In memory of Rusty Staub, one of the most underrated players in baseball history
Remembering a man who gave as much of himself as he possibly could to every endeavor he pursued
Rusty Staub, the godfather of baseball in Canada, a cult hero for generations of fans in New York and Montreal, a bon vivant and beloved teammate, and one of the most prolific athlete-philanthropists of all time, died Thursday of complications from multiple organ failure. He was 73.
One of the most underrated players in baseball history, Staub played 23 years in the big leagues, reaching base 4,050 times -- more than immortal hitting machines like Rogers Hornsby and Tony Gwynn. Decades before Moneyball turned on-base percentage into mainstream baseball gospel, Staub was one of the most patient hitters of his era, finishing in the top 10 in both walks and on-base percentage six times. Playing the bulk of his career during the lower-offense days of the 60s and 70s, Staub's career .279/.362/.431 line was 24 percent better than league average, in line with the rate stats put up by Hall of Famers like Kirby Puckett, Charlie Gehringer, and Enos Slaughter.
Staub's career started less auspiciously, through no fault of his own. Signed by Houston as a bonus-baby player at age 18 for the then-exorbitant price of $90,000, Staub faced blowback from teammates, his manager, upper management, and ownership for his teenage windfall. By his fifth season, Staub had become one of the most devastating hitters in the league, batting a gaudy .333 in 1967, with a .398 OBP. Still, the organization had anointed him as an organizational savior for the expansion Colt 45s (later the Astros). When Houston failed to break through quickly, Staub took much of the blame, his big initial payday and a lack of appreciation for his on-base skills making him a whipping boy, then trade bait.
The expansion Montreal Expos had no such reservations over Staub's skills, with their first manager Gene Mauch being a particularly huge admirer. "The best batting coach Houston ever had is Rusty Staub," Mauch said while still managing the Phillies, before coming to Montreal. "That boy made himself into a hitter, and he did one hell of a job."
On January 22, 1969, less than three months before their first game, the Expos pulled off a trade for Staub, shipping outfielders Jesus Alou and Donn Clendenon to Houston for him. But there was a snag. Clendenon refused to report to the Astros, saying he'd go work full time for the Scripto pen company instead. With the deal up in the air, Mauch, Expos GM Jim Fanning, team president John McHale, and owner Charles Bronfman devised an elaborate scheme. McHale had worked with new MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn in New York, so the Expos invited Kuhn for what was billed as a friendly visit to spring training. They secretly invited Staub at the same time.
When Kuhn went to pose for a picture with McHale and Fanning, Staub snuck into the photo at the last second, decked out in Expos gear. The AP photographer who snapped the photo, a friend of Fanning's, sent the image far and wide. Just like that, the Expos had built the perception of Staub being a member of the team, stymieing any potential effort by Kuhn to quash the deal.
And just like that, the Expos had the franchise player they sorely needed. Tall and athletic, with a shock of ginger hair, the Montreal faithful had the perfect name for their new center of attention: Le Grand Orange.
"He had so much charisma," Bronfman told me in a 2011 interview for Up, Up, & Away. "He liked the fans, and he learned a few words of French to help. He had been sort of a semi-star in Houston; now he wanted to be a big star. He found the place where he could be that big star."
Bronfman and Staub quickly grew close, and remained good friends until the end. But the Expos owner undersold the star player's efforts to learn the native language spoken by the majority of Montrealers. Staub grew frustrated and embarrassed with his inability to address the media or even talk to children in French. So the New Orleans native took 25 lessons to learn as much of the language as he could, as quickly as he could. When the fledgling franchise barnstormed the hinterlands of Canada for its annual winter caravan, Staub was the star attraction, dazzling fans from coast to coast and charming locals in Quebec communities that were far less bilingual than cosmopolitan Montreal.
When Staub appeared on the ubiquitous Saturday night staple Hockey Night In Canada, he answered questions during the first intermission in French, the second in English. His Q rating grew even more.
"It was great; I got letters from all over the country," Staub told me in 2012. Learning French, he said, "was one of the best decisions of my entire life. It meant so much to me, to build that rapport between myself and the people of Montreal and Quebec. To this day, it still means a lot to me."
It helped that Staub absolutely raked. He batted an incredible .302/.426/.526 in the Expos' inaugural 1969 season, cranking 29 homers and walking nearly twice as often as he struck out. Only all-timers Willie McCovey, Hank Aaron, and Roberto Clemente fared better by park-adjusted offensive metrics. Staub's first three years in Montreal were also his third, fourth, and fifth straight seasons as an All-Star. The Expos stunk in those first three seasons but still packed tiny, rustic Jarry Park on many nights, powered by the novelty of a major league team, plus the talent and magnetism that Staub showed off every time he put on the uniform.
The enormous skill, the good looks, the community outreach efforts every sports team could only dream of, even the kind of do-your-own-thing personality that prompted the gourmand Staub to take cooking implements on the road with him (and later become a successful restaurateur) -- Le Grand Orange could do no wrong in la belle province.
Then, out of nowhere, he was gone. Just before the start of the 1972 season, the Expos dealt the fan favorite to end all fan favorites to New York. Though the Mets sent an impressive package of three young players back (including an excellent outfielder with a skill set similar to Staub's in Ken Singleton), Montrealers were crushed.
Their loss was Mets fans' gain. Though Staub's numbers dipped compared to his massive output in Montreal, he remained one of the more potent hitters in the league. He'd spend four years with the Mets in the mid-70s, then five more in Queens at the end of his career, in the 80s. Staub made numerous close friends in New York, few closer than Keith Hernandez. Speaking about Staub's death on Thursday, the former All-Star first baseman once spotted Staub holding a little red book with information on every pitcher he'd ever faced. Staub demurred, saying Hernandez needed to earn it first. When Staub retired in 1985, he had a going-away present for his friend and teammate: the little red book.
"This is a sad day for Met Land," Hernandez told reporters on Thursday. "Rusty was a very dear friend. He has his place in Met lore and also the city. It's a tough day."
Staub's passing felt eerily similar to the untimely death of Gary Carter in 2012, with both Montrealers and New Yorkers mourning a player and leading man who was adored by both fan bases, and provided countless indelible memories. When Staub returned to Montreal in a midseason trade in 1979, Expos fans serenaded him with a five-minute standing ovation that remains one of the most emotional moments in the star-crossed franchise's history.
"When they do the autopsy on me... they'll find MTL on a little part of my heart," Staub once said of the city that first made him a star. "What I've had in Montreal, in Canada, has been a spectacular part of my life."
Superstar, matinee idol, fan favorite, favorite teammate, Staub's legacy as a player was impressive, and manifold. Yet all of that paled in comparison to his incredible philanthropic efforts. He founded the Rusty Staub Foundation in 1985, establishing food pantries around New York City and helping to raise more than $17 million for similar charities. Staub later established the New York Police and Fire Widows' and Children's Benefit Fund, an organization that has raised a staggering $112 million since the attacks of September 11. Listen to this interview Staub did with Montreal journalists Dave Kaufman and Jay Farrar in 2013 and you get the measure of a man who cared.
Opening Day of the 2018 season brought new beginnings for fans of all 30 teams. From Ian Happ homering on the first pitch of the season to Justin Verlander starting the Astros' quest for a repeat with six masterful innings, the day gave us a jolt of electricity at the start of what promises to be another memorable year.
No matter who you root for, though, share a thought for one of the true gentlemen to ever play the game. As you get ready to tackle your day, pour yourself a glass of OJ, maybe add a splash of orange to your outfit. Remember a man who gave as much of himself as he possibly could to every endeavor he pursued.
Au revoir, Rusty. There will never be another like you.
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