The first time I heard the name Rusty Staub, I was listening to a Dodgers game at home in suburban Los Angeles. When he came up to bat, Vince Scully went on and on about him. He was only nineteen years old. He was a $100,000 bonus baby from New Orleans. He was the cornerstone of the newborn Houston Colt 45’s.
Daniel J. “Rusty” Staub embodied the expansion team’s future. He was the first of many great young players that signed with the Colts in the early years. I was a high school junior, three years younger than Rusty when he hit the big time. It excited me to think about such a young player making it to the major leagues because I was already getting some attention from major league scouts myself. Little did I know, Rusty and I would be teammates a little more than two years later.
I signed with Houston after my senior year and was called up at the end of 1964 season. Rusty and I became friends because we were so much younger than the other players. We were roommates in 1965. At that point, he had some trouble with off-speed pitches. But nobody could throw a fastball by him. Not Bob Gibson. Not even Sandy Koufax.
Rusty came out of Jesuit High School in New Orleans. He led his team to the Louisiana State Championship in 1961, batting .300 – on his home runs alone. He choked up a couple of inches on the bat and with his sturdy torso he could turn on a pitch as well as anyone I’ve ever seen.
One spring, we worked out with an Exer-Genie device. The guys hated it because it was hard work. The device has a tubular steel shell about three inches in diameter and it’s about ten inches long. It has ropes inside that come out with handles on one end, and a tie down strap on the other. The tension is set by twisting the outer body. You can stand on the strap and do curls, attach it to the top of a door and do triceps work, or even replicate the throwing motion or the golf swing. That spring in Cocoa Florida, the Astros attached a bunch of them to 4x4’s at varying heights outside the locker room. We all did a circuit, working every muscle in our bodies every day. By the end of that spring, I was stronger than I had ever been.
I’m surprised the Exer-Genie never became popular, but a quick Google search reveals it is still available. YouTube videos demonstrate how to use it. Anyway, in one of the exercises, we did it was attached low to the ground for sit-ups. Rusty could set that machine about three or four notches higher than anyone on the team. His torso was unbelievably strong.
After we traded him to the Expos, I had to face him and he was a really tough out. Standing close to the plate, using a short bat and choking up on it, he defied you to jam him. If you didn’t know better, you might be tempted to pound fastballs in on his hands. He would disabuse you of that notion right away. Nobody could beat him inside. And it was hard to strike him out. He was the rare power hitter who walked more than he fanned.
If Rusty was the cornerstone, the young building blocks came in rapid succession. General Manager Paul Richards had a good eye for talent. In the next two years, he added all of the following All-Star caliber players: Joe Morgan, Jimmy Wynn, Larry Dierker, Don Wilson, Doug Rader, Bob Watson and Jerry Grote. Four or five other players who were regulars for more than ten years came up too. We were young and would have become a force, but Richards got fired and the new GM traded much of that talent away. Shortly after Richards left, we also got Mike Cuellar, Jerry Reuss, Jose Cruz, J. R. Richard and Cesar Cedeno. We could have had all these guys on the same team and still young. It would have been similar to what the Astros have now!
Rusty was the first and perhaps the most beloved – except by general managers. He was a tough negotiator at contract time, which prompted his first trade from Houston to Montreal. He took French lessons in Montreal until he was able to do interviews and appearances in the native language of many fans in Quebec. His second language also served him well later in life when he attended wine auctions in France. Expos fans loved him. They called him Le Grand Orange.
Even as a teenager, he wasn’t quite like the rest of us. He hung out with chefs and bankers. He learned more about food and wine from Expos owner Charles Bronfman. Then after he was traded to the Mets, he opened two restaurants in the city. He was often the life of the party, but he liked his private time too. He escorted a lot of lovely ladies, but he never got married. I’ve never met a ballplayer, or anyone else, who was even remotely like him.
Rusty moved on to the Tigers, the Expos again for a short stint, the Rangers and then the Mets again, playing baseball for 23 years. He is one of a few players to have hit a home run before he turned twenty and after he turned forty. Everywhere he went, he was an RBI machine. Rusty was only an average runner when he was young and toward the end of his career, he was not a good defensive player. The food and wine he loved so much didn’t help his mobility. Even so, he could always hit.
In 1980, he became a free agent and was lured back to New York Mets by General Manager Frank Cashen. He was promised the first base job. During his years with the Tigers and Rangers, he was used mostly as a DH. But when the Mets picked up Dave Kingman that same off-season, there was no position for Rusty to play. He could only pinch hit, which he did for five years setting many pinch-hitting records. To the end, he maintained that Cashen lied to him. It probably cost him the Hall of Fame. Rusty finished with 2716 hits. Had he stayed in the American League and continued to act as a DH, he would surely have gotten over 3,000 hits. He would have ended up with about 1700 RBI. And he would have scored about 1400 runs. As it stands, he is not quite a Hall of Fame player statistically. Frank Thomas played far fewer games than Rusty in the field and he has a plaque in Cooperstown. Edgar Martinez may be next. And there will be more. Personally, I would not vote for a player who spent the majority of his career as a DH. For me, that’s only half the game.
During Rusty’s second stint in New York and throughout his retirement, he spent a lot of time and money on his adopted charities. The Rusty Staub Foundation raised over eleven million dollars for police and firefighters killed in the line of duty in its first fifteen years. Then after 9/11, it raised one hundred twelve million more. Rusty hosted an annual wine auction dinner and held a golf tournament in each of his last ten years to raise money for Catholic Charities, which in turn distributed over nine million meals to needy families in the New York area.
Daniel J. “Rusty” Staub passed away two days before his seventy-fourth birthday, and on the opening day of the 2018 baseball season. The lives he touched stretch from coast to coast.
“He often visited me,” Tom Seaver said when he got the news at his vineyard in Calistoga, at the top of the Napa Valley. “I will miss him. Most of all I will miss his energy. Everything he did was at 90 miles an hour.”
Text messages, emails, and voicemail filled my life yesterday. If there is a funeral, I will see a lot of people I know. A lot of people, who will travel a lot of miles at more than 90 miles an hour to bid him adieu.
Au revoir, my friend.