An excerpt from Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball (Oxford University Press, 2011) by Rebecca Alpert, from Chapter Four, The Conflict over Baseball Comedy.
A few independent white baseball teams also clowned and relied on novelty to gain bookings. The best known of these teams was the House of David. The team originated in 1916 within the Israelite House of David messianic Christian group based in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Like the only black Jewish team, the Belleville Grays, the House of David team began as a recreational activity for the community. They played well, and began to send out a touring team in 1919. The colony split in the 1930s, and both groups continued to promote traveling baseball teams, one of which continued through the 1950s. Many members of the community played, but they also welcomed outsiders, including major league baseball stars like Grover Cleveland Alexander and the female star Babe Didrikson, who was a well-known athlete in golf, basketball, and track and field. There were also many imitation House of David teams, including the Havana Cuban House of David organized by Jewish entrepreneur Syd Pollock. The original House of David once tried to take the imposters to court to protect their name, but there were simply too many imitators.
The House of David was a novelty team because the community’s religious practice of wearing extremely long beards made their appearance exotic. All the players were required to grow beards, even those outsiders who played as “ringers” and were not members of the colony (although sometimes the beards were fakes). The House of David also entertained, and the team is credited with inventing pepper ball, a game that became a staple of comedy baseball. Doc Talley of the Benton Harbor community claimed that they developed the game in 1923. In pepper ball, players throw or bat the ball back and forth to one another at close range and great speed. While this activity was also used as a standard warm-up drill by many teams, the House of David teams perfected it to entertain the fans and show off their skill and agility. Although they are not frequently associated with other types of clowning, they did occasionally dress the first baseman, Kenny, in a clown’s outfit and have him perform a juggling act.[i]
The beards and the name Israelite House of David led many people to assume it was a Jewish group. Although they were not Jewish, they were vegetarians, so the colony’s guest house provided an option for religious Jews who observed the dietary laws. For that reason many Jews from Detroit and Chicago vacationed at the Benton Harbor headquarters on Lake Michigan. In the 1930s, functioning as a Jewish resort was one of the main ways the House of David sustained itself. They even built a synagogue on the grounds for a group of Rumanian Jews from Chicago who became regular customers.[ii]
In the film, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings, (1976)[iii] the assumption that the House of David was a Jewish team led to a farcical conclusion. In one scene, Bingo Long’s barnstorming black comedy team played against the House of David, as if a team of Hasidic Jews were playing against African Americans. Instead of the long beards and old-style uniforms that the House of David was known for, the team sported six-pointed Jewish stars on their uniforms and wore traditional Hasidic garb–long black coats, hats (streimels), side curls (payis), and the familiar long beards. The vendors in the stands for that game sold food in containers marked “going out of business” and making reference to shoddy Jewish business practices. Producer Rob Cohen was responsible for the Jewish touch. He also took a cameo role as the second baseman on the House of David team. Jewish comedic actor David Warfield actually clowned at baseball games by dressing up as a Hebrew peddler in “scraggly beard, baggy pants, and hat pulled down tightly over his ears…who wandered through the crowd clowning and selling souvenirs” in the early twentieth century. Both routines fall into the category of self-deprecating Jewish humor that plays on the stereotypes about Jewish business practices.[iv]
The imagined connection between Jews and the House of David was also referenced in the 2001 graphic novel, The Golem’s Mighty Swing. Author James Sturm imagined a Jewish baseball team barnstorming in the late 1920s. Sturm called the team the “Stars of David” and described them as the “bearded wandering wonders.” Sturm drew them with Jewish stars on their uniforms and long beards. Although Sturm borrowed the idea from the Israelite House of David, he knew that the original team wasn’t Jewish. But he drew the parallel intentionally to introduce the struggles of immigrant Jews–and how they connect to the racism experienced by blacks–in the world of independent touring baseball.[v]
In The Golem’s Mighty Swing, the team captain, Noah Straus, preferred traveling on the road to working in sweatshops like his father. The star of the team, along with Straus and his brother, is Hershl Bloom, a powerful African American hitter, described as a “member of the lost tribe,” an allusion to the possible ancient connection between Hershl and his teammates. He is not, however, a black Jew. His true identity as Henry Bell, who played in the Negro Leagues for over twenty years before joining the Stars of David, is eventually revealed. A promoter (interestingly not drawn with any Jewish characteristics) comes up with the suggestion that Hershl dress up in costume as “The Golem.” Noah doesn’t want to add comedy to baseball, but Henry says he got used to it, playing pepper, pitching two balls to two batters…. “Against the Top Hats I hit one that knocked the hats off three of them.” [vi]
But in contrast to the major leagues, Jews in black baseball were the promoters, not the comedians. Jewish entrepreneurs Syd Pollock and Abe Saperstein saw baseball comedy teams in the context of the entertainment business. They built comedy teams in the world of black sport beginning in the late 1920s as vaudeville was dying. They never questioned the minstrel origins of the comedy they produced, and never responded to the controversy that it created in the black world. To them, including comedy was simply a smart business decision because it attracted crowds and paid the bills.
[i] R. J. Taylor, House of David Trustee, telephone conversation with author, May 21, 2009; Barthel, Peerless, 96. Pepper games were banned from some parks as it was considered dangerous.
[ii] Chadwick, When the Game,113. Mark Ribowsky, Complete History, called them “the traveling salesmen of faith” who used baseball for missionary purposes, noting that they wore the Jewish side curls known as “pais” 64. John Klima refers to them as the “famous Jewish team” as late as 2009 in Willie’s Boys, 18. Taylor, telephone conversation. See also “House of David Echoes Base Ball Club” online.
[iii] I discuss the film at length below.
[iv] Badham “Director’s commentary” According to Badham, Cohen orchestrated this scene predicated on the idea that the House of David was “totally Jewish baseball players.” Erdman, Staging the Jew, 107.
[v] James Sturm, telephone conversation with the author, September 14, 2009.
[vi] Sturm, Golem, 13, 32.