On the night of Sept. 12, 1933, the St. Louis Cardinals took the field for only second night game in the history of Sportsman’s Park. This Cardinals team included eight players who would ultimately be elected into baseball’s Hall of Fame. They included Leo Durocher, Frankie Frisch, Rogers Hornsby and Dizzy Dean. In the visitors’ dugout was a squad of celibate, vegetarian guys with long beards and even longer hair. Except for the starting pitcher that is. On that night the House of David team sent to the mound a 19-year-old Chattanooga woman, Jackie Mitchell.
Here’s how the St. Louis Star and Times of Sept. 13 described Mitchell’s appearance: “The 19-year old blond southpaw went through her ‘act’ in grand fashion. She wore a white uniform while her mates were clad in traveling grays and her first move upon reaching the mound was to bring out her mirror, rouge stick and powder puff and delay the game for a brief period while she applied the cosmetics.”
But “the feminine star encountered no difficulty in disposing of the big leaguers.” Star reporter Ray J. Gillespie added: “The 19-year old miss…didn’t have enough speed to break a pane of glass, but she cut loose with a dandy ‘hook’ and a fine cross-fire delivery.”
MItchell left after one inning. The score for that inning: House of David 4, Cardinals 0.
Jackie Mitchell first achieved notoriety as a 17-year-old who signed for her hometown Chattanooga Lookouts, a double-A affiliate of the New York Yankees. In a 1931 exhibition game against the Yankees, Mitchell struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in consecutive at bats. While some commentators have questioned the efficacy of those at bats, there is video evidence that they did in fact happen. Shortly after that, Mitchell’s contract was voided by Commissioner of Baseball Kenesaw Mountain Landis who apparently opined that women weren’t tough enough to play baseball.
In an interview in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the day after the game, Mitchell said: “I believe I could qualify and might be signed by a major league team and might someday get to play in a World Series if Judge Landis hadn’t ruled against my playing in major league ball. He doesn’t give any reason for his ruling either.”
Following the loss of her contract Mitchell signed with the House of David touring team. In that interview she commented on her teammates. “Look at their record: won 17 and lost four since I have been with them. They are all fine, clean living athletes and so nice to me. I never really have heard what you might call a cuss word from one of the them, and when an opposing player forgets himself they are quick to remind him that there is a lady present.”
The Post-Dispatch reporter added: “Jackie is decidedly feminine in appearance and weighs 132 pounds. She wears her cap at a jaunty angle and is meticulous about her uniform. Some of the male members of the House of David team chide her about stopping ball games to powder her nose. Miss Mitchell is accompanied on all of the House of David trips by her parents, Dr. and Mrs. Mitchell of Chattanooga.”
Why would the major league team interrupt their National League season to play an exhibition game against these barnstormers? Some 10,000 people turned out for the Cardinals game against the House of David. During the 1933 season the Cardinals averaged just over 3,000 a game for their major league schedule. The final score of the game: House of David 8, St. Louis Cardinals 6.
The House of David was a religious cult based in Benton Harbor, Mich. It was founded by Benjamin and Mary Purnell in 1903. Benjamin hyped himself as the “seventh messenger of God.” They believed that Jesus was coming back and he would restore the Garden of Eden. By the end of the decade they had attracted several hundred followers and controlled 1,000 acres. Followers of the House of David turned over all their possessions to the cult and lived in the commune in Benton Harbor. They swore off sex, alcohol, meat, haircuts and shaves.
They built out the commune with its own electric plant, cannery, bakery and carpentry shop. They sponsored an orchestra and a jazz band and erected an amphitheater for them to perform.
Among the innovations that the House of David has been credited with are veggie burgers, sugar cones and bottled spring water. They operated a zoo and amusement park called Eden Springs that was a major tourist attraction by the 1930’s. To support the tourist business they opened a hotel, a motor lodge and some cabins. But what this bearded cult is most known for is its baseball team.
In next week’s post I’ll tell the story of how the House of David added a legendary Negro League pitcher to its roster to compete in a rare baseball event for 1930’s America: an integrated tournament.