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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.