How good were they? : The Berkeley Colored League
by Ronald Auther
It’s a question that is frequently asked, but not that often, by those who are curious about Negro Baseball on the West Coast. The inquiries are sporadic and the curiosity fades as quickly as it comes. The Berkeley Colored League was the pride of the East Bay, which had its humble beginnings at San Pablo Park in Berkeley, California. The inventor of the league was none other that Byron “Speed” O’Reilly, better known as “Speed” Reilly.
There are those that say, “They never amounted to much…they were just bush league players”. Or, “If they were ever any good at all, why didn’t they enter the National Negro League circuit”. If the truth was told, the reasons were few and simple. Segregation was a major factor in keeping America in the dark about some of the most formidable athletes that this nation ever produced. So much so, that there were people who left the East Coast by train and car, on a consistent basis, just to play with them, or against them.
The founder, concierge, and one of the many team owner’s of the Berkeley Colored League, “Speed” Reilly, who valued all sports known to mankind, treated them all equally and with reverence, started the BCL on a whim with only a hand full of hand picked African American men from the Oakland and Berkeley area, who barnstormed together and separately around Northern California. With Perkin Woodlyn as his capable personal assistant, and Sam Pierce as the Secretary and Treasurer for the BCL, Reilly’s idea of league play would set up a ‘Berkeley Baseball Boots and Bingles’ circuit that would showcase the skills of the African American men he scouted for years. Each one of them hired by individual team owners, and sponsored by local business’s to play at San Pablo Park, that enjoined the community and players, who contributed in the growth and financial stability, and community success of the area, from South Berkeley to West Oakland.
From their humble beginnings in 1928, Byron “Speed” O’Reilly, ran his baseball ‘league’ business in from his home, located at 580 32nd Street in Oakland, California. He lived in the heart of what would become known as “Hell’s Half Acre”, or “The Harlem Of The West Coast”. Early West Oakland was the African American’s dreams come true. It was the terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad. Traveling a little over 3 miles, day in and day out, Byron “Speed” O’Reilly laid his plans for financial success, by forming semi-pro baseball network during the Great Depression, which has never been duplicated by anyone to this date.
Byron possessed a gift. Not just one of gab, but superior organizational skills that were incomparable. As the duly elected President of the Berkeley Colored League, it’s nearly impossible to believe that he possessed enough time to be a sports editor for the local African American newspaper, while also being the emcee for many a ‘up and coming’ musical showcase at the Lakeside Roof Garden, Persians Gardens or Sweets Ballroom, as well as judging the weekly dance contest Yosemite Club in San Francisco, for those who sought a professional dancing career in the movies or on the stage. He was responsible for so many Bay Area innovations one can only accept the nickname he took, “Speed”, as a moniker for a man who never had time to slow down. His friend’s list was beyond compare. From the great Curtis Mosby, Les Hite, Max Baer, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong, Jesse Owens, just to name a few–and much too large to name them all of them here.
Still, that doesn’t explain to the public whether or not the Berkeley Colored League players of yesteryear were of equal caliber as the Major League white players of that very same era. The proof is only found in the untold history, uncovered through extensive research, on both sides of the controversy. Segregation enforced by the Jim Crow era in American history, makes fact finding difficult challenge, but not altogether impossible. It is important to remember that the quality of African American players is difficult to judge, based on the social construct that separated men and women of different races along ‘cultural lines’, even though there were no real ‘cultural differences’ preventing the races from engaging in normal, day-to-day activities. The proof of the Berkeley Colored League’s talent can be accessed today, based on what we know about others who played the game of baseball against them who and had superb talent.
To do this, we need to gauge the competition of that day, and how much they were valued as much as any other players of that day could be, when playing baseball against one another. I chose Vernon ‘Lefty’ Gomez as the formal competitor, to make a valid point of how well the Berkeley Colored League players played the game of baseball on any given day. “Goofy” Gomez, as he was known in the circles of professional baseball, was voted four-times MVP and played seven times in All-Star Games for the American League, earned two Triple Crowns, and held two pitching titles. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. There was no doubt he should have been. The New York Yankees loved Lefty, and this ‘southpaw chucker’ was very well respected, as much in the San Francisco Bay area as he was in New York. Lefty was an East Bay boy, born in Rodeo Township, California, who grew up on his parents ranch, and never had any intention of playing baseball professionally.
His parents wanted him to be an electrical engineer, and he wanted to be an aviator. He threw everyone off by becoming a baseball pitcher, stating that he became one merely because ot the concept that he was left-handed. He had a fastball and his pitching mechanic spelled pure class, coming off the mound and releasing the heat. Tall and lanky, he was the youngest of five sons and two daughters, born to Frank and Elisabeth Gomez according to the United States Census for 1920. Lefty was charming and funny, all rolled into one humorous package. There’s a seldom discussed fact about Lefty Gomez, which he had issues with maintaining his weight every time he pitched a game.
According to Nick Williams, Manager of the San Francisco Seals, stated the Lefty would actually lose between ten and fifteen pounds after each session on the mound, by expending a tremendous amount of energy. It would take food and forty-eight hours rest to regain his playing weight back. Lefty had a stellar fastball according to Williams. His wife, former Broadway Musical Star, June ‘O’Day’ Gomez, placed him on a ‘steak and eggs’, regimented breakfast diet so he could maintain his playing weight. This would change the course of how Lefty played the game. It increased his endurance, so his pitching wouldn’t fade near the last innings of the game. The sports writers of that day made a big deal about Lefty’s ethnic heritage, making sure it was well established that he was of ‘Castilian’ descent, verifying it at every step of his early career, making sure his European roots remained at the forefront of racial acceptance in the American culture. With a Hispanic last name like Gomez, it was necessary to keep up appearances and make clear he was of Spanish descent.
Now that we possess a yard stick to measure the BCL players by, we can assume the reason Vernon ‘Lefty’ Gomez was chosen, is for the simple fact that he was one of the East Bay’s original sons, learning his skill sets in the East Bay by playing in the East Bay with those from the East Bay. We can also assume that, given the early part of his baseball career, which began in his hometown of Rodeo Township, or his high school in Richmond, California, that he crossed paths with many decent baseball players, growing up with them and playing against them, until to going pro with the New York Yankees. In his senior year of high school, Lefty Gomez was offered a scholarship to St. Mary’s College High School, located in Berkeley, California. The distance from St. Mary’s College High to San Pablo Park is 2.2 miles walk down Sacramento Street. Every kid who grew up in Berkeley that went to St. Mary’s has made this walk, when it came to scoping out the local area competition.
But it’s Lefty’s professional pitching is what we’re more interested in as a unit of measurement. Like the fact in 1932, he pitched in the World Series, Game Two against the Chicago Cubs. It was the last World Series that Babe Ruth ever played in New York. The New York Yankees swept the World Series that year with a 4-0 record, which included the pitching of Vernon ‘Lefty” Gomez. Of course, Guy Bush of the Chicago Cubs trashed talked Babe Ruth during the Game One, of the 1932 World Series calling him a “n*gger”. Ty Cobb frequently called Babe Ruth the N-Word. This was the basic undertone of American society during this period in American history, which speaks for itself, with these unprovoked comment about the Babe, who wasn’t African American at all, but of German descent. One could only imagine what a skilled African American had to tolerate, when playing the game of baseball against those who looked different than he did, during this period in American history.
There are baseball players that most people have never heard of, such as, Dudley Jones, Jack Smith, Ray Crowley, Tom Jackson, Alvin Stubblefield, Wayne Gaskin, Herman Hosley, Cyril Cherry, Jess Hills, Johnny Lott, Jimmy La Blanc, Johnny Mitchell, Orviss Knowles and Lionel Wilson. In October of 1933, they were the 1933 Berkeley Pelicans, and the Berkeley Colored League Champions. By 1946, left-handed pitcher, Lionel Wilson would be still throwing left handed heat for the WCBA’s Oakland Larks, and eventually he served three consecutive terms as Mayor of Oakland, California. In 1933, Lionel Wilson was only eighteen old, and a burgeoning pitcher for a semi-pro, African American loop club. By 1933, Lefty Gomez had already pitched against the likes of the 1932 Chicago Cubs World Series line-up in Game Two, scored a victory, giving up nine hits and two runs.
By this July of 1933, Lefty Gomez had also pitched, in the coveted 1933 All-Star Game for the American League. His AL team consisted of Rick Ferrell, Lou Gehrig, Charlie Gehringer, Jimmy Dykes, Joe Cronin, Ben Chapman, Al Simons, and Babe Ruth. He was the winning pitcher on July 6, 1933, defeating the National League All-Stars team by a score of 4-2. Vernon Lefty Gomez was no slouch when it came to playing the game of baseball. I often wonder, if people realize, what Vernon felt like on that day he pitched against the Berkeley Pelicans in mid-October of 1933. He had to be relieved by his older brother, for he had no younger brother, and the sports writer was taking a dig at the young Yankee pitcher for getting pounded pretty hard by the Berkeley Pelicans. He went a total of seven innings that day, before he had to be relieved by his older brother, Lloyd.
The Rodeo ball club won the game, with a final score of 7-5, but it was a tight game, and the local fans enjoyed seeing all their hometown boys play it out to the final innings. The Berkeley Pelicans made some “boots” that day that cost them the game, but they hit the ball consistently off of one of America’s all-time great pitchers. One of the best that ever set foot on the mound. There is no mistaking how good Vernon ‘Lefty’ Gomez was when it came to hurling the ball. He out hurled Lonnie Warneke in Game Two of the 1932 World Series, and demanded a steep raise in salary in 1933 from Yankees owner, Col. Jake Ruppert. ‘Lefty’ was insulted by the salary increased offered to him in a new contract for 1933, and became the first holdout more ‘ducats’ that season. ‘Lefty’ thundered into Ed Barrow office, the business managers for the New York Yankees front office, and told him that $2000 was an “insult” and said, “I want more money”. The 1932 season pay for Lefty Gomez included regular season play plus $2,500 for the 1932 World Series, which amounted to a total of $10,000.
Berkeley Daily Gazette, January 19, 1933
Barrow explained, that Babe Ruth had taken a $25,000 salary cut, and it was Lefty who had received a ‘raise”. ‘Lefty’ told Barrow, “You call that a raise, after the way I pitched last season? Take another look at the records, and don’t forget the World Series Statistics, then maybe we can talk business.” Lefty and Johnny Allen were the only two ‘salary increase holdouts’ for the 1933 Yankee contracted season. Lefty Gomez grumbled, He took the $12,000 salary that year, because it looked better than the $7,500 he’d made in 1932, or no salary at all. In 1934, he kept his mouth shut, and didn’t receive a dime more than $12,000. Col. Jake Ruppert had taught Lefty Gomez a valuable lesson about being gracious when accepting a salary increase.
Oh, and by the way, the answer is ‘yes’… They were that good.
The Berkeley Colored League Players were as good as any of their Depression Era contemporaries. Segregation was the imposing societal factor that kept African American players of the great game of baseball from being as well know by one and all. Playing the game against the best was sometimes payment enough. It gave the players bragging rights, but does little for the hidden history that we researchers must dig deep to access. A week later, the Berkeley Gray All-Stars would take a ride out to Rodeo, California, seeking revenge for the loss that the Berkeley Pelicans received the week before. They were also a part of the Berkeley Colored League aggregate loop, the game ended up rained out after four scoreless innings, and Vernon ‘Lefty’ Gomez was nowhere to be found. He had a reputation to uphold. He never returned to pitch against the men of the Berkeley Colored League that next weekend. I don’t blame him for not taking the mound against them ever again.
It was segregation as a rule that kept the men of the Berkeley Colored League names out of the annals of history. It was never their skills. They always made time to play against those who were called the “best” that baseball ever produced.
But on that day of revenge, Lefty chose to keep his hurling reputation intact.
The San Francisco Spokesman November 2, 1933