The Speed league

In doing research for another story, I tripped over something called the Berkeley International League, a circuit in the late 1930s based in, yep, Berkeley, Calif., and encompassing much of the Bay Area.

Like the California Winter League, the BIL was integrated, albeit amateur, unlike the CWL. But what was truly unique about the BIL was the fact that it wasn’t just white (with one or more possibly Jewish) and African-American (like the Athens Elks and Berkeley Grays) teams. It also had Latino (like the Aztec Stars), Chinese (such as the Wa Sung Athletic Club, which an organization that still exists, quite thrivingly) and, reportedly, Japanese teams (although I found no immediate evidence of any Japanese squads, which isn’t to say there wasn’t any).

The BIL and, especially, its Asian teams, have been completely unexplored up until this point, with experts only vaguely recognizing the league and its member squads. But apparently some of the loop’s squads competed in the California semipro state tournament and even the prestigious national Denver Post tourney.

For example, Rob Fitts, one of the preeminent scholars of Asian-American baseball, says this via email: “I don’t know much about the SF area teams other than the first Japanese team dates to about 1902 and I believe was called the Fuji Club. I’m pretty sure that they never barnstormed outside of the area.”

That in and of itself is certainly fascinating enough. But once I did a little more reading about the BIL, I learned a great deal about the guy behind it — Byron “Speed” Reilly.

In reference to the BIL, the Oakland Tribune called Reilly the “president of the circuit.” A February 1936 article in the paper paints a colorful picture of a guy who was part executive, part team owner (the Grays and the Elks), part PR hustler and part journalist:

“Byron ‘Speed’ Reilly, who organized the league and has held the president’s chair since it started in 1928, believes this year will be the best.

“‘After a careful check, I found that we averaged larger crowds at our diamond in Berkeley, than any park in Oakland,’ said Reilly. ‘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.’”

And Reilly wasn’t just about the BIL. He also served as a correspondent/reporter for African-American newspapers across the country, and he also worked as a promotor and booking agent for major musical and variety acts that came through the Bay Area.

In many cases, Reilly’s “articles” for newspapers were little more than gussied-up press releases for his teams, leagues or entertainment shows. (Such a situation was certainly not an anomaly in the world of blackball. Back East, Cum Posey and other representatives of various teams Negro Leagues teams acted as “reporters” for newspapers, which today would be seen as a massive conflict of interest.)

But, for as ubiquitous as Reilly was in California, he proves a difficult figure on which to get a handle. It’s unclear, for example, exactly where he was based — the Bay Area or LA — and it’s even difficult to pin down whether he was black or white!

Reilly appears to have originally been from the Sacramento area, the son of Philip and Laura Reilly — or, in some documents, O’Reilly or O’Reily. Reillyy seems to have then moved to Oakland in the Bay Area by the time the 1930 Census was taken. In that document, Byron is listed as being “Byron O’Reily,” black, a newspaper reporter and born in roughly 1905.

In the 1940 Census, Reilly is listed as “Byron O’Reilly,” 39 years old, still living in Oakland, a promotor of a “radio program” and … white! Here’s that Census record:

m-t0627-00439-00367

What?!?!

His wife, the former Vivian Sanderson, was a native of Oakland and born in about 1909. They were married on May 3, 1930 in Oakland. In the official marriage register, Byron’s last name is “O’Reilly.”

42292_1020601537_1458-00359

Before that, in the 1910 and 1920 Censuses, Vivian is listed as white. Here’s that:

4532322_00202

But then, in the 1940 Census, Vivian is listed as … black!

Double what?!?!

In the report, the couple has two sons and a daughter, and they’re still living in Oakland in an otherwise largely white neighborhood.

To say the least, Byron “Speed” Reilly’s life and career were fascinating as well as perplexing. Why, for example, would he drop the O’ from his last name? And how do we explain the shifting racial identities of both him and his wife?

The answers to those questions could be many and varied, with some very possibly concerning the issue of “passing” for one race or another in order to fit in and adapt to whatever professional or socioeconomic circles in which they found themselves at any given moment. Perhaps both Byron and Vivian were extremely light-skinned mixed-race people who could, in fact, easily slip between ethnic identities.

And maybe because of that ambiguity, Byron O’Reilly became Byron Reilly because O’Reilly sounds more white (probably Gaelic), which he could have viewed as detrimental to his status in the African-American athletic, entertainment and social circles in which he traveled.

The exact answers to those questions might only be discovered if descendants/relatives of Byron and/or Vivian are discovered, located and interviewed.

Until then, one can only speculate and ponder on such shifting solutions. In any event, Byron “Speed” Reilly was certainly a colorful character and a perhaps more than just a fascinating footnote in the history if minority baseball.

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10 thoughts on “The Speed league

    • Yep, I’ve found the Nisei Project, and it’s pretty fascinating. I’m currently pitching a few stories about the Berkeley League, and if I land an assignment, I’ll definitely contact Kerry Yo and Bill about researching the Japanese teams that may (or may not) have been involved with the loop.

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  3. Not at all. “Speed” Reilly was based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He was a promoter, newspaper journalist, sports editor for multiple newspapers, –among many other things. There’s no mistaking that. Byron was black. He was very light-skinned. The BIL (Berkeley International League) is an offshoot of the Berkeley Colored League. People just wanted to play ball at San Pablo Park and have their skills recognized, then party afterwards. Again, Speed made it all happen-and more. He even thru events at Sweets Ballroom and Rollerland. He was connected with the YMCA athletes and the Berkeley Sunsets Basketball team. That man had more irons in the fire than any man I’ve ever researched as a writer. My grandfather played for the Athens Colored Elks AKA The Athens Colored Elites of Oakland AKA The Oakland Black Giants. His brothers played for the Berkeley Grays, The Pullman All Stars, ect. When they didn’t play on the same team, they played against each other. They played with everyone from Jim Lane, Hilary ‘Bullet’ Meaddows, ect–moving on to eventually play for the Oakland Larks. But-‘Speed”–he was a wheeler dealer-a man of action who made things happen.

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