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"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.