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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.