In 1934 baseball was segregated. The major leagues were white. All white. Black players played in the Negro Leagues. No one was crossing that line. It was still 13 years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the major leagues.
But things were different in Denver at a tournament that has been called “The World Series of the West.” The annual Denver Post tournament invited white teams, They invited black teams. And in 1934 the tournament featured the rarest of all 1930’s American baseball squads, an integrated team.
There were two clear favorites at the start of the 1934 tournament. One was the Kansas City Monarchs, a former Negro League team that broke loose and traveled the country playing in mostly non-major league towns. The other was the House of David, the team of the Benton Harbor, Mich., religious cult.
Kansas City’s black newspaper, The Call, offered this preview of the tournament: “The Monarchs have given the white players some knowledge of the game which the white boys expect to use against the Kansas City team in the tournament. Nor are the white boys a bit prejudiced. They have sent east and Satchel Paige of the once famous Birmingham club but now of the Pittsburgh Crawfords of the Negro National League, will hurl for the House of David team.”
Paige was a legendary Negro League pitcher who started his career in 1924 and finally, at the age of 42, became a major league pitcher in 1948. The “Jesus boys,” as Paige called his House of David teammates, also brought in Paige’s catcher Cy Perkins.
In the tournament, the Monarchs breezed to a 12-1 opening game victory over the Greeley Advertisers. The House of David followed suit blitzing the Italian Bakery of Denver team 16-0. Paige made his debut in the tournament in the second game, beating the Eason Oilers 6-1. Two nights later, he was on the mound again, striking out 17 batters in a 4-0 shutout win over the Humble Oilers of Overton, Texas.
In their fourth game of the tournament the House of David came head-to-head with the Kansas City Monarchs. Paige took the mound for the third time in five days and recorded another victory, this one by a 2-1 score. A whopping crowd of more than 11,000 witnessed that one.
The same two teams met in the tournament championship. Paige was on the bench for this one. Some say the House of David manager was holding him back for a possible second game, if they had lost the first. Others suggest the real reason was that Paige was getting paid by the win and he could already lay claim to a significant portion of the House of David’s winnings. The House of David went on to win the championship by a 2-0 score in a game described by the Reno Gazette Journal as “fast and devoid of fielding miscues.” Paige was named the tournament’s outstanding pitcher. His prize: a coffee percolator.
The Benton Harbor, Mich., based cult first put a baseball team on the field in 1913. They initially played local competition. In 1915 they joined the Berrios County League and won it. A year later they expanded their schedule, playing in Indiana, Chicago and Wisconsin. By 1917 they were traveling the country. They bused from town to town sometimes playing as many as three games in a day. At their peak, in 1936, they traveled 35,000 miles and compiled a record of 144-46-5.
Baseball increased the visibility of the cult and led to the recruitment of new members. It also raised money for the commune. Most of the players were cult members. Chris Siriano, curator of the House of David Museum, claims “they were good players, but they couldn’t play in the majors because they wouldn’t shave or cut their hair.”
But they also brought in guest players, like Paige. In 1934 they signed Babe Didrikson, a winner of two gold medals in track and field in the 1932 Olympics and an accomplished basketball player. Didrikson was the most famous female athlete of the time. A year earlier the Davids had sent a 19-year-old woman pitcher, Jackie Mitchell, to the mound to face the St. Louis Cardinals. (see Pt. 1, St. Louis Cardinals vs. House of David.)
From 1931 to 1935 the House of David manager was Hall of Fame pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander. He occasionally took the mound for a relief stint with the cult team. He was easy enough to spot in the dugout; he was the one without the beard. There was even a point when Babe Ruth was considering signing with the House of David as his major league career was winding down. One suspects that one side or the other came to their senses and realized the no sex, no alcohol, cult lifestyle was not going to be a good fit for the Babe.
The cult team was one of the first to play night games on a regular basis, hauling their own flood lights across country with them. And they invented the game of pepper which was to become a widely used warm-up exercise for baseballers. As played by the House of David, “the pepper game” as they called it was a spectacle. Presented as some between-inning entertainment, the House of David players would throw the ball between their legs, over their shoulders and behind their back.
The Davids played local baseball clubs, semi-pro teams, the occasional major league team and teams from the Negro Leagues. In his book “J.L. Wilkinson and the Kansas City Monarchs,” author William A. Young notes, “Often the Monarchs and House of David team traveled together. The Monarchs toured an area, defeating local teams, followed by the House of David team, who bested the same clubs. Then the Monarchs and House of David staged ‘championship games’ in the same little towns, guaranteeing large crowds.”
The House of David players not only shared the diamond with black teams, they traveled, dined and lodged with them as well. And if some promoter objected to that arrangement, well he could just pass on the payday of the large crowd that a House of David game was certain to attract.
In next week’s post, I’ll catch up with the House of David barnstorming with the Monarchs through Montana.