I hope you spend a few minutes reading my new feature
for The Classical
on the House of David and its famous barnstorming baseball team of the 1920s and 1930s. The piece was a ton of fun to report and I’m thrilled my friendly editor
decided to publish it relatively early in his site’s run, which has gotten off to a great start already. Y’all should definitely reward the crew over there with pageviews and follows
While digging into the history of the program, it was striking to see how often members of this tiny Michigan commune played with or against genuine baseball legends. One HoD ringer whose name did not make it into the piece was pioneering female pitcher Jackie Mitchell
, and I thought I’d use the space here to flesh out her fascinating biography. Let’s call it the HoD director’s cut.
Mitchell was not the first professional female player, a designation that belongs to Lizzie Arlington
, but she’s certainly one of the most decorated. Born sometime between 1912 and 1914 in Massachusetts, Mitchell was raised by a supportive and athletically-minded father, an optician who encouraged her to swim and play sports at an early age. She also had the good fortune of living next door to Dazzy Vance
, a Dodgers great who won the NL MVP award in 1924 and struck out over 2,000 hitters in his 16-year career
. During the 12 months they shared adjoining apartments, Vance took a liking to his little neighbor and taught her how to throw a drop ball, otherwise known as a sinker, among many other tricks. Jackie absorbed it all. By 1930, she had earned a spot on a womens team in Chattanooga run by the chief scout of the Washington Senators, Joe Engel. According to her father’s own scouting report
at the time, Mitchell “has one of the most deceptive pitching deliveries, hits fair, and fields way above the average that a boy of her age can field.” The local Middletown Times Herald
added these relevant details: “Interviews have found her distinctly feminine – she cooks and plays a piano.”
On top of running the Engelettes, Engel
oversaw baseball operations for the Chattanooga Lookouts, one of the Senators’ farm clubs. During the Depression, the "Barnum of Baseball” tried just about every promotion
he could dream up to attract fans, from raffling off a house to staging a (papier-mâché) elephant hunt on the field. And in the spring of 1931, he got the bright idea to call up Mitchell for an exhibition game against the mighty New York Yankees, who were traveling through Tennessee en route to the Big Apple following spring training.
The novelty of watching a small teenage woman with an odd sidearm delivery toe the rubber against the greatest hitters in the world drew 4,000 fans to the ballpark. Mitchell did not disappoint. After Chattanooga’s starter gave up two hits to kick off the contest, the manager immediately brought in Mitchell to face the meat of the Yankees' order: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Tony Lazzari. Ruth took two huge cuts on the first two deliveries, whiffing on both. Frustrated, the Sultan of Swat asked the ump to check the ball. It turned up clean. After a pitch outside, Mitchell painted the corner with another sinker, catching Ruth off balance for the third strike. Disgusted, the slugger “flung his bat away in high disdain and trudged to the bench” (New York Times
, April 3, 1931). Gehrig fared no better, swinging through the first three pitches he saw for the second out of the inning. Lazzari earned a four-pitch walk before the skipper turned back to the bullpen, ending Mitchell’s day. The Yankees went on to win 14-4, but it was Jackie’s incredible inning that dominated headlines the next morning (and for weeks after). The New York Daily News’
characterization was typical: “A swell change of pace and swings a mean lipstick.”**
If you think the story sounds a bit fishy, you’re not the only one. To this day, nobody has been able to determine conclusively whether or not the Bambino and the Buster -- unbeknown to Mitchell -- took a dive in exchange for an under-the-table settlement. If I had to wager, I’d say the evidence points toward some type of deal. The previous season, Ruth and Gehrig posted OPS’ of 1.225
respectively, both of which still rank among the top 25 single-season offensive performances in Major League Baseball history. Combined, they only struck out in 9 percent of their at-bats, and those came against top-tier pitchers, not 130-pound amateurs who, as the Washington Post
reported at the time,
had “been laid up with a sore arm.” Not to mention the contest was originally scheduled
for April Fool’s Day, but had to be pushed back 24 hours because of rain.
On the other hand, Lazzari claims he went to the plate looking to hack. And MLB commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis sure didn’t think Mitchell’s performance was a hoax; embarrassed by the spectacle of a lady taking down his superstars, he voided her contract
with Chattanooga within days, calling baseball “too strenuous for women.”*** Maybe her stuff on that April afternoon was just that damn good?
Once booted from the Scenic City, Mitchell played briefly in the Piedmont League and toured with Babe Didrikson before signing a contract with the House of David in 1933. Here she is, in the left corner, courtesy of the HoD museum in Addison, Michigan:
The commune paid the “typically boyish” hurler $1,000 per month (NYT
, July 15, 1933) and allowed her parents to travel with the team. (Not that there was much in the way of carousing on road trips with Christian Millennialists.) She laced up her spikes for the Jesus Boys until 1937, when she quit baseball and took an office job with her father's company. Officials from the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which debuted in 1943, couldn’t even pull Mitchell out of retirement. I guess when you’ve struck out Babe Ruth and played several seasons with the most popular barnstormers in the sport's history, pitching for the Fort Wayne Daisies or Muskegon Lassies doesn’t sound all that appealing.
There are some neat photos of Mitchell here
, including one in which Dazzy Vance’s protege is introduced to Ruth and Gehrig. And if you still haven’t read my House of David piece, you can find it here
. I hope you like it.
*It was also hilarious to look at hairy photos.
**The Atlanta Constitution
added another dollop of sexism in its coverage of Mitchell on June 27, 1931: “If you’ve never seen her pitch, you probably think of her as one of these stuck-up, temperamental woman athletes possessed with a sense of her own importance and hard to get along with, don’t you? You should change your mind. Jackie Mitchell … is a shy little girl, who blushed under her sunburned face when asked her full name.”
***The MLB formally banned the signing of women to contracts on June 21, 1952.
Though the sample size is small, it’s safe to say most temple and church basements I’ve visited over the years lack grandeur. For every gleaming piece of religious iconography, there’s a ceiling covered in peeling tiles, a stack of frayed hymnals, and a curtainless stage that’s sat unused for decades. Need rickety folding chairs? Churches across America have you covered.
The underbelly of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Hindu Temple, in the southern Indian state of Kerala, looks much different than the holy basements to which I’m accustomed. Last week, temple officials announced
that a seven-member excavation team, dispatched by the Indian Supreme Court, found centuries-old vaults filled with gold coins, sacks of diamonds, and solid-gold idols hidden below the temple’s main floor. The trove, originally stowed away by the royal family of Travancore
(which still runs the temple) and valued at an astonishing $22 billion, is believed
to be the richest ever discovered on the sub-continent. The Indian Times calls it
the “mother of all treasure hunts.”
Temples in this part of the world often benefited
from the largess of pious businessmen and the former royals they enriched. According to the director of the Kerala Council for Historic Research, “traders, who used to come from other parts of the country and abroad for buying spices and other commodities, used to make handsome offerings
to the deity for not only his blessings but also to please the then rulers.” Temple building is a habit wealthy Indians have never really broken, either. To the consternation
of hyper-rich American philanthropists like Bill Gates, new billionaires in South Asia are still more likely to donate their disposable income to religious institutions than evidenced-based aid programs, if they give to charity at all
Because the sum of the Kerala treasure is so large, editorial boards have started asking
whether or not the money could be put to public use. Kerala itself scores well on human development indices like life expectancy and literacy, but one-quarter
of all Indians still live on less than $1.25 per day. The Supreme Court will make the final determination, and Kerala’s Chief Minister is convinced that the goodies will remain in the temple’s control. If they do, the Travancore clan better put the windfall to good use. A Bollywood production on the temple’s now-empty basement stage, perhaps? Just an idea ...
Religious Amsterdammers with a taste for flesh might want to stockpile some steaks and encased meats from their favorite butcher shops.
Earlier today, the Dutch House of Representatives passed
a bill that would force all meat vendors to stun animals before they are slaughtered, removing from the law an exemption for Jewish and Muslim butchers who kill their livestock by lacerating the throat, in line with halal
and kosher guidelines. The legislation, which still needs to pass the Senate, was championed by the Party for the Animals
, a tiny single-issue political party lead by the charismatic MP Marianne Thieme
. The 39-year-old lawyer claims there is “worldwide consensus among scientists that animals suffer terribly if they are not first stunned before slaughter,” a position backed up by Farm Animal Welfare Council, a British advisory panel that urged
its government to outlaw the practice in 2003.
Merits of ritual slaughter aside, it’s tough to blame the 1.2 million Dutch Muslims for feeling
like they are being unfairly targeted by small-minded politicians. Just this week, several Dutch ministers announced plans
to cut funding for programs designed to help immigrants. The government, according to Home Affairs Minister Piet Hein Donner, “will distance itself from the relativism contained in the model of a multicultural society,” which is a polite way of saying that Dutch conservatives find foreign stuff scary. Geert Wilders, the xenophobic leader of the Freedom Party, was also acquitted
this week of inciting hatred against Muslims, a decision that some fear
will only heighten anti-immigrant sentiment. And Wilders’ colleagues in government continue to shift the balance of power
to the right on issues like burqa bans and language requirements, mirroring the machinations
of cultural nationalists across northern Europe.
The Dutch national teams of the 1970s famously popularized the style of play known as “total football
,” in which any player can take on the role of any other teammate on the pitch. It’d be swell if Dutch natives carried that democratic impulse into the political realm, too.
With NBA draft night upon us, and this year’s crop so “bombed out and depleted
,”* I think some franchises should follow the lead of the Harlem Globetrotters and think outside the box when assembling its incoming class. Earlier this week, the yucksters from upper Manhattan offered contracts to 7’8” goon Paul Sturgess
, viral dunker Jacob Tucker
, 12-year-old dribbling prodigy Jordan McCabe
, and Barcelona striker Lio Messi. (Yes, that Messi
.) Assuming the world’s greatest footballer would hang up his boots for a chance to nail unassuming children with confetti,** that would make for one entertaining squad.
The idea of Messi and McCabe running the fast break got me thinking about other distinctive barnstorming squads in U.S. sports, an exercise that always leads back to the The Israelite House of David
. This baseball team was the brainchild of Benjamin and Mary Purnell, founders of a briefly successful and religiously eccentric turn-of-the-century commune
in Benton Harbor, Michigan. (Sect leaders prophesied, incorrectly it turns out, that Jesus would return to Earth after the millennium and induce thousands of years of peace for 12,000 members of the 12 tribes of Israel. Nonbelievers wouldn’t reap the benefits of JC’s visit.) The Purnells, hoping to spread their gospel across rural America and make some cash in the process, fielded a team of ballplayers and sent them on the road. Their look was one-of-a-kind; because church members abstained from shaving or cutting their hair, players boasted scraggly beards and wild manes.*** And their squads were stacked with homegrown talent as well as hired hands, including aging major leaguers (Grover Cleveland Alexander, Mordecai Brown) Negro League stars (Satchel Paige), and skilled women (Jackie Mitchell, Babe Didrikson). From a fascinating 1970 piece
in Sports Illustrated
:These barnstorming ballplayers were to baseball what the Harlem Globetrotters are to basketball. For four decades, from World War I through the mid-1950s, there was a team—and sometimes two, three or more—out on the road representing the House of David. Playing upwards of 185 games a season, the men of the House of David had their biggest following in towns like Kewanee, Ill. (pop. 16,000), where they once drew 10,000 fans, and Great Falls, Mont., where a local newspaper hailed the visitors as "the one big baseball attraction of the year." Everywhere they went they wowed the fans with exploits that a sportswriter in El Dorado, Ark., engaging in the kind of wordplay that long tresses seem to inspire, called "hair-raising."If the thrills failed to come in the regular course of the game, the players enlivened matters with some well-rehearsed bits of grandstanding. John Tucker, the first baseman, deftly caught pop flies behind his back. And whenever Eddy (New) Deal was on third base there was no telling when he might go backward and steal second. Some of the zaniest antics came during the celebrated pepper game, a sleight-of-hand routine in which a group of House of David players tossed the baseball around with such lightning speed that it was almost impossible for the eye to follow. Sometimes it would disappear, only to be located, inevitably, deep inside somebody's beard. The pepper game, promised the posters that went into store windows shortly before the House of David arrived in town, was "worth the price of admission alone."
Following a major sex scandal and the death of Benjamin in the late 1920s, a power struggle erupted from which the commune never really recovered. (In 1994, Adam Langer published a memorable profile
in the Reader
of the few remaining members.) But sports fans the world-over owe the House of David a debt of gratitude; without their precedent, Meadowlark Lemon and “Sweet Georgia Brown
” would have been relegated to the dustbin of history.
**One point for you
, Grantland staff.**Joke borrowed from Steve Guzowski
***Steinbrenner wouldn’t approve
Call me a killjoy, but I haven’t found the barrage of Twitter jokes mocking the wild rapture ramblings of Harold Camping
and his acolytes very funny. Certainly, some of my apprehension stems from my own uneasy feelings about death (See: fear of flying
). But mostly, I get the impression that we’re laughing at some seriously desperate people.
Almost 60 years ago, social psychologists Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter famously studied
a cult, influenced by the writing of L. Ron Hubbard, that believed Earth was poised to undergo massive, imminent physical devastation. According to the group’s leader, aliens concerned with the spiritual health of humankind would swoop down to spare true believers during the rapture, transport them to the planet Clarion for some cleansing, and then deposit the humans back onto their homeland to live a life free of sin. They subsequently prosthelytized like their neighbor's lives were on the line.
The motivation for Festinger’s research was to figure out why people stayed committed to the cult’s teachings after its major prognostication failed to come true. (The short answer was that each member was too pot committed individually -- having in many cases left jobs, moved, and been ostracized by family members -- to throw in the towel.) But during the course of their interviews, the psychologists also determined that most adherents joined the group because they were sad, troubled people who had gained little relief from more traditional coping mechanisms. Kenneth I. Pargament summarized
some of their findings in his 1997 book on the psychology of religion: One woman, Daisy, had been troubled by terrifying nightmares and fantasies of loves ones stabbed, cut, and dismembered. Attempts to eliminate her obsessions through support from her husband, changes in her daily activities, a vacation, will power, and prayer had failed. Another woman, Bertha, had struggled with infertility in her marriage of 20 years. She had become disillusioned with the Roman Catholic church, and had drifted from job to job until she became a beautician. For both of these women as well as their fellow group members, involvement in the beliefs and practices of the cult provided a way to achieve significance of various kinds: a sense of hope in the future, feelings of worth and importance, a sense of meaning in life, or feelings of spiritual connectedness.
In its disturbing recap
of the movement this morning, the New York Times
’ quotes an Oregon State professor who comments, accurately, that Americans are “looking for some authoritative answers in an era of great social, political, economic, as well as natural, upheaval.” Just this week, Harris Interactive produced a poll that showed, once again
, Americans are rapidly losing faith
in their dominant institutions. It’s pretty nuts to assume Doomsday is upon us. But when everything else seems like it’s going to shit, can we really blame the religiously eccentric for thinking the planet is next?