“Headed by the great Satchel Paige and an all-star cast of colored and white players of world fame, Kansas City Monarchs (colored) and House of David (white) baseball professionals will present Helena’s greatest baseball treat of the season when they clash at 6:15 this evening at the East Helena baseball park.”
That quote from the Helena (Mont.) Independent Record on June 28, 1939, reflects the excitement in towns like Helena when the Kansas City Monarchs and House of David baseball teams came to town. The Monarchs were a Negro League team that broke away and opted to travel around the country on their own. The House of David was a team composed primarily of members of the Benton Harbor, Mich., based religious cult. With major league baseball nowhere in sight the barnstorming baseballers were as good as it got for local baseball fans.
The Independent Record went on: “Fans are sure to see a great contest between two teams of big league caliber and one of the largest crowds of all time is expected for the game. Every fan in this part of the country will want to see the famous House of David trio, Tally, Tucker and Anderson, with their internationally famous ‘pepper ball game’ a delightful treat well worth the admission price alone.”
The Helena paper went on to preview some of the players who would be participating. From the House of David they included:
“Third base Andy Anderson. Twelve years with the team. Original long haired player and ‘pepper game’ artist. Can play any position on the team and is a reliable hitter and fielder.
“First base. John R. Tucker, manager. This is Tucker’s sixteenth season with this organization. He is noted for his antics around first base and is a member of the famous ‘pepper game’ trio.”
Apparently the game did not disappoint. The Monarchs won a high-scoring back and forth affair 12-6. And the House of David ‘pepper game’ didn’t disappoint either. The next day Independent Record effused: “The great ‘pepper ball game’ delighted the crowd in the seventh when Anderson, Tucker and Tally put on their brilliant show that has made them internationally famous. They were given a fine ovation from the audience.” Paige, who also had a stint hurling for the House of David, did not pitch this game but was held over to the next night when the Monarchs played a local team, thus assuring another big crowd.
A little more than a decade earlier, the House of David made headlines for another reason, one that has become an unfortunately familiar story involving cults. Several women came forward with charges of sexual abuse against the founder Benjamin Purnell. Some described a ritual in which Purnell paired up commune members and forced them to marry, but only after his “blood cleansing” ceremony that involved him sleeping with the prospective brides. This is going on in a commune where members are sworn to celibacy. Purnell also came under suspicion for financial irregularities after a series of investigative reports in the Detroit Free Press. A Michigan court ordered Purnell to leave the colony in 1927 and he died shortly thereafter.
Following Purnell’s death there was a leadership struggle between his wife Mary and Judge T.H. Dewhirst who had been the head of the commune’s board of directors. This eventually led to a split. In 1930, Mary left the commune, along with her followers, and created a separate organization, known as the City of David. The split affected the ballplayers as well with some staying with the original group while others left with Mary Purnell and formed a second House of David team. It was the group associated with City of David which barnstormed through Montana with the Kansas City Monarchs in 1939.
The original House of David team stopped travelling the country in the late 30’s. The City of David version played all the way until 1955. In the intervening years there were a number of other House of David teams touring the country, most being the product of promoters who took advantage of the fact there was no copyright on the name.
The House of David still exists and has a Web site. On that site they say “We remain among America’s oldest practicing Christian communities. Working closely with local artisans, craftsmen, and dozens of dedicated workers, we are restoring our most beautiful buildings to their former grandeur and preserving our heritage. As this work is still ongoing, we remain a private residential religious community, we are regretably not open to the public.” But lo and behold, they’ve got a Facebook page.
Part of that heritage is on the baseball diamond. As the cult team traveled from town to town, fans in cities across America, in Canada and in Mexico, flocked to see games that included white and black players and even a female player here and there. And they did so long before the integration of major league baseball.