All the local politicos turned out for the event. Berkeley Mayor Edward Ament rose to give the welcome address, and John Hassler and Hollis Thompson — the city managers of Oakland and Berkeley, respectively — also yakked a little bit.
But the opening ceremonies of the Berkeley International League's 1935 baseball season weren't just dry speeches. The event at San Pablo Park turned out to be a feast for the eyes for the 5,000 fans who crammed the ball field's bleachers.
"Following a parade around the field, an Oriental act was staged by the members of the Wa Sung Chinese team," read the April 23, Oakland Tribune that year. One of the oldest and best teams in the BIL, the Chinese-American Wa Sung Athletic Club was, after more than two decades of existence, a stalwart on the semipro and sandlot baseball fields.
So were the teams representing Al's Cigars, a white team, and the Berkeley Pelicans, an African-American group, the two outfits that officially christened the BIL's 1935 campaign at the ceremonies, with Al's doubling up the Pels, 8-4.
The scene was representative of not only what the Berkeley International League was all about, but also why it was so important to the time. At a point in sporting history when racial segregation in "organized" baseball was rigidly endorsed, the BIL — the brainchild of one man who slipped between racial identities with ease — brought together white, black, Asian, and Latino players on a level playing field with mutual respect and vigorous competition as its foundation.
Springing from its progenitor, the Berkeley Colored League, the BIL reached its apex in the mid-1930s, defying not only segregation but the harsh economic realities of the Depression. The 1935 campaign and its opening ceremonies were a page in the story of one of the boldest — and most overlooked — experiments in baseball history.
"Maybe [the different teams] weren't quite able to do it on their own terms," says East Bay sandlot baseball historian Dave Gray. "That's maybe why they had an international league in Berkeley. You have to give credit to the various ethnic communities that made up [the league]. They really saw no reason why they couldn't and shouldn't co-exist."
Perhaps no one today can better attest to the unique nature and historical importance of the International League than East Bay native Ron Auther, whose grandfather and great-uncles played for the African-American Athens Elks team.
"You had to have everything in place," Auther says. "The talent was always there. They wanted to see who had the better skills."
The BIL, Auther says, was a microcosm, via the national pastime, of the heady social and cultural stew of the East Bay in the 1930s.
"Other ethnic groups played baseball, but they played amongst themselves" at first, he says. The Berkeley International League would change that.
In the 1930s, baseball was in many ways much more grassroots than it is today, especially economically. On one level there was "organized baseball" — the major leagues at the top and the minor leagues serving as a farm system for the majors.
Although independent minor leagues existed, they were still professional circuits that were lumped into organized baseball — which was strictly segregated. That network of pro hardball still exists today, albeit thoroughly integrated.
It wasn't just black players who were excluded; Asian-Americans and Latinos (and, to some extent, Native Americans) were also shoved out of "the system."
But unlike today, baseball was also filled with teams and leagues that were much less defined than organized baseball.
There were the Negro Leagues, the top-level professional African-American parallel to the major leagues, where the pre-Jackie Robinson black baseball legends gained their fame in the shadows of all-white organized baseball. But the Negro Leagues, owing to the financial challenges facing its African-American fans, were much less stable financially and structurally than the majors.
There were also barnstorming teams of every ethnicity that traversed the country, taking on all comers, along with amateur, club, industrial, sandlot, and semipro leagues that played regionally. Such organizations often were stocked by players who didn't compete for money but for a simple love of the game.
That was the Berkeley International League, a semipro loop that included teams from the East Bay, many of which came and went in a matter of a few years. At various times, the BIL included squads like the Mission Reds, the Athens Elks, Tijuana Grill, Golden Gate Buffet, Berkeley Pelicans, Aztec Stars, and St. Joseph Athletic Club, squads that during other seasons played independent of any league or circuit. These and dozens of other teams in the region existed before the BIL came along, and after it passed away. Some played year-round, in winter leagues, and some barnstormed through much of the calendar.
But until the BIL came along, teams formed from the various ethnic groups in the East Bay had no real way to compete with each other. Before the International League, black teams almost always played other black teams, while Chinese squads often found themselves pitted only against each other.
Whites, blacks, Asians, and Latinos did sometimes take to the same field, sometimes as major league all-stars vs. Negro Leagues all-stars contests, and other times when a player of a different ethnicity was signed — almost always briefly — by a team in organized baseball. But the vast majority of the leagues — from the sandlots up to the majors — weren't truly integrated until the mid-1940s, when Jackie Robinson came on the scene.
Going hand-in-hand with the absence of direct competition was the community's — and, more crucially, local baseball fans' — lack of exposure to teams and players from other backgrounds, leaving the public with little knowledge of what was going on elsewhere on the local hardball scene. The BIL changed that, and those achievements are what made the Berkeley International League so groundbreaking. Reilly and his comrades openly defied the social mores of segregation that still dominated even the progressive Bay Area, and prompted residents, players, and fans of different cultures to learn about each other, as athletes and as people.