House of David teams played significant historical role

Wednesday, July 3, 2002

Editor's Note: The following is the second of a two-part series on Roy Birklund and the House of David barnstorming baseball teams.

MANILA -- In the early 1900's, "barnstorming" baseball teams traveled across the country on a virtual non-stop pace, playing games on an almost daily basis. Teams like the Army, Navy and Air Force Vets, Brooklyn Cuban Giants, Harlem Globetrotters and San Francisco Sea Lions traversed the country playing games against semi-pro, minor league, local and pick-up teams. Many teams had unique characteristics that set them apart from other teams of the era. Out of the many barnstorming teams of the time, no group of players may have been more unique than the House of David "Jesus Boys."

The team was originally comprised of players that belonged to the House of David commune -- an Israelite religious community located in Benton Harbor, Mich. By the early 20's, the team began recruiting "players for hire" as their popularity grew. Their growing popularity was due to their very unique look. Members of the House of David teams were forbidden to cut their hair or beards due to their religious beliefs. The players for hire, although not all members of the commune, were also instructed to grow their beards and hair.

Roy Birklund, brother of Cliff Birklund of Manila, was a hired member of the 1949 House of David traveling team. Today, Birklund is a retired banker playing softball in Florida.

Many myths and legends about the House of David team abound in baseball history circles. One of the most enduring antics of the House of David team was the creation of the now famous "peppergame" exhibition that manager Jesse Lee "Doc" Tally initiated. The club played this exhibition prior to the fifth innings of their games, much to the delight of spectators. The team was also the pioneers of night games, being one of the first baseball teams to play games under the lights. On April 17, 1930, the House of David team played in the first night baseball game at Independence, Kans. The team was also instrumental in what would later become baseball integration by regularly playing against Satchel Paige and his all-black team, the Kansas City Monarchs in 1936. The team continued to schedule contests with many black league teams in the years to come. It would be 11 more years before Major League Baseball allowed Jackie Robinson to enter the league.

In 1933, the House of David traveling team traveled to Sportsman's Park in St. Louis to take on the National League Champion St. Louis Cardinals. With their long hair and beards, and sporting a 19-year old female pitcher by the name of Jackie Mitchell, the Jesus Boys (as dubbed by Paige himself) built up an early 4-0 lead at the end of the first inning and held on to defeat Leo Durocher and the NL champs, 8-6. The St. Louis newspaper's headline the next morning read, "Benton Harbor's nomadic House of David ball team, beards, girl pitcher and all, came, saw and conquered the Cardinals, 8-6, last night at Sportsman's Park."

It is believed that Mitchell was the first female athlete to sign a professional contract.

Other interesting facts surrounding the House of David include:

-- inventing the automatic pin-set for bowling in 1909

having John Philip Sousa lead the House of David band on their tour of the west coast in 1921

traveling with the Harlem Globetrotter basketball team for a 1954 tour of Europe

inventing the sugar waffle-cone for ice cream

Today, the House of David baseball team is still active, playing a full schedule (complete with 1858 baseball rules) throughout the summer and early fall months as the House of David Echoes. The team plays their games in Benton Harbor at the historic Colonel Harry and Elizabeth Eastman Field in addition to playing road games in Michigan, Illinois and Indiana.

While American baseball history generally is centered around such well-known names as Ruth, Gehrig, Cobb, Mays, Clemente, Aaron, Feller and Koufax -- and more recent greats like McGwire, Sosa and Bonds, the House of David teams of the early decades of the 1900's hold for themselves a significant chunk of history of our national pastime.

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