Pepper

Many ballparks have signs admonishing “No Pepper Playing.” Even a seemingly trivial thing like this reveals the diverse cultural roots of baseball traditions and the subversive power of markets. When I was first asked about the signs I knew about the game of pepper but wasn’t sure why it was banned and knew nothing about its origins. In recent years the game has fallen into disuse and I have wondered if those signs have something to do with it. I even speculated that the same spoilsports that banned playground jungle gyms and evicted Coca Cola from the school cafeteria – but left the mystery meat – had erected the signs. I had no idea it was a product of America’s historical tradition of utopian communities and free-market baseball.

Those who have observed the sign’s ban for their entire life, may not be familiar with the game. Pepper typically involves a row of 3 to 6 players facing a single batter about 10-15 feet away who bunts or punches a ball to the fielders who catch it and toss it quickly back to the batter who in turn tries to return it to the fielders. The objective is to keep the ball alive by preventing it from hitting the ground. It’s a good warm-up exercise and skilled players can keep the ball in play for quite awhile. Some more accomplished players return the ball with tosses behind the back, through the legs, etc. In my youth we competed to see who could keep the ball alive for the greatest number of hits. A good sequence might go 15-20 plays.

In my dad’s day and, to some extent when I was a young fan, pepper was a popular warm up exercise for major league ball players. The appropriately but only coincidentally nicknamed Pepper Martin of the St. Louis Cardinals put on dazzling pre-game exhibitions of pepper. Fans would come early to watch the players perform trick throws and feints and, and make deceptive tosses to the batter. Martin ended his show by walking across the field bouncing the ball off his bat in one hand and tipping his hat with the other.

Some baseball historians trace pepper’s origin, or at least its popularization, to the fabled House of David baseball team. In 1903 The Israelite House of David religious colony founded by the Messianic preacher Benjamin Purnell moved to Benton Harbor, Michigan and set about its mission of gathering in the 12 lost tribes of Israel and awaiting the Millennium. While they were waiting, they sponsored up to five barnstorming baseball teams to earn money, proselytize, and, presumably, look for the lost tribes. The ballplayers, discouraged by the sect from cutting their hair or beards, traveled throughout the country in the 1920s to late 1930s playing local clubs and other barnstormers. The House competed against Negro League teams such as the Kansas City Monarchs, major league teams including the St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Athletics, and played an annual match with the Chicago Cubs. Originally made up entirely of colony members, the club turned to hired players (ringers) as the quality of competition increased.

The House of David’s pepper games, usually played after the 5th inning, were said to be worth the price of admission. The exhibition involved three players and a batter tossing and returning the ball Globetrotter-style with ingenious passes and clever sleight-of-hand tricks, sometimes seeming to lose the ball in their long beards or tresses.

Like so many other utopian and religious communities, the House of David suffered a schism. A breakaway group led by Judge Harry Dewhirst formed a competing colony and, of course, rival baseball team. Dewhirst’s team was captained by Grover Cleveland Alexander a Hall of Fame pitcher who recruited Satchel Paige and his long-time catcher Cy Perkins in 1934 to play in the prestigious Denver Post Tournament (called the “Little World Series”). The Denver tournament drew teams from across the country including powerful touring clubs such as the all-black Kansas City Monarchs. Dewhirst and Alexander’s break with the original community’s exclusion of blacks paid off when Paige pitched the team to a championship. Once again, competitive logic and economic incentives prevailed over the self-inflicted costs of prejudice when a record 11,120 fans watched  Paige defeat the great Monarchs in the title game to earn the $6,400 prize. In one of the greatest ecumenical lines of all time Denver sportswriter Leonard Cahn wrote, “The Bearded Beauties banked everything on Satchel and the colored Whizbang did not disappoint.”

The old barnstorming teams represented a period of free-market and relatively tolerant baseball compared to the cartelized major leagues. In most instances the free market teams, their players, and their fans were more concerned with winning than segregation. Any entrepreneur or community could form a ball club and compete for players. The players were free to move to the highest bidder and did. The market power of the major leagues and their satellite minor circuits, facilitated by radio and television and enforced by an indefensible but persistent exemption from anti-trust rules, was able to stifle competition, enforce bigotry, and provide a lower quality product than free market forces would have. But even the hobbled and vestigial free market teams and leagues were able to keep the flame of tolerance alive and to undermine the majors’ claims of unalloyed product superiority. Events such as the Denver tournament gave fans evidence of the damage the majors were doing the game by excluding many of its best players. The free spirits and free agents of the unregulated game spread the word. Satchel Paige was a particularly promiscuous mercenary and, wittingly or not, his perambulations increased American’s exposure to the quality of black ball players and contributed to awareness of the compromised major league product and the eventual breaking of the color bar that Satchel was able to only briefly cross late in his career.

But, as those signs decree, you and your kids won’t see pepper played before a major league game any more. My spoilsport theory has been discredited and two other reasons are given now for banning pepper at ballparks; balls might go into the stands and injure a spectator, or frequent playing damages the grass. In these litigious times I lean toward the safety reason but Joel Hawkins of the House of David Research Project and an authority on the early days of the game told me that he favors the sod damage explanation. On balance, the “No Pepper” signs are much better than the “No Colored” signs that once staked out sections of major league ball parks and to the removal of which pepper made a tiny contribution.

Posted by Bob

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