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ROD OSTER & THE HOUSE THAT FAITH BUILT
The Real Field of Dreams
They were the House of David. They had long hair and beards when it was considered an aberration. They belonged to a religion little known and even less understood. They were one of the premier barnstorming baseball teams of pre-WWII. On occasion, especially in later years, they invited outsiders to join--- not their religion, but their team--- and provided Silverton, Oregon's Rod Oster his very own field of dreams.
Long John Tucker
First baseman John Tucker was one of their drawing cards. Oster, who played with the House of David the summer of 1941, remembers him well. "He had an illegal first base mitt," he said, "about yay long," showing with his hands an extension a good eight inches beyond the norm. "You'd throw someone out and he would flip his arms around (he had looong arms) and catch the ball on the wrong side or between his legs. He was fun to watch."
Especially during the pepper game, Oster remembered, for which the team was famous. Once a game, between innings, Tucker, Andy Anderson and Doc Talley became a blur of arms, legs and mitts, doing on the field what the Harlem Globetrotters do on a basketball court. A lot of the fans considered that alone worth the price of admission. Oster sat through many pepper games and claims to have enjoyed each and every one thoroughly.
Oster had started that summer playing semi-pro baseball with Valsetz, a semi-pro club sponsored by a lumber company. His job at the local sawmill was contingent upon him making the team, but that had been no problem. One day early in the season, after a game against the Albany Oaks, he was approached by a representative of the House of David. Chick Hauser, an Oregon boy then catching for the Davids, suggested they take a look at Oster who he remembered from his days with the Silverton Red Sox. They did, liked what they saw and asked him to sign. The pay was $160 a month to just play ball (no mill work included) and he jumped at the chance. "In 1941," he allowed, "$160 was a lot of money." Plenty, in fact. He signed.
He joined the team in Tacoma, Washington. Hauser immediately introduced him to Tucker, who took one look at the crew-cut and the clean-shaven face and said, "Well, kid, looks like you're going to have to let everything grow." That was one stipulation, Oster explained. You had to grow hair and a beard.
The hair grew and Oster was off on a fantasy summer. He found the Davids an unorthodox group, especially Tucker, Anderson and Talley, the three who belonged to the religion.
They traveled first class. They drove from town to town in three brand new Buicks and ate at the best restaurants. While the hired members of the team could eat foods of their choice, Tucker and his cohorts invariably ordered eggs. "Those guys ate eggs every way they could be prepared," chuckled Oster. "Hard-boiled, fried, scrambled, poached--- you name it."
"People sometimes ask me about this cult business," said Oster. "Well, there was nothing like that with them. None of them had money. They worked!"
The team itself kept only what they needed while on the road. "Every third or fourth day, one of the Davids would wire money back to Benton Harbor. There was evidently no use them carrying, I don't know, hundreds of dollars or whatever it was."
The subjects of the House of David gave all of their worldly possessions to a common treasury controlled by the commune at Benton Harbor, Michigan. They swore not to eat meat, to practice celibacy and to live according to an "apostolic" plan laid forth by their founder, one Benjamin F. Purnell. In return, they were promised immortality.
According to Oster, "they had farms and in Benton Harbor, they had a big hotel. They all had jobs. And if they needed a pair of shoes or clothes, they would just go down and get them. It was a lot like the Army."
There were thirteen on the team at any given time, a number that required any player to be ready to pitch at a moment's notice. Certain days, they would play a double-header in the afternoon and drive 50 miles to an evening game a few towns away. The brutal schedule made roster changes common.
As an example, before a game in Reno, Chick Hauser came to the park with a girl on his arm. He'd been drinking and tried to tell Tucker he was quitting. Tucker told him to come back in the morning to talk it over. "He came down the next morning," Oster remembered, "and he still had that gal on his arm, so we left him right there."
He smiled wide when he mentioned the Kansas City Monarchs. While with the Davids, Oster played against them a good 50 times. The two teams shared a booking agent, so the scheduling was natural.
Along with the colorful banter, the singing and carryings on of the Monarchs, Oster remembered the great Satchel Paige. "When I faced him in '41, he was still a young man and had to be throwing into the 90's. Sometimes, you'd just turn to the ump and say, 'Sounded a little high, didn't it?'" Oster claims to have hit Paige's pitches every once in awhile, explaining that once in awhile against Paige was an accomplishment.
Every season ends, and when the summer of 1941 ended, Oster returned to Silverton. In February of 1942, he joined the Aviation Engineers and spent the duration of WWII building airfields in Europe. When he was released in 1945, he joined a reactivated Silverton Red Sox team and played with them until they folded in 1954.
When I talked with Rod Oster, few people asked about the House of David. They had faded into the nonessential past, dwarfed by wars and disasters and the struggles of everyday life. To the kid shortstop who lived that dream of a summer, the House of David lived as they lived on and between the fields of 1941. To him, those were truly the fields of dreams.