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.
The BIL also plugged these groups into a much larger community: It was through baseball that many Bay Area cultures became part of America.
"[Japanese residents] kind of considered it their American pastime," says Japanese-American baseball researcher and Society for American Baseball Research member Kerry Yo Nakagawa of Fresno, "and they wanted to prove they could play it at a high level. For them, putting on a baseball uniform was like putting on an American flag. They weren't only putting on the uniforms, they felt like it was their Americana, and they wanted to prove they were as good as or better than anyone else out there on the diamond."
Wa Sung Athletic Club historian Ray Chen says Chinese-Americans felt the same. "Look at the pictures of those teams, and you can just sense the pride and commitment," Chen says. "[Baseball] was a way for the Chinese community to connect to American culture but also help them create their own identity. It was an opportunity for them to develop an identity."
What's more, the different players in the BIL were afforded a way to intermingle with each other.
Oakland and Berkeley — the fertile hardball soil from which the BIL grew — featured de facto residential segregation that wasn't necessarily enforced by local law but by economics and racial provincialism. While the many ethnic groups that had migrated to the East Bay looking for jobs in the region's burgeoning industrial economy may have worked side by side in those factories, they lived in strictly defined cultural enclaves. East Bay semipro baseball offered a way to defy segregation on and off the field. But it took someone with influence and vision to bring it together in a multicultural organization like the Berkeley International. That person was Byron "Speed" Reilly.
Reilly was one of the most eccentric entertainment moguls to ever ply his trade in the Bay Area. In addition to driving the BIL, he also booked concerts by the likes of Duke Ellington at swinging hot spot Sweet's Ballroom in downtown Oakland, hosted radio shows, served as a wire journalist, emceed car races, and even, according to Auther, was instrumental in the birth of roller derby. "He was everywhere," Auther says. "He had his fingers in every pie."
Auther is probably the pre-eminent expert on Reilly, a name not much known beyond sports history and African-American heritage circles. Reilly's name briefly passes through the pages of history and research journals and slips away just as quickly.
Auther says Reilly possessed a dedication to creating a colorful entertainment scene, especially when it came to sports — and particularly baseball. And he believes Reilly was able to achieve such success in the Bay Area because he was a racial chameleon, a light-skinned black who could "pass" as white.
Reilly's ability to slip between ethnicities and cliques — athletic, journalistic, and commercial — allowed him to transcend the social and economic limitations of his race and become the regional sports mogul he was.
Reilly was born in 1901, most likely in Sacramento, and eventually settled in Oakland. His career as a local baseball kingpin began with the formation of the Berkeley Colored League in the mid- to late-1920s, when he saw the value of bringing together the many black semipro and sandlot teams, like the Elks, the Berkeley Pelicans, and the Berkeley Grays. Individually, the teams eked out a hardscrabble existence, but together in the BCL they became more popular and financially stable.
After more than a half-dozen years of shepherding the Colored League to success, Reilly widened his view, Auther says, and realized that the other ethnicities that made up the East Bay population — white, Asian, Latino — sported similar sandlot baseball offerings as African-Americans, and that they could be playing together. Rounding up the best of each cultural enclave, Reilly formed the Berkeley International League.
Most of the players on these semipro and sandlot teams were what today would be called weekend warriors, eager and somewhat talented ballplayers who wanted to earn some extra cash and extend their competitive playing careers beyond high school or college ball. While a small handful might have been plucked by minor-league teams, the vast majority of the men on the field played strictly for the fun of it.
Whether Reilly viewed the BIL as an opportunity for financial gain or as a sort of social experiment (or both) is up to interpretation. Auther suggests that Reilly, being an entrepreneur, most likely wouldn't have tried the BIL if he didn't think there was money to be made.
Auther first heard about Reilly when he was a kid, when Auther's grandfather and great uncles — Winston, Arthur, James, and Andrew — would regale the family's younger generations with tales of their days leading the African-American club the Athens Elks, one of the longest-lasting and most consistently successful semipro teams in the East Bay from the 1920s through the '40s.
The Elks, perennial winners of the Berkeley Colored League, the precursor to and inspiration for the BIL, were owned by Reilly himself.
As a kid, Auther tuned out the tall tales of his forebears, but as he aged, he realized the importance his family played in the Bay Area's cultural history. "It makes me extremely proud," he says of his family's heritage. "It's lost history. I didn't really understand that as a kid, but as I got older, I realized they left a wonderful cultural legacy."
That epiphany drove Auther, who now lives in Michigan, to comb through family artifacts and library resources to learn about his own lineage and the Athens Elks — which led him to the team's operator, Reilly. From there, the worlds of the Berkeley Colored League and then the International League were opened to him.
At times, Auther's dedication to Bay Area baseball history has led to clashes with other hardball historians, who Auther feels at times minimize or deny the importance of Reilly and his projects. But Auther recently joined the Society for American Baseball Research, somewhat reluctantly stepping into the fold of formalized historical hardball studies. He hopes to use the society to spread the word about his own work, including the story of "Speed" Reilly.
So who were the players and teams that Reilly marshaled together in the BIL? Some, like the Tijuana Grill and Golden Gate Buffet squads, were sponsored and recruited by local businesses that viewed such squads as a way to advertise and popularize the businesses, often targeting potential patrons from the same ethnic background as the players.
The Golden Gate Buffet squad was a key member of the BIL and a mainstay on the Bay Area sandlot circuit. The team's star during the 1930s was Antonio "Tony" Segura, a sawed-off speedster with an innately keen mind for the game, a pint-sized dynamo of an infielder who starred in the American Legion leagues as a teenager, and as a young man helped coach similar youth teams to success.
Other teams came together as nonprofit athletic clubs made up of players from one cultural enclave or another — Chinese, Mexican, Irish, Italian — who sought physical exercise as well ethnic unity, identity, and pride.
At the top of that list was the Wa Sung Athletic Club.
First coalescing in 1923 as a social and sporting outlet for young Chinese-Americans in Oakland, the Wa Sung AC formed its first sandlot baseball team in 1926 and quickly became a regular on the statewide semipro barnstorming scene.
The nucleus of the Wa Sung baseball team was the Bowen family and its three brothers, Ed, George, and Albert. "The Wah Sungs outfit is a family affair," said the April 25, 1926, Oakland Tribune. "Brothers, cousins and uncle stand shoulder to bat to repulse enemy attacks."
And Al Bowen, born in 1911 and among the youngest of the Bowen clan, was the star of the bunch. First starring for Oakland High School, Bowen evolved into such a good semipro pitcher that he was sought by other local teams, even those of other races. He famously suited up for the African-American Berkeley Pelicans in August 1935 when the squad entered the Oakland Tribune state tourney.
In 1932, the Pacific Coast League's Oakland Oaks inked Bowen to a professional, minor-league contract and restyled him as Lee Gum Hong. It was the high point of Bowen's career, though it was essentially a publicity stunt.
The Oaks may have done it to play up the recent Japanese invasion of Manchuria by specifically pitting him against another oddity of the time, Kenso Nushida of the Sacramento Senators, a Japanese pitcher who, that team claimed, was the only player of his ethnicity in pro baseball.
"Lee Gum Hong realizes that he will be up against quite a clever performer, but, although not inclined to boast, Lee feels that he can hold his own with the Japanese hurler," declared the Gazette.
The Bowen-Nushida showdown exemplified the duality of the Bay Area's social and racial attitudes. While both Asian-American pitchers were cheered by the crowd as fan favorites, the fact that they were used as cartoon characters to cash in on world headlines suggests that even in the progressive Bay Area, attitudes still had a long way to go. Bowen pitched one more game for the Oaks — also against Nushida — and picked up a win. The Oaks, though, dropped him at the end of the season, lending credence to the notion that signing him to the team was a subtlely racist publicity stunt.
Then there were the Athens Elks, one of the best teams in Bay Area sandlot baseball history. Overseen by Reilly himself, the Elks were, like the Wa Sungs, a family outfit, with the Authers — whose name was frequently misspelled in the press as "Arthur," a quirk Auther says was initially Reilly's doing — taking the lead.
The tales of the Golden Gaters and Segura, the Wa Sungs and the Bowens, the Elks and the Authers, demonstrate how colorful and gloriously loose and unpredictable semipro baseball was at the time. Such personalities highlight the uniqueness of Reilly's Berkeley International League, which, for all its quirks, still lacked — quite possibly for the better — the rigid commercialism and corporate domination of today's baseball.
There was so much about the Berkeley International League that was both ahead of its time and of its time. While it was still deeply rooted in the grassroots, seat-of-your-pants informality of 1930s semipro and sandlot hardball, it was also a bold experiment that brought together many different baseball cultures a half-century or more before the introduction of Japanese, Korean, Dominican, and other previously "foreign" ethnicities into Major League Baseball.
The BIL was Big Papi and Ichiro decades before those major league stars came along to more fully integrate baseball not just in the lineup, but also in the minds of those who operated, played, and watched it. And given the financial, economic, and social restrictions of his time, what Reilly did with the BIL in the 1930s was perhaps nothing less than magical.
That experiment, that baseball petri dish, peaked in 1936 when, for some reason, the BIL garnered the most local and national press that it ever got.
"The Berkeley International League, said to be the only organized loop of its kind," reported the American Negro Press, "is preparing to open its ninth season on Palm Sunday, April 9, at the home park in Berkeley, the college city ... The league will truly be international with the entrance of the Mexican nine, colored, white, chinese [sic] and japanese [sic] teams already are a part."
Auther says one of the requisites for a superb season was a place to play, and the BIL got it in San Pablo Park. Dating to 1914, San Pablo is Berkeley's oldest city park, and it's the main one to which the city's ethnic minorities had access. The park's cozy confines were spruced up for the league's 1936 campaign.
"According to Byron (Speed) Reilly, president of the circuit, 1936 is expected to be the biggest season, and the City of Berkeley [added] some half a dozen new bleachers in order to take care of the crowds that attend the games each Sunday during the season," the Feb. 16 Tribune reported.
The Daily Gazette quoted Reilly. "After a careful check, I found that we averaged larger crowds at our diamond in Berkeley than any in Oakland," he told the paper. "And if the application of the Mexican Aztec Stars is received, the circuit will truly be international and I believe we will again outdraw any other league during our summer season."
Once the season got underway, it was an immediate barn burner. On May 18, the Berkeley Grays shocked the league with its first shutout against the mighty Athens Elks. On the same day, the Tijuana Grill Latino squad quashed Golden Gate Buffet.
It only got woollier from there, with multiple teams leap-frogging into first place and others plummeting. By late June, the normally lousy Berkeley Grays, with Ernest Oubré at the helm, were in first place at 6-2 and prepping for a first-half playoff with the Elks. In semipro hardball — as well as in the Negro Leagues and other circuits outside of "organized" baseball — seasons were often divided into two halves, with the winners of the first and second halves clashing at the end of it for the season crown.
"For five years the Berkeley Grays have finished in the second division of the Berkeley International Baseball league, three times in the cellar," reported the Gazette on June 24. "The Grays fought an uphill battle to finally land in a tie with the [Elks] for the first half honors."
In the playoff showdown, the Grays and the Elks split a pair of contests, then planned to use the first game of the season's second stanza as the deciding contest. For some reason, though, the scuffle was never settled; several weeks separated the two halves of the season, and no apparent rubber match was played.
But that was normal for semipro and sandlot leagues across the nation. Attendance, revenue, and scheduling were as much variables as rain or injury. Sometimes, games vanished altogether.
As the second half of the campaign began, there were more surprises in store — the Wa Sungs and Tijuana Grill, who had played poorly in the first half, started out on fire in the second.
"First are last and last are first in the topsy-turvy second half start of the Berkeley International Baseball League," the Tribune announced July 12. "The Berkeley Grays and Athen[s] Elks, still with a first half championship left undecided, and the Golden Gate Buffets, first half runners-up, are trailing the leading Tijuana Grills and Wa Sung A. C. boys, the teams that finished on the bottom of [the] heap in the first half."
But bad luck — including a slew of game postponements — plagued the league, stretching the season out beyond initial plans, and Reilly was forced to cut the regular season short in late September and set in motion a league playoff to determine the second-half winner.
Yet more problems arose to drag the playoffs out longer than anticipated: Many players, who had expected the BIL season to be over by then, were contracted out to other teams for other various leagues and tournaments, decimating the ranks of the International squads as the calendar turned over to October.
(Many players competed year round, thanks to the California climate that allowed continuous, albeit somewhat chilly, baseball to be played through the winter. Players, for the love of the game and a little extra cash, suited up for multiple teams in one calendar year. The overlapping of league scheduling and the hopping of players from one team and circuit to another epitomized the craziness and endearing disorganization that marked semipro and sandlot baseball, not just in the Bay Area, but across the country.)
Reilly, as a result, was reluctantly forced to ax the ending of the playoffs in late October and declare the Elks and Grays tied for the 1936 championship banner. It was a disappointing end to what had been a wild season, one that attracted national attention and captivated East Bay baseball fans.
Nonetheless, the '36 campaign had proved to be bang-up. In addition to the wild season, a BIL all-star team Reilly handpicked was entered into the statewide Oakland Tribune tourney. That fact drew American Negro Press coverage that was printed in such far-flung papers as the Atlanta Daily World, whose version of the wire service's story summarized what the BIL had accomplished that year, and overall.
"Entered in [the tournament] ... is a team composed of nine different races, and one which is providing a small amount of color, and praise from northern sports writers and baseball fans. ... Included on its roster of 15 men are seven Negroes with the rest being white, Chinese, Mexican, Italian, Portuguese, German, Swedish and Spanish."
The BIL continued on, but by the 1940s it was gone. The timeline of the league remains maddeningly ill-defined. Media coverage of the time was vague about exactly when, for example, the Berkeley Colored League became the Berkeley International League, and when the BIL shut down. Reports from those years are contradictory, a reflection of the unstable nature of sandlot and semipro ball and the spotty coverage of those leagues. Few firsthand accounts have surfaced.
But what existing media reports do attest to is the overall popularity of the BIL at the time. Articles from 1936 often put attendance at league games in four figures, a huge number for semipro contests. Press accounts also claim that there were only positive, open-minded reactions to the sociocultural boldness the league espoused. Everyone, it seemed, took a shine to the Wa Sungs and Al Bowen.
But the mainstream sports press of the first few decades of the 20th century often worked as cheerleaders for the organizations, players, and teams they covered, frequently viewing the subjects of their coverage through rose-colored glasses. So, facts about the league are slippery.
We do know that many factors contributed to the BIL's demise, including the Great Depression and World War II, which caused instability in semipro ball across the nation. But also factoring into the extinction of the BIL were the drifting interests of Reilly himself.
In the '40s, he began emceeing boxing matches and and working as a raspy-voiced auto racing PA announcer in the Bay Area. It was as a boxing and race emcee that Reilly becoming known to newer generations of local sports fans. In March 1959, Speed got his due at a testimonial dinner at Topp's Restaurant in Oakland, an event promoted by Tribune sports columnist Alan Ward.
"Over the years Reilly has been a tireless worker for the promotion of sports, devoting time and money to that end," Ward wrote. "It is high time his efforts are receiving the public recognition they deserve."
Speed died on July 12, 1967, in Oakland. A week later, Haywood Daily Review columnist Al Auger rhapsodized about Reilly's career as a car announcer, but the writer's words could easily have been applied to anything Reilly — chameleon, jack of all trades, visionary — did during his roughly 66 years: "Byron 'Speed' Reilly made it seem very easy."
There are still reminders of the league hidden in the East Bay. The building that held the Elks lodge that sponsored the Athens team still exists; it's a designated Berkeley landmark. The Wa Sung Athletic Club disbanded in 1938, but in its place rose the Wa Sung Service Club, first formed in 1952 by members of the old AC. The nonprofit, charitable organization currently exists as the Wa Sung Community Service Club.
There's not much else, though, to recall the BIL. And that begs a few questions: Did the Berkeley International League's example pave the way for big changes in the public's attitude toward race and ethnicity, or push for a more inclusive kind of baseball? Or was the league a curiosity of history, a blip on the athletic and social radar, both in the Bay Area and nationwide? That's hard to judge. It would be almost another decade before Jackie Robinson integrated the majors, and some of the de facto segregation that dominated the first half of the 20th century still exists. But in some small, quirky way, for a couple of lost seasons, maybe the BIL did, in fact, move things forward, even just a little bit.
Now mostly forgotten, the Berkeley International League's brief existence was made possible by the multitude of cultures that migrated to the East Bay, and by a man who saw past the things that kept them separate.
"Byron 'Speed' Reilly, being the entrepreneurial genius he was, brought them together to give players of color a chance to play against white teams," Auther says. "They never would have had the chance otherwise."