff both enlisted in the Air Force.

"We had always been so close, Roy and I, so we enlisted together. But, wouldn't you know it, for the next four years we were completely sent in different ways. We did meet up for a while in Norwich, England for a brief visit though," said Cliff.

Prior to joining the House of David team, Roy had a brief shot at a possible Big-League contract. Roy attended a week-long tryout with the St. Louis Browns.

"Over 300 people were trying out," Roy said. "One day they called me into the office and I was told, You better quit playing baseball and find yourself a job. You're not good enough.'"

He then went and played in the Michigan-Indiana league before hooking up with the House of David.

After getting out of the Air Force, Roy went to work as a banker in Chicago before retiring in Florida with his wife, Laura.

Today, Birklund, 73, spends his time not behind a bankers desk, but on the field that he loves, the softball diamond playing almost daily in the Neighborhood Softball League in Florida.

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