Tony Basques


Early adulthood

Previous chapter: High school

Golf ended in the summer and then we would play American Legion baseball. It was at this time that I started playing with these professional prospects. Guys who were signing contracts. I played with one guy who was a prospect for the New York Yankees. He was an incredible hitter. We had a lot of people: Nini Torney, Marina Paretti. Guys who didn't want to go to college. Who were so good that they were signed to play professional contracts. In those days you weren't paid like today. You played because you loved the game.

When I was playing American Legion baseball one of the coaches was Bill Marshall. He was a scout for the Boston Braves. He talked me into going to a tryout camp at Seal Stadium. At tryout camp were all these aspiring athletes who knew they were good enough to play professional ball. We went to Seal Stadium and we tried out. You'd sign in and you'd go to a position you played. Then you'd bat. I think I did 2 or 3 of these camps. One of the assistant coaches was there, scouting the prospects. His name was Joe Sprinz. Coincidentally when I started college at USF I met his son and we became very good friends. Anyway Joe Sprinz called me over. I can almost hear him today. He said, "Hey kid, you wanna play professional baseball?" I looked at him and I said, "Yeah!" He said, "I want you to go up and see Joe Orengo and he'll talk to you about it."

A baseball game at Seals Stadium
Seals Stadium, 1949 (Image credit: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

I was in a daze. I walked up this long ramp, 'cause it was at Seal Stadium, which was at 16th and Bryant. The famous bar across the street was called the Double Play. It's still there. I knew the family that ran it. The owner of the bar came into my life when I was in college. Stanfeld, Dick Stanfeld. He played for the 49ers. Anyway, back to Seals Stadium. I walked into Joe Orengo's office and I gave him my name, he says, "So you wanna play ball?" I guess the word was out. I said, "Yeah! Yeah!" He says, "OK. I'll send you to Salt Lake City in the Pioneer League. They'll give you $250 a month." Now today for professional baseball we're talking jillions of dollars but back then... $250 a month was good money. It didn't even matter, though. I would've gone for nothing to play in the Pioneer League, Salt Lake City.

The guy who I had to sign the contract with, his name was Al Fioresi. He was a scout for the San Francisco Seals. When I told my dad I was gonna go to Salt Lake City and play baseball and they were gonna pay me, he didn't believe me. They were gonna pay? He was old country. He didn't know what I meant. I said, "I'm gonna get paid $250." I don't think he was happy about me going to Salt Lake City. I don't even think he knew where it was. I had to get Al Fioresi to come out to our house and talk to my dad about professional baseball. After that my dad reluctantly agreed. He may have had to sign. I might have been 17. He couldn't believe they were gonna pay me to play baseball.

All the guys who were offered contracts, such as me, had to go down to Palo Alto. There were 4 or 5 scouts, and coaches, and all of those of us who were destined to go to Salt Lake City. I remember one of the guys in this group was Herman Wiedermeyer. He was a professional football player. Went to Saint Mary's college. He was at this tryout. We spent a couple of nights down there in a hotel. I got through batting practice good. I thought I did pretty darn good. But then coach called me over and I immediately thought to myself, "Uh oh..." He said, "I like what you do, son. I think you've got talent and I think you're in the right place. The problem is we're keeping 7 veterans for Salt Lake City and 5 of them are infielders." I was gonna be a second baseman. He said, "I hate to tell you but we're just not gonna be able to have you come to the team."

Oh, by the way, backing up, when Clara got word that I was gonna go away, she was furious. I was so excited. We talked about it. She was furious. "You're gonna do that! Salt Lake City!" On the one hand she was proud of me. On the other hand, she was furious that I was leaving. So after I got the bad news in Palo Alto, the first person I talked to was Clara. She didn't jump with joy. She had tact. But she was happy.

My baseball aspirations weren't over yet, though. In 1950 I immediately hooked up with a team in the city. They sent me to Willits, California. Willits is up by Healdsburg. It was a semi-pro team. They were an affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Pete Dalia was the coach. There were a lot of college players, a lot of people like me, on the road to professional baseball. Warren Johnson. Paul Morana. Jack Cuddy. Eddie Meyer. Hook Arata. We called him Hook because of his proboscis. Clara was all excited that I was going to stick around, and then 2 or 3 days later... "OK, I'm going to Willits." That wasn't as bad as Salt Lake City, but still... I can't remember if she came up to visit. She was not a big fan of me going away.

In Willits all of us worked. The guys who wanted to make the good money worked in the lumber yards. Others worked in offices. I worked for the City of Willits, doing groundskeeping and gardening. I was a kind of go-to person. I cut the lawns for the city park with a motorized mower. I remember I started on the perimeter, I'd go around and on the next step, get a little inside. It would take me hours to do it.

We were all in different boarding houses throughout the city, which wasn't very big. We'd eat at restaurants. We didn't cook. We traveled a lot for the away games. It was a good playing experience. Teams would come up from SF and play us. The games were local entertainment for the people who lived in Willits. We'd play Saturdays and Sundays. Sometimes we'd play doubleheaders. At the day games they would charge admission, probably $0.25?

Now I'm thinking of a real special time in my life. Something that happened in Willits. First, you've got to understand that my father never ever saw me play baseball. He was always working! One weekend he and a friend drove up to Willits to see me play. There was a policy at Willits that whoever hits the first home run, they would pass a hat around the audience, and people would put money in it, and you'd get a big basket of groceries from the local market. Well as luck would have it, I hit the first home run that game. And my dad was watching! He was very frugal but I'm sure when they passed the hat to him he probably emptied his pockets. A basket of groceries! And so the money was given to me, maybe $25, if that, as well as the basket of groceries. I remember giving the groceries to my dad. I remember it had a 6-pack of beer in it. He was in hog heaven. I couldn't have asked for a better scenario. He was so proud and so excited. He went home beaming. I'm glad we're recording this because this is a story not too many people know about.

I only played for 1 summer in Willits because there happened to be a war starting. It was called Korea. After Willits I worked in San Francisco at the White House department store. After that I worked at the State Department of Agriculture. I was a grain sampler. I had no idea what I was getting into. I worked on 3rd Street Grain Terminal in San Francisco. It was a good experience.

3rd St. Islas Creek Grain Terminal, it was. We tested grain and loaded ships destined for the Orient with barley and oats. As a junior grain inspector we would look for weevils or anything that would affect the dry grain that was being pumped into the ship holds. Weevils would devour and infest the grain and that was bad.

The grain elevator
The grain elevator at Islais Creek Grain Terminal (Image credit: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

My boss was an agricultural engineer. He was responsible for coordinating the loading of ships, including supplying inspectors like me. His name was Olson. We would play Pedro at lunchtime. Lunchtime was fun. We would kid each other. One day it was my job to be at the grain terminal at a certain time because trucks coming from the valley were coming to unload the grain. Their trucks would raise the bed and it would go down these grates and then on conveyor belts and then into silos. Well, wouldn't you know it, I get up late and I got there late. They had already started unloading. I was supposed to be there to inspect the product. So at lunch which was usually a fun time and joking, Olsen found out half the load was dumped without my inspection. He read me out. He was so upset and so disappointed in me. He made me feel like I was an inch tall. That's something that stayed with me for the longest time. I know it bothered him, though, because we had a good relationship. He didn't like that he had to come on strong and scold me, chew me out.

So it's time for Pedro at lunchtime. It was dead silent. Because everyone was around and had heard Olsen chew me out. No one would talk. So Olsen, God bless him, he said, "OK, I can't stand this. Tony, I had to do it. I'm sorry, but we just can't be quiet. We have to go back and live life." God bless him, he was a wonderful person in my life. I didn't work there long, but that was a lesson.

Sometimes I would have to get in the state car and go down to Modesto or go some place where they were harvesting grains. I would take samples and bring them back to the lab. The grain terminal was a warehouse. There were sacks and sacks and sacks of corn, barley, grains, piled so high. There was a rail station at the grain terminal where they loaded or unloaded box cars with grain. We had to go into the box cars and sample the grain. We had a tool. It was hollow stainless steel, about 8 inches long. It had a point so that you could push it into a sack and pull out some grain. The sack would close because of the pressure. Then you'd put the sample in a container. So many sacks. We'd take the sample to the lab and test it to see if there were any foreign bodies in there. I remember going in the warehouse once and seeing what I thought was a cat walking across. It was a rat! They made their livelihood eating the grain. Talk about a smorgasbord.

On one occasion a car load came in and it was flax. Which is shipped bulk. Not in sacks. It was like quicksand. They'd open the door to the box car. I'd have to climb a ladder and go over the top and sink down into the flax. I'd have to go to the 4 corners of the box car to get samples. Stuffy, musty. I'd have a bag, pretty well full.

All of the stevedores and longshoremen were black men. Huge. Happy go lucky. Strong. We were always kidding around. One day, the conversation turned to talking about their women, what have you. We had an expression in high school, kind of a racist thing, but in those days it never occurred to me it was racist. When we talked about girlfriends, you'd say, "Is she white?" I didn't understand the racial implications. "Is she white?" So this one time, we were in between loading cars and doing some other work. The guys were talking about their dates or their women, whatever. We were talking about Lulabelle, what have you, joking around, and I said, "Is she white?" Here are these black guys. And they say, "What?" And I say, "Is she ripe?" I caught it after I said it. I think they knew, and it would've been humiliating for me, and it wasn't my intention. It was just a slang phrase that I had never thought about. I sensed that they picked up on it but it didn't have any harm in our relationship because we continued to really got along well and joke.

In the ship's hull, when they're pumping the grain in, the stevedores and longshoremen were in the hull with shovels, moving the grain around so there's balance. Some nights I got the night shift and I'd have to go up to the top of the silo where the conveyor belt was going that they dumped bulk grain on. Every 15 minutes I would take samples and I had a thing, like a gold pan. It had a tray. I'd pour the grain onto it and make sure there were no weevils, no contamination. Every now and then I'd have weevils and I'd push this horrible conveyor belt stop alarm. "ERRRRRRRRR!" That meant these guys would have to stay in the hull and wait until they fumigated and found out where this grain was coming from. A lot of times they'd rag on me because I extended the amount of time.

Longshoremen got paid very well. You've probably heard of John L. Lewis, a longshoremen. He was their advocate, their lawyer, he was for longshoremen rights. Very strong union. These were Japanese ships and Russian ships. It was a good first job. I grew up a little bit.

Then I worked at The White House, which as a department store on one of the corners of Union Square. We'd go to Union Square for lunch, you could see the White House, you could see Neiman Marcus, Roos Brothers, Blum's, Macy's. We'd have lunch in Union Square. I'd eat it by myself or with somebody from work. Somehow a '46 Plymouth came into my life. It was a coupe. That's the car I had when Clara and I got married.

A photo of me sitting on my 1946 Plymouth
Me and my Plymouth

Clara wanted to get married on her 18th birthday. She was hardly out of school. January 26th, 1952. I remember getting the engagement ring. Every day I would pick her up and I would drive her home. She worked at a Wells Fargo in the Financial District. This one day, after picking her up, I drove up Potrero and I turned on 26th Street. Thinking to myself, "That's clever. I'll give her the ring on a street that's the same as the day we're gonna be wed." I don't remember what happened after that. Took her home? Went out to celebrate? Any way, she was moved and touched. Loved the ring. I can't even tell you where I got it. I must have gone to the local jeweler. But for Clara it had to be an impressive ring. I was in the service so I must have had some kind of salary.

We saw Father Pena at Corpus Christi church for our marriage preparation. I don't remember it being complex the way it is now when Catholics are gonna get married. They go through classes now. But we did prepare for making a commitment, marriage.

And then we had the marriage ceremony, also at Corpus Christi, which is in the Excelsior district, about 2 blocks from Grandpa's candy store. My best man was Bob Ruselli, a kid that I played ball with in high school. He signed a baseball contract and played with the Boston Braves. Nice family. Nice guy. Incredible athlete. He made All-City for basketball, football, and baseball. Incredible athlete. He was just incredible. Great attitude, too. He wasn't cocky. Good competitor, but he certainly was fun to be around.

Clara's mom and dad had very little money. They were not well off. But Clara wanted to have the reception at the Fairmont hotel, one of the nicest hotels in San Francisco. It was an afternoon reception. We got into vehicles and we drove down. We had Bob's car. A big Buick sedan. He drove us down to the Fairmont. It was not a well-organized reception. Some hors d'oeuvres, a buffet. My family sat together and Clara's family sat together. There was very little intermingling. But Clara wanted that reception at the Fairmont. There were probably 60, 70 people there. The setting was elegant, but it was low-key. I'm not sure how much fun people had. It was more small talk.

It was hard getting my mom and dad together. They had been divorced for a while now at this point. They did stand together for the wedding pictures that we took at the Fairmont, though. I can still see my dad next to my mom. It looked like he was leaning away from her a bit. They took the picture for us.

A wedding photo including Clara, me, and our parents
Clara's parents (left), Clara and me (middle), and my parents (right)
Clara and me in a car on our wedding day
Clara and me on our wedding day

After the reception I guess we drove back to the Excelsior district to our little studio apartment on Parque Drive, about a block away from the Cow Palace. That was our first time stepping foot in that studio. The living room had the sofa that made into a bed. Had a little kitchen. The stove was remarkable. The stove had the refrigerator on one side, the oven on the other, the burners in the middle, and the sink in the middle, too, next to the burners. All fitted to this one little corner. One bathroom and a closet. And it had a little TV in the corner. K Halbert. Blonde TV. The landlord was Manny Arujo. Nice family. They were very nice people. I never realized it until I was downstairs one day in the basement, but you could hear everything. I could hear Clara putting a pot on the sink or making a sound.

Next chapter: Military service & Korea