This story is part of Only A Game‘s 2019 Thanksgiving Leftovers Show. Find the full episode here.
A little less than 100 years ago, the most popular barnstorming baseball team in the nation was called the “House of David.”
“If you look at the biggest crowd attendance during the 1920s and early 1930s, it was the House of David vs. this team, House of David vs. this team, House of David vs. this team,” says Chris Siriano, the founder and director of the House of David Baseball Museum in Michigan. “So they were a huge draw.”
The House of David was a huge draw because they were so good. As they traveled the U.S. and Canada and Mexico and Cuba, they would poach the best players they could find. They’d tell them:
” ‘Hey, come play with the House of David,’ ” Chris says. ” ‘We’ll pay you three times what your local team is paying you. And you can travel the world with us. And all you gotta do is sign here, start growing your whiskers and don’t shave ’til the end of the year.’ “
And that brings us to the second reason for the House of David’s popularity: They definitely stood out in a crowd, with hair halfway down their backs and beards longer than Santa Claus’. Because members of the House of David didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t have sex, and…
“Part of their belief was that they could never shave or cut their hair. And they quoted a scripture in Leviticus for that,” Chris says.
And there was a third component of the House of David’s appeal: The team had access to a lot of money. (Apparently running a cult has always been a big business opportunity.)
“Well, by 1923 I think they had $32 million in the bank,” Chris says.
And so the House of David baseball team could pretty much afford to sign anyone they wanted. Satchel Paige, the best pitcher the Negro Leagues had ever seen? He played for the team. Babe Didrikson, the darling of the 1932 Olympics, and Jackie Mitchell, the woman who struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in the same game? They barnstormed with the House of David.
And then, there was Babe Ruth.
“I have footage of Babe Ruth putting his fake whiskers on and getting up and cracking, like, a three base hit,” Chris says. “It was just always publicity — how to get the biggest crowd.”
To be clear, Babe Ruth only played for the House of David once or twice. He was nothing close to a regular.
But there was one man who played for the House of David for quite a long time, and his name had been almost as big as the Babe’s back in his day.
“They got Grover Cleveland Alexander, who had been a Hall of Fame pitcher, to manage and pitch for the team from ’31 to ’35,” Chris says.
Grover Cleveland Alexander’s first year with the Phillies has been called “arguably the greatest season by a rookie pitcher in the 20th century.” But that was in 1911. And, by 1931, he had been through a lot.
“You know, he played for the Philly team. And then he played for the St. Louis Cardinals for quite a long time and then won the World Series for them in ’26 and then went on to keep playing,” Chris says. “But then his drinking got in the way, and he got fired from Major League Baseball. He got a real bad reputation for being a drunk.”
If Grover Cleveland Alexander couldn’t get sober to play in the Majors, he certainly wasn’t going to get sober to play for the tee-totaling House of David.
“They paid his wife the same salary that they paid him to keep him sober through the fourth inning stretch, because they had to assure the competitor that he was going to be there, because he was such a big draw,” Chris says. “He was so good he could totally throw strikes intoxicated. And they let him wear his house slippers, so he could feel the pitcher’s mound underneath his feet. Because he couldn’t quite see it so good when he was drunk.”
Because while members of the House of David couldn’t drink, couldn’t smoke, couldn’t have sex or shave or cut their hair, the team’s ringers didn’t have to follow those rules.
“They pretty much could do anything they want,” Chris says. “Just make sure you show up and play your game and don’t shave till the end of the year.”
Except Grover Cleveland Alexander couldn’t even do that …
“He had a phobia for facial hair, so they didn’t make him grow his whiskers,” Chris says. “So, he’s the only clean-shaven house of David Player ever.”
Our original story on the House of David — and its association with Satchel Paige — aired on April 20, 2019.