The Middle East was under siege, the Vice President of the United States had resigned, the final game of the World Series was under way and I was in a pair of red hot pants standing next to a water buffalo in Candlestick Park.
It was my final and grandest performance as a San Francisco 49er Nugget. From San Jose to the Top of the Mark, I wore the red uniform, cowboy hat and white vinyl boots that symbolize perhaps the most sophisticated and certainly the most successful promotional group in pro football. They had agreed that I could be with them for a week.
There are lavish bands like the Baltimore Colts', pompon girls like the Cincinnati Ben-Gals or the Buffalo Jills and cheerleaders like the Dallas Cowboys' long-legged knockouts. The Cowboy cheerleaders were once described as "disgraceful" by the male sponsor of another NFL pep group. "Those girls hang out all over the place," he said. To which Dallas sponsor Dee Brock responded, "If there's anything hanging out that isn't adorable, show me."
But in all the NFL, only San Francisco has the Nuggets. A Niner Nugget is not a cheerleader, and all 20 of them wince at the slightest hint that they are. They don't shake pompons or scream through megaphones. Unlike promotional groups with other teams (21 of the 26 NFL clubs had them in 1973) where the girls usually range in age from 16 to 21, the average Nugget is 27 and is closer to a gridiron version of a Dean Martin Golddigger. They sing, they dance, they sell the San Francisco 49ers. On this particular Sunday I was one of them, shuffling around on the AstroTurf, nervously awaiting the cue to sing You're a Grand Old Flag before the kickoff of a game between the 49ers and the New Orleans Saints. As a woman of questionable character said in a William Powell movie, I had "come a long way and left a wide path" since donning my white boots a week before.
About those boots, and the entire costume for that matter, my first reaction when Assistant Promotions Director Robin Mitchell handed me the ensemble was "Tacky, tacky, tacky." Polyester knit hotpants (I never wore hot pants when they were in), white felt cowboy hat (too big) and, worst of all, white vinyl, knee-high boots. I have spent half my life making fun of white vinyl boots. They are for car hops, hookers and ladies in Terre Haute, Ind.
Nonetheless, I would sooner have been clad in a Ronald McDonald suit as I crossed the elegant lobby of the St. Francis Hotel to meet Dick Berg, who was then promotions director and boy wonder of the 49ers, and is now the general manager of pro soccer's San Jose Earthquakes. Berg was taking me to my first Nugget function in a suburban department store an hour's ride from the city. A former Stanford quarterback, onetime assistant general manager of the Seattle SuperSonics and general manager of the Continental Football League's Seattle Rangers, Berg was 30, ambitious and had the kind of good looks San Francisco PR woman Suzy Strauss described as "that little boy face that says, 'Be my friend,' and the next thing you know, you'd do anything for him." In 1969, 49er President Lou Spadia met Berg and was so impressed with his work for the Rangers that he persuaded him to come to San Francisco to help romance a city that had been less than enthusiastic about its pro football team. In his four years with the 49ers, Berg and his promotion schemes were emphatically successful.
"A few years ago the people in this city were uninterested in the 49ers," said Wide Receiver Gene Washington. "If we were winning, that was O.K., but if we lost, forget it. It's not like that now."
"I don't know if community acceptance came because of a winning football team," said Spadia, "but the 49ers are now a definite part of the community. We have gotten involved in the area and the area has responded."
As for Berg's own part in all this, he says, becomingly, "Aw, I can't take much credit. I steal most of my ideas."
One idea he did not pilfer was the Nuggets. When he proposed using girls to promote the team, no one but Spadia thought it made any sense. That was four years ago. Today the Nuggets are firmly entrenched in the Bay Area consciousness. They have recorded an album with Reserve Quarterback Joe Reed, gone on a promotional cruise to Acapulco and are as well known as some of the players.