The French Canadian press in Montreal dubbed him the “Big Orange,” back in 1969 when he joined the Montreal Expos. His hair was as red as his bat was hot. We met almost half a century ago.
It was 1973. Toots Shor was turning 70 and Frank Gifford was throwing a birthday party for him at Toots Shor’s “joint.”
My grandfather and Toots were grand friends. I think Papa Warren even turned a spade at the opening of Toot’s saloon some years before. Anyway, I was just a few years out of Cal—and a stranger in New York. Toots took me under his wing and was my second father.
He invited me to the shindig.
“Bring a broad,” he said. (Yes, the vernacular was different in 1973).
I was new to town and knew few people so I invited “Dynamite Nancy,” a gorgeous 21 year old secretary at my offic, Dancer-Fitzgerald-& Sample, an ad agency.
“Dynamite Nancy” looked like Rita Hayworth. She was tall and svelte with ravishing long read hair—about the color of Staub’s—though I didn’t even notice at the time.
Those were the “Mad Men” days in advertising. It was long before #Metoo was a glimmer in anyone’s eye—lucky for all of us–males that is.
Having grown up in Napa Valley (long before we were chi chi like today)— out in the hills—a mile from the closest people–in New York, I was like a CNBC reporter at the White House. I had no clue what was going on around me—and felt decidedly out of place.
Toots’ saloon was packed and celebrities stood shoulder to shoulder as they bellied up to the bar. No one said “no” to Frank Gifford, back then.
I felt like Admiral Stockville in that famous debate. “What am I doing here?”
But don’t get me wrong. I reveled in every minute of it.
Perhaps sensing my unease, this big red headed guy comes up to me and starts talking. It’s Rusty Staub, starting right fielder for the New York Mets. I was dumbfounded.
Knowing that the press was all over the party. Nancy and I go back to my 5 story walk up to watch the 12 o’clock news on my black and white TV. Sure enough the cameraman zeros in on Nancy’s backside as she’s rocking to the music. For a girl from Queens, who’d barely been out of the neighborhood, this was a story she could tell for the rest of her life.
The next day (we didn’t have voice mail back then) our receptionist yells out loud for all my office mates to hear, “Jeff. Rusty Staub is on the phone for you.”
I pick up the phone and it is indeed Rusty Staub. (I’m assuming he was bowled over by my incredible knowledge of baseball, my wit and my sterling personality– that’s why he called).
The conversation went something like this:
“Hey, Jeff. It was great meeting you last night. Frank did a great job and Toots seemed really surprised. Say, tonight the Angels are coming into town. And after the game Jim Fregosi and Andy Messersmith (a former Cal pitcher) and I are going down to Tucker Frederickson’s joint, Duncan’s, for some drinks and dinner. Would you like to join us?”
Is Elizabeth Warren a Cherokee Indian?
“Tell you what. I’ll leave tickets at Will Call. Why don’t you bring Nancy—and bring a date for yourself too.”
When one was making $1,000 a month in New York, any mention of “tickets” with the adjective “free” in front of it, got one’s attention.
A true baseball slut, I had no pride.
That day was the beginning of a 45 year friendship.
I asked another copy writer, Donna, (again thank the good lord this was before #Metoo), and Dynamite Nancy, Donna and I took the subway out to the Mets Ball Park.
I don’t remember who won. I don’t remember how Rusty played. All I remember is that a car picked us all up (Messersmith, Fregosi, Staub, the girls and me) and we went down to Duncan’s.
A rookie in New York, I had been to a few singles bars before–but never a place like Duncan’s. That night, in the company of professional athletes, I was introduced into Big Boy night life. This was a world I had never seen before. Glamorous, well dressed girls were everywhere, and no one said, “I ordered the salad.”
It was an all together different league than I’d been used to. And Rusty brought me into it.
The next week he invited us over to his apartment and cooked us a meal. I hadn’t known he was such a chef. I brought him a bottle of Freemark Cabernet (three years later Freemark’s Cabernet Bosche would find itself in the Paris Tasting of 1976, and help Napa Valley break the back of the French). Rusty was heavy into wine and was thrilled that my father had been one of the founding fathers of Freemark Abby, back when there were no “boutique wineries.”
Not everyone remembers that during that 1973 season the Mets were In last place on Aug. 30th. They won 24 of 33 and took the NL East with just an 82-79 record. The “Amazin’ Mets (as opposed to the Miracle Mets of 1969) then upset Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine” in 5 games to win the National League pennant. I credit Dynamite Nancy.
Rusty later told me he opened the Freemark Cabernet the night they won the Pennant and earned the right to face the A’s in the Series. (That probably wasn’t true, but Rusty always wanted to make one feel good).
Rusty wasn’t in game 5, as he was the hero in game four with two home runs, and two over the shoulder catches in right field. Alas, the second one–which won the game in the 11th inning–found him careening into the wall and injuring his shoulder—crippling him for the series. Barely able to make weak, underhand throws, he still batted .423 with a home run, two doubles and six RBIs as New York lost in seven games to the A’s.
No one doubts, that had Rusty been healthy, the Mets would have won. We forget that that team had Tom Seaver (another current Napa Valley boy), Tug McGraw (author of “You gotta believe!”), manager Yogi Berra and even an over the hill Willie Mays coming off the bench.
As an aside, had Rusty been able to play at full strength in that Series, my guess he’d be in the Hall of Fame today. As it is, many pundits think he is the best player never to have been voted in.
Can’t remember when he opened Rusty’s but his “joint” was on the route of usual suspects, as we made the pilgrimage, daily after work, to Runyans, Suddam’s, Rusty’s, and Melon’s, until we lit at our “Cheers”, Jimmy McMullen’s on 3rd, near 77th St.
When my wife, Cindy, and I moved back home to St. Helena we saw Rusty five or six times a year as he came out for the Wine Auction, Garen Staglin’s Charity event; (he always stayed with the Staglins), and other trips to the Valley to pick up and taste various wines.
We also saw him in Florida when Cindy and I made trips there to visit our New York Homies—many of whom have retired to West Palm and environs.
Whenever we were together, ineveitably, we would say, “I wonder what happened to Dynamite Nancy?”
We last saw him about two or three months ago after church. He never missed mass when he was out here in St. Helena. He seemed to know and greet every vintner that filed out of church.
He didn’t look too well—had lost weight—which was good—but he poo-poo-ed that there were any health problems–though he admitted to a couple of serious ones I hadn’t known about.
He was his usual upbeat self, talking about his charities–how he liked helping the firemen and policeman (long before acknowledging first responders became hip) and passing on gossip about the boys and girls (who were our playmates back in the New York days) who now live near him in the sunshine state.
I hadn’t realized he was as ill as he apparently was.
No idea how many beers we shared or how many nights we spent out on the town. Only know that his smile and his generosity made each one of our lives much better. “Le Grand Orange” was an original. He was a tough guy. He had a big heart. He will be missed but never forgotten.
I wonder whatever happened to Dynamite Nancy?