R.I.P. Rusty Staub, Hitter and Humanitarian

A celebrity chef and restauranteur, a philanthropist, an icon in two cities, an All-Star in three, and the only player to collect at least 500 hits with four different franchises — Rusty Staub was all that and more. “Le Grand Orange,” who played in the major leagues from 1963 through 1985 and collected 2,716 hits including 292 homers, passed away on Thursday, hours before the start of the 2018 season and three days shy of his 74th birthday. If he wasn’t quite a Hall of Famer as a player, he most certainly was as a humanitarian, raising more than $100 million to combat hunger and to benefit the widows and families of police, firemen, and first responders killed in the line of duty.

“He was a George Plimpton character who didn’t have to be invented,” wrote Faith and Fear in Flushing’s Greg Prince.

A native of New Orleans, Daniel Joseph Staub — the son of a minor-league catcher — gained his first nickname from a nurse at the hospital he was born, for the red fuzz covering his head. Playing alongside older brother Chuck, he helped Jesuit High School to the 1960 American Legion national championship and the 1961 Louisiana State AAA championship. Major-league scouts from 16 teams beat a path to his door, and Staub wound up signing for a bonus of either $90,000 or $100,000 (sources differ) with the expansion Houston Colt .45s in 1961. He put in a big season for the Class-B Durham Bulls in 1962, leading the league with 149 hits and the next year, just eight days past his 19th birthday, was the Colts’ Opening Day right fielder. He went 1-for-3 that day, collecting an RBI single off the Giants’ Jack Sanford for his first hit, but batted a dismal .224/.309/.308 with six homers in 150 games for the 96-loss team, which was in its second year of existence.

When Staub struggled again in 1964, carrying a .202 batting average into early July, the Colt .45s demoted him to Triple-A for a two-and-a-half month stay. In his first start upon returning, he homered off future Hall of Famer Jim Bunning. He was in the majors to stay. After solid seasons in 1965 and -66, the 23-year-old sweet-swinging lefty broke out to hit .333/.398/.473 for the Astros in 1967, making his first of six All-Star teams, leading the NL with 44 doubles, and ranking fourth in on-base percentage, fifth in batting average, eighth in wRC+ (147), and 16th in WAR (4.7).

Playing half his games in the spacious Astrodome, where a major-league-low 63 homers were hit in 1967, Staub didn’t display much power, collecting just 10 homers that year and a high of 14 during seven years in Houston. “I’ve got power,” he told Sports Illustrated’s Gary Ronberg, “but not enough to hit home runs consistently in the Astrodome. I had to decide what kind of hitter I was going to be. Now I go up to bat with the idea of hitting the ball where it’s pitched and hitting it on a line or on the ground. I tell myself to stay back and wait until I see the pitch. When I do I attack it. Snap! One reflex action — the same every time.”

Despite his successful approach, Staub clashed with Astros hitting coach Harry Walker, a former NL batting champ, but he impressed Gene Mauch, the manager of the Phillies, who told SI, “The best batting coach Houston ever had is Rusty Staub. That boy made himself into a hitter, and he did one hell of a job.”

Walker became the Astros’ manager in mid-1968, the Year of the Pitcher. Staub batted .291/.373/.387, more than respectable under the circumstances, placing fourth in OBP, ninth in AVG, and 15th in wRC+, but further clashes — including an eight-day holdout in the spring of that year — rankled the poorly run Astros, who traded him to the expansion Montreal Expos (managed by Mauch) in January 1969.

The deal hit a snag when one of the two Expos expansion draft picks headed to Houston, Donn Clendenon, refused to report. Clendenon had played for Walker (whose brother, Dixie, led an infamous revolt against Jackie Robinson in the spring of 1947) and was among the many black players (including Astros stars Joe Morgan and Jimmy Wynn) who felt he was racist. As Jonah Keri recounted in his Expos history, Up, Up, & Away, the fate of the trade hung in the balance as new commissioner Bowie Kuhn intervened. The Expos rushed Staub into uniform during spring training, had him photographed by an AP photographer, and used it for publicity. They gained leverage with the brash move, driving the Astros crazy but leading Kuhn to revise the deal without Clendenon (who would be traded to the championship-bound Mets in June) rather than rescind it.

Le Grande Orange at Montreal’s Jarry Park, 1969
(Photo: Benoit Brouillette)

In the Expos’ inaugural game, Staub played right field, batted third, and reached base five times against Mets starter Tom Seaver and three relievers, recording a single, three walks, and an eighth-inning solo homer off Al Jackson. The Expos won, 11-10. Staub hit a sizzling .302/.426/.526 with 29 homers, 110 walks, a 167 wRC+ (fourth in the NL, as was his OBP), and 6.1 WAR (ninth) that year. The Expos lost 110 games, including 20 in a row in May and June, but when Staub homered and made a game-saving catch in the streak-ending victory, the Montreal Gazette dubbed him “Le Grand Orange.”

Staub took it upon himself to learn French and became an ambassador for the team throughout Canada. “There’s not a question that my making that effort is part of the reason that whatever Le Grand Orange represented to Montreal and all those fans, they knew I cared and I tried,” he later said. Via owner Charles Bronfman, the Seagrams whiskey heir, Staub learned about fine wine, and his celebrity status gained him access to Montreal’s top chefs, furthering his burgeoning interest in cooking.

Staub earned All-Star honors in each of his three seasons with the Expos. His 17.9 WAR over that span ranked ninth in the majors; his 148 wRC+, 11th. Nonetheless, the still-downtrodden Expos couldn’t pass up a three-for-one deal with the Mets in early April 1972 — a point when the first players’ strike was in effect — with outfielder Ken Singleton, shortstop Tim Foli and first baseman Mike Jorgensen heading to Montreal.

On April 2, Easter Sunday, Staub had crossed paths with Mets manager Gil Hodges at St. Ann’s Church of West Palm Beach. He thanked Hodges for choosing him for the All-Star team in 1970, and Hodges, who knew a deal was in the works, engaged him in a particularly friendly 10-minute conversation, which struck Staub as odd: “I remember thinking ‘wow Easter is something.’ Here are these guys that I’ve been beating to death, ’cause I did have some good runs against the Mets, and here they were so nice to me.”

Hodges died of a heart attack later that day, at age 47. The trade, and the appointment of Yogi Berra as Mets manager, was announced three days later, hours after Hodges’ funeral.

Under Berra, the Mets went 83-73 that year. It was Staub’s first time on a team that finished above .500, but he was limited to 66 games by a broken hand; the Mets were an NL-best 36-20 when he went down but faded in his absence. Though the team went just 82-79 the next year, they won the NL East. The 29-year-old Staub hit .279/.361/.421 with 15 homers, including .307/.378/.465 with four homers in September, as the Mets edged the Cardinals by 1.5 games. Staub collected just three hits in the NLCS against the Reds, but all three were homers, a solo shot in the Mets’ Game 2 victory and two in another win the next day, the first of which came off Ross Grimsley, the pitcher who had broken his hand. In Game 4, Staub suffered a separated right shoulder crashing into the wall to take away an 11th-inning extra-base hit. The Reds won in 12, but the Mets secured the pennant while Staub sat out the next game. Limited to a pinch-hit cameo in the World Series opener against the A’s, Staub returned to go 11-for 26 with three extra-base hits, leading both teams in hits but winding up on the short end of the seven-game series. He went 4 for 4 in New York’s 6-1 Game 4 victory, with a three-run first-inning homer off Ken Holtzman and a two-run single off Darold Knowles,

After two more seasons with the increasingly financially distressed Mets, Staub — the team’s second-highest paid player at $120,000 — was dealt to the Tigers in a four-player deal that featured pitcher Mickey Lolich on the other side. He hit .307/.378/.465 with 15 homers and a 135 wRC+, making his sixth and final All-Star team. He took to full-time DH duty the next year, and hit 46 homers and drove in 222 runs in 1977-78, winning the league’s Designated Hitter of the Year Award in the latter season, when his 121 RBIs placed second in the league.

Though Staub had signed a three-year, $200,000 per-year extension in 1978, he wanted more security (and money) and so held out to start the 1979 season. The Tigers were unsympathetic to his plight. Staub held out until May 3. He scuffled for two-and-a-half months, then was sent back to the Expos, who found themselves in contention for the NL East flag, on July 20. Upon returning, he received a five-minute standing ovation from the Olympic Stadium crowd. Pinch-hitting and spotting at first base, he hit .267/.366/.407 in 101 PA, but the Expos fell short of a playoff berth. The following spring, they traded him to the Rangers. Though he chafed at being reduced to part-time duty at the age of 36 and missed a month due to a broken finger, Staub hit .300/.370/.459 in 388 PA.

A free agent after the season, Staub felt the pull of New York City, where he’d opened his first restaurant, Rusty’s, in 1977. When Mets general manager Frank Cashen promised Staub the everyday first-base job, he signed a three-year, $1 million deal, but two months later, Cashen traded for slugger Dave Kingman. “Cashen lied to me,” Staub later said. “I wasn’t ready to be a backup player. I still had a lot of hits in me.”

Staub spent the final five seasons of his career (1981-85) as a Met, mentoring many players who would be part of the team’s 1986 championship squad. He served as the team’s player representative during the 1981 strike, showing his disdain for the owners’ lead negotiator, Ray Grebey, by handing out New York Times crossword puzzles during negotiations and saying, “If you want to play word games, let’s do it right.”

On the field, Staub fared well in the part-time outfield/first-base role and thrived as a pinch-hitter. In 94 pinch-hitting appearances in 1983 alone, he hit .296/.372/.481 with 24 hits, three homers, and 25 RBIs, tying Jerry Lynch’s single-season mark set in 1961. Staub’s 99 career pinch-hits ranks 19th all-time, his 92 pinch-RBIs sixth. Even so, the 169 total hits he collected over that five-year span left him 284 short of 3,000, which almost certainly would have guaranteed him entry into the Hall of Fame. On September 25, 1984, he hit a pinch-homer off the Phillies’ Larry Andersen, thus joining Ty Cobb as only the second player to homer before his 20th birthday and after his 40th.

Upon retiring at the end of the 1985 season, Staub gave Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez a little red notebook he kept on pitchers, going back to the 1960s. “All the pitchers and how they gave away their pitches,” recalled Hernandez on Thursday. “I said, ‘Let me have that book.’ He says, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Why?’ And he goes, ‘You haven’t earned it.’ So when he retired, as his going-away present on the day he said goodbye, he gave me the book. I still have it at home.”

In 1986, Staub was inducted into the Mets’ Hall of Fame and joined the Mets’ WWOR broadcast booth, working home games with Tim McCarver and Ralph Kiner, a job he held through 1995. He opened his second restaurant, Rusty Staub’s on Fifth in 1989.

His bigger off-field impact came as he poured himself into charitable causes. In 1985, he started the Rusty Staub Foundation, dedicated to fighting hunger. According to the foundation’s web site, the organization raised more than $17 million towards that end. Via the New York Daily NewsBill Madden, the foundation, in conjunction with Catholic Charities, served over nine million meals throughout New York over the past 10 years via money raised through Staub’s annual wine auction and celebrity golf tournament.

Also in 1985, Staub started the New York Police and Fire Widows’ and Children’s Benefit Fund. His own uncle, a New Orleans policeman, had died in the line of duty when Staub was a child. According to Staub, up to the September 11, 2001 attacks, the organization had distributed $8.3 million. The Mets donated the proceeds of their first 9/11 game following the attack, about $450,000, to his fund. In the years since 9/11, the fund raised and distributed more than $100 million.

Staub struggled with his weight and his health in retirement. In 2015, he suffered a heart attack while flying from Ireland to New York and was revived by two doctors on board. On March 3, as his kidneys failed, the Daily News put him on their cover, asking for “Prayers for Rusty.”

Before the Mets’ opener against the Cardinals at Citi Field on Thursday, the team held a moment of silence to honor both Staub and Ed Charles, who died earlier this month. Like Charles, who devoted his post-career life to helping others, Staub left a legacy that goes far beyond baseball. His singular on-field accomplishment — 792 hits as an Astro, 709 as a Met, 582 as a Tiger and 531 as an Expo — testifies to the way he took to his surroundings everywhere he went, and the same was true far beyond the game.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Jon L.

Nicely done.