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In Montreal they love Le Grand Orange
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July 06, 1970

In Montreal They Love Le Grand Orange

The Expos knew they were getting a good ballplayer when they traded for Rusty Staub, but not in their happiest dreams could they have imagined what a valuable ambassador of goodwill they had in the redhead

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It was lunch hour in Montreal , and the outdoor mall of La Place Ville Marie was swinging noisily to the beat of a steel band as thousands of dark-haired French-Canadian secretaries, all wearing the micro-miniest of skirts, paraded around the kiosks, oblivious, it seemed, to the stares of tortured French-Canadian men. Suddenly, though, the mall was still and all eyes were fixed on the tall, red-haired man entering La Place from an adjacent building. A young girl shouted, "C'est Le Grand Orange."

Rusty Staub started to walk across the mall. Girls tried to guess his route so they could form human roadblocks. Some succeeded. Men, content perhaps to study the scurrying forms of the females, simply yelled at him.

"Quand gagneront les Expos une autre victoire? [When will the Expos win another game?]"

"Ce soir, j'esp�re [Tonight, I hope]," Staub answered.

He walked fast. Faster. Still faster. The crowd followed him, swelling in size. Finally, his clothes intact, Staub revolved through the doors of La Popina, a stylish restaurant. More people—sedate businessmen, housewives, shutterbug tourists—approached his table and requested autographs. Staub signed napkins, handkerchiefs, blank checks for all. "Mes Meilleurs Souhaits, Le Grand Orange [My Best Wishes, Rusty]," he wrote. Then he ordered his own lunch.

Staub laughed. "Have you ever seen such excitement, such absolute chaos in your life?" he asked. "And, remember, there were a lot of people in baseball who said Montreal would never be a major league city. Now show me a better one."

Le Grande Orange, more than anyone else, has helped make Montreal not only a major league city but also one of the half dozen best towns in baseball. After he was traded to the new Expos by the Houston Astros in January 1969, Staub, smartly, immersed himself completely in the city of Montreal , the province of Quebec and the entire country of Canada . He leased an apartment only a three-block underground walk from the Forum and became an instant Canadiens hockey nut. Then he hired a tutor and took French lessons.

"I felt I should be able to communicate with the people of Montreal in their own language," he explained. "After all, they were interested in baseball. I thought I should be interested enough in them to learn how to converse with them."

Staub surprises even himself with what he can say in French. "I still must translate English thoughts into French words," he says, "but there will be a day when I will be able to think in French, too." In the meantime, he makes speeches in French. Last winter he passed up all the warm-weather celebrity golf tournaments as well as Mardi Gras back home in New Orleans and gave talks at more than 50 places throughout frigid Canada—usually charging only for his legitimate expenses. In Quebec his tongue was French, everywhere else, English. " Rusty Staub ," says John McHale , the president of the Expos, "did the greatest job of public relations for baseball that I have ever seen."

What Staub really did was sell baseball to a city—indeed, a whole nation—that will have to live with a losing team for more years than it probably ever imagined. In 1969, its first big-league season, Montreal finished last in the National League East but had a home attendance of over 1.2 million—approximately twice what either the San Diego or Seattle franchises drew—despite playing in tiny, 28,456-seat Parc Jarry. This was an amazing record for a city accustomed to winners (Les Canadiens and the old' Brooklyn Dodger farm club, the Royals ). So far this season the Expos are still in last place, and they most likely will remain there, but home attendance has increased more than 34,000 for comparative dates.

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