Speed-ing back to action

Wow, it’s been almost two weeks since my last post, so my many apologies on that count. I had a couple deadlines, and my mom had major surgery — she pulled through just fine and feels great — so I was a bit preoccupied with some other stuff.

But I feel ready to get back in the game — put me in, Coach, as it were — and let’s start, actually, with a little track action …

I’ve been wondering what happened to Byron “Speed” Reilly — the mastermind behind the Berkeley Colored League and the Berkeley International League — after about 1940 or so, because all references in the media to either league pretty much dry up by that year.

Why? Well, it seems Mr. Reilly really was a sports Renaissance man, and he allowed his attention to drift after the BIL kind of faded away. Or maybe the BIL and Speed’s baseball promotion career ended because he just lost interest. Or maybe the Depression, then the war, necessitated the ceasing of his career as a baseball mogul. We don’t know at this point.

But … what did happen to Speed? The answer: It looks like he truly lived up to his nickname when he took up a sort of second career as an … auto racing announcer, record keeper and official.


A page from the April 4, 1960, Oakland Tribune, featuring a group photo including Speed Reilly at the top of the page.

In the ’40s he did a few other things, like serve as an emcee at Northern California boxing matches and, beginning in spring 1946, organize and promote an inter-city high school basketball all star game with a Gilbert D. Eaton. After the event, the pair sent a thank-you note to the Oakland Tribune for help putting the game on. “The contest, say the two gentlemen, was a tremendous success and will be an annual event,” Trib sports editor Lee Dunbar wrote.

But by 1947, Speed was fully into the car racing scene. He had an almost-daily show, “Race Results and Sports with Speed Reilly,” on KLX radio, and in July 1948, new Tribune sports editor Alan Ward called Reilly a “tub thumper for auto races at the Oakland Stadium …”

By 1953, Reilly had re-styled his radio show on KLX and now called it, “Speedway News with Speed.” An April 1953 article in the Oakland Trib stated:

“The program features auto racing results from speedways and interviews with leading drivers and owners.

“Speed is an old hand at sports announcing. His racing broadcasts go back to the Old Neptune Beach days when he did the midget racing program from that speedway.

“He came to KLX in 1942 to broadcast fights and wrestling.”

Two years later, though, Reilly ran into a little medical issue. Reported the June 9, 1955, Tribune:

“Friends of Byron (Speed) Reilly, Oakland boxing writer, master of ceremonies and radio announcer, will be happy to learn the doughty warrior is recovering at the Merritt Hospital from an operation. He should be able to leave the hospital in a few days.

“For awhile [sic] Reilly, if not actually on the verge of a kayo, was groggy. Numerous pints of blood were needed to save him. He should be back in action in three or four weeks.

“Reilly writes columns for Pacific Coast boxing periodicals. For years Speed broadcast … the Oakland fights for KLX, the Tribune station.

“Reilly’s a good man at the microphone or in front of a typewriter.”

Speed also founded the California Auto Racing Fans Club, which rewarded him for his efforts in January 1959 with a “special trophy.”


Two months later, Reilly was honored again, this time with a testimonial dinner at Topp’s Restaurant in Oakland. Reported the Tribune’s Ward:

“Unlike so many recipients of our town’s dinners, Reilly is not an athlete, past or present,” wrote Ward. “But he has been closely  identified with athletics for a generation. His voice is known to thousands. He has been a boxing broadcaster and an announcer at automobile races throughout Northern California.

“It can be said Reilly pioneered fight broadcasting here, long before television made its appearance. From a small beginning the radio phase of boxing became an important factor in Bay Area sports entertainment.

“That, of course, was in an era when fights were held each Wednesday night at the Auditorium — when many of the great ones, and some who were only mediocre, consistently drew big. Gates of $8,000 were the rule and receipts of $18,000 not uncommon. …

“For years Reilly and this writer broadcast Auditorium fights. There wasn’t, and still isn’t, a better blow-by-blow man than Speed. His knowledge of the sport, plus a brisk, dramatic delivery, gave listeners a thorough understanding of what was transpiring in the ring.

“Over the years Reilly has been a tireless worker for the promotion of sports, devoting time and money to that end, making countless public appearances and talks. It is high time his efforts are receiving the public recognition they deserve.”

Unfortunately, Speed’s wife, Vivian, died in October 1961. But he kept grinding it out work-wise, and early in 1962, he was named editor of the Referee, a boxing and wrestling magazine.

But on July 12, 1967, Byron “Speed” Reilly succumbed to a long illness at the age of 65 in his beloved Oakland. In the Haywood Daily Review a week later, columnist Al Auger, a frequent co-announcer with Reilly at car races, rhapsodized eloquent about the man who brought so much to the East Bay:

“For I don’t know how many years, it seemed that to attend an auto race in the Bay Area meant you would be hearing the rasping voice of Speed Reilly over the public address system.

“Byron ‘Speed’ Reilly was the voice of auto racing in the Bay Area. Last Wednesday, this voice was stilled at the age of 62 [sic] after a long illness.

“Thinking back to the years of my youth, I can vividly recall the many races at so many tracks, such as the old Oakland Speedway, Pachoco, Antioch, etc., where Speed held his verbal court.

“It wasn’t until much later when I got so deeply enmeshed in the sport that I realized that nowhere could you find anyone who knew more about the race cars, drivers, officials and traditions of racing than the little man sitting hunched over the microphone in the announcers booth.

“You also realized no one could love the sport more.

“Just a few months ago — at the indoor midget races, his frame wasted by the lingering sickness, a surgical mask to keep out the stinging fumes of rubber and fuel — ‘Speed’ would be at start-finish every night.

“Between races it was as if nothing had changed as he would talk about the drivers and their car’s performances. A good word here for a skillful display, a sharp, disdainful criticism for a poor job and it was very seldom he was wrong.

“‘Speed’ was a 100 percent sports-oriented man, through his public relations firm in Oakland and the hundreds of East Bay fights he covered with a blow-by-blow description on the radio.

“Outside his work, his pet was the California Auto Racing Fans Club (CARFC), which he founded as an outlet for the fans lo have a truly personal connection with the sport.

“Since that time, many similar clubs throughout the country have emulated ‘Speed’s’ brainchild.

“Having worked the business end of a mike at races, I know it is far from an easy task to bring a word-picture of an auto race to the spectators, one that keeps everyone knowledgely [sic] informed as to what’s going on lap after lap.

“Byron ‘Speed’ Reiily made it seem very easy.”


One thought on “Speed-ing back to action

  1. “Unlike so many recipients of our town’s dinners, Reilly is not an athlete, past or present,” wrote Ward.

    I don’t know who ‘Ward’ is, but Alan Ward was really wrong about Byron Speed O’Reilly level of sports acumen. I guess that the price of Jim Crow. He wasn’t a super-star, but he could definitely hold his own when it came to sports.

    So far as his breaking into radio, he did that on Columbia’s KSFO in 1936 for a whole year, and then on to KLS “Radio Sports Page” 6 days a week (at 6:30 PM) and the “Midnite Revue” in Oakland, in 1937. The ‘Midnite Review” (at 11:45PM) was about the Bay Area and national music scene. He produced the “Hank & Gus Show”, for people who had auto problems, M-W-F (at 5:45PM). On Tues., he produced the “Rhythm Bugs” (at 8:00PM)

    It was Tues. nights at 9:30 PM that Speed announced the Neptune Beach Speedway Auto Races over the BBC network, as well as emceeing the “King’s Talent Kourt”, amateur hour every Sat. at 2:30 PM.

    This was all in 1937, so he really didn’t disappear. By 1947, he’d worked in radio for over 10 years.

    Also, was far as Ward is concerned, it seemed as a journalist he didn’t do his homework on the man he was honoring.

    Byron was a Pitcher for the Acorns, but he had health issues. He played with James January and William Hayward of the BIL.

    Byron also played Center for the Acorn ‘Oaks’ Roller Hockey, from from what I understand, he was pretty good.

    Byron was huge. It’s sad that the history of Jim Crow could never really capture what this man meant to the African American community in the San Francisco. The fact is, the competition for a man of Byron’s caliber was stiff. He played sports, he knew sports, he promoted sports and the arts & entertainment beyond anything imaginable today, and I think a lot of his success was slighted by those in the same profession, because he was more in 1 lifetime than they could ever dream of becoming in 10 lifetimes. He knew and met people that are America’s history–and they all loved him without a doubt.


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