Hitting virtuoso Rusty Staub gave the Tigers three fine seasons at the plate

The 1977 Topps baseball card featuring Rusty Staub shows him coming out of the batters’ box after completing his swing. He was an All-Star in 1976, also noted on his card.

At a time when the Detroit Tigers were mostly mediocre, Rusty Staub gave fans a legitimate reason to come to the ballpark. He was an artist at the plate, not just a slugger, but a skilled batsman who understood the nuances of the strike zone and the importance of using the entire field, foul line to foul line. If you couldn’t enjoy watching Staub take an at-bat, you couldn’t enjoy baseball at all.

Like his hitting ability, Staub’s 1977 Topps card stands out among the players on the Tigers. Most of the 1977 Tigers can be seen in standard posed shots, usually taken on the sidelines during pregame or spring training workouts. Staub’s card is one of the few action shots in the group, a nice, clear photograph taken from the perspective of the third place dugout. The card also gives us a full view of Staub’s stockings; he always preferred the old school look of the high stirrups, allowing us to see those distinctive orange stripes that the Tigers once featured on their socks.

There is perhaps more to be gleaned from the card. Based on the reaction from Staub, and the direction he seems to be looking toward, it appears that Staub has hit either a line drive or a fly ball to the opposite field. That should come as no surprise; he was a terrific hitter who frequently used the opposite field, equally adept at hitting for average and with power, and more than willing to take a walk.

By 1977, Staub has established a reputation as one of the game’s best pure hitters. His hitting pedigree dated back to his days growing up in New Orleans, where Staub drew the attention of numerous major league scouts in the early 1960s. At one point, the Boston Red Sox sent Ted Williams to attempt to recruit the young first baseman, but Staub ultimately signed his first contract with the expansion Houston Colt .45s in 1961.

Staub moved up quickly within the fledgling Houston organization. He hit so well during spring training in 1963 that the Colt .45s included him on their Opening Day roster, shifting him from first base to right field so that he could play every day. The fast promotion turned out to be a mistake; Staub was only 19 and not ready to handle major league pitching, as evidenced by the .224 batting average and six home runs that he would post as a rookie.

After splitting the 1964 season between Houston and Triple-A Oklahoma City, Staub began to blossom in 1965. With the franchise now known as the Astros and playing at the Astrodome, Staub hit 14 home runs and batted a respectable .256. Over the next three years, he became a star, twice earning MVP votes, leading the league in doubles in 1967, and earning two All-Star Game selections. Given the cavernous nature of the Astrodome, and the general dominance of pitching over hitting in the late 1960s, Staub’s numbers took on an even more authoritative tenor.

Staub should have remained with the Astros for the long haul, but the team’s decision to promote Harry Walker to manager in the middle of 1968 did not bode well for the young star. Staub and Walker, who had served as batting coach, did not get along. Walker believed that Staub should hit for more power, while Rusty felt more comfortable driving the ball into the gaps for singles and doubles. Given the dimensions of the Astrodome, the Staub approach made more sense.

Stubbornly and foolishly, Walker convinced Astros general manager Spec Richardson to trade Staub. So in January of 1969, the Astros sent Staub to the expansion Montreal Expos as part of a blockbuster four-player deal that brought slugging first baseman Donn Clendenon to Houston. Clendenon, wanting no part of Harry Walker himself, refused to report. The Astros and Expos reworked the deal, allowing Staub to remain in Montreal.

The trade turned out to be the perfect tonic for Staub’s career. Having grown up in New Orleans, Staub already felt a connection to French culture, also a major part of the experience of living in Montreal. A local sportswriter, Ted Blackman of the Montreal Gazette, took one look at Staub, with his bright red hair and large frame, and dubbed him “Le Grand Orange.” Translated from French into English, the nickname meant The Big Orange. It was a perfect fit for Rusty Staub, and would remain with him for the rest of his career.

Staub fully immersed himself into Montreal’s culture, choosing to live there year-round and making a concerted effort to learn the French language. Over the next three seasons, Staub became a cult figure in Montreal. The fans embraced him as if he were a native of Montreal. They even loved his unique way of running—a high-stepping style in which his knees practically seemed to reach the level of his waist.

Staub emerged as an offensive force, especially now that he had been freed from the shackles of the Astrodome. Over the next three years, he hit 78 home runs, twice reached the century mark in walks, and made three consecutive All-Star teams. In retrospect, it’s hard to believe that the popular Staub did not remain in Montreal for the rest of his career. But the Expos were losing games and needed a massive injection of talent. In the meantime, Staub was their most valuable commodity. So in April of 1972, the Expos traded Staub to the New York Mets, acquiring three younger talents in Tim Foli, Ken Singleton, and Mike Jorgensen. Upon hearing the news of the trade, Staub cried.

After starring for the Mets in the early seventies, and helping the team win the pennant in ’73, Staub eventually found his way to the Motor City. But it almost didn’t happen. After the 1975 season, the Mets entertained offers for Staub, who was now 31 years old, making a lot of money, and on the verge of becoming a 10-and-5 player (which meant that he could veto any trade). The Mets’ front office talked to the Baltimore Orioles, expressing serious interest in young third baseman Doug DeCinces, one of the top prospects in the Orioles’ organization. The Mets felt that DeCinces would solve their longstanding third base problem. Mets chairman M. Donald Grant gave his approval to the deal, but he soon found himself overruled by team owner Linda de Roulet, who didn’t like the idea of trading a brand name star for an unproven minor leaguer. De Roulet scuttled the deal.

That decision set the scene for another trade. Determined to shed a high salary, the Mets went back to the trading table, this time working out a deal with the Tigers. They agreed to send Staub and pitcher Bill Laxton to Detroit for outfielder Billy Baldwin and aging left-hander Mickey Lolich, the Tigers’ onetime ace who was now showing signs of slippage in his mid-thirties.

The trade turned out to be an outright steal for the Tigers. Lolich had little left in the tank, while Staub was still in his prime. The Tigers made Staub their everyday right fielder in 1976 and watched Staub put up a typically good, all-round offensive season. Staub hit .299, clubbed 15 home runs, totaled 83 walks against only 49 strikeouts, and posted an on-base percentage of .386. In his first season as an American Leaguer, Staub made the All-Star team.

It was during that 1976 season that Staub’s interests in cooking and fine wine first became known publicly. People Magazine ran a short feature titled “The Detroit Tigers’ Rusty Staub Bats Left, but He Chops, Mixes and Cooks Just Right.” The article provided details about the gumbo dinners that Staub, a master chef, liked to prepare for his Tigers teammates. Staub explained that he had begun cooking as a minor leaguer in the Houston farm system, where he lived with three other teammates. “I hated cleaning up and doing all the household chores,” Staub told People, “so I did the grocery buying and cooking.”

On the field, Staub had played an acceptable right field in 1976, the Tigers decided to make him their designated hitter in 1977, while making room for the younger and more athletic Ben Oglivie in right field. Staub’s batting average and on-base percentage suffered somewhat in ’77, but he compensated by hitting for more power (22 home runs) and improving his slugging percentage to .448.

In 1978, Staub produced almost identical numbers. He hit 24 home runs, compiled a career high 121 RBI, and reached base nearly 35 per cent of the time while again filling the DH role. Staub played so well that American League beat writers gave him significant support for the league MVP Award. Staub finished an impressive fifth in the balloting, behind only Jim Rice, Ron Guidry, Larry Hisle, and Amos Otis. Staub’s ranking was even more impressive given that the Tigers finished fifth, well out of the money in the stacked American League East. That season, Rusty served in another role: he mentored several of the young Tiger cubs who were arriving in the big leagues, including promising middle infielders Alan Trammell and Sweet Lou Whitaker.

Although Staub had signed a lucrative contract prior to the 1978 season, he now felt he was underpaid. So he asked the Tigers to renegotiate his contract that winter. Predictably, under the stingy general manager Jim Campbell, the Tigers refused. Staub responded by holding out of spring training. He told the Tigers that he was willing to leave baseball for good, so that he could concentrate efforts on his burgeoning restaurant in New York City. The Tigers refused to budge, insisting that they would not renegotiate a deal that they had bargained in good faith with Staub.

By Opening Day, the impasse remained, neither side willing to flinch. Finally, Staub conceded. He reported to the team, but without the benefit of spring training workouts. On May 3, he made his season debut, about a month after the rest of the Tigers had started their season.

Without spring training, and with the clock ticking on his 35-year-old body, Staub struggled. His batting average wallowed in the .230s, an unknown neighborhood to Staub. With Staub struggling, and with the team perhaps still angry over his decision to hold out, the Tigers decided to move on. On July 30, the Tigers traded Staub back to the Expos, accepting merely a player to be named later and cash as compensation. For a brand name player like Staub, it was a paltry return.

In coming to bat for the Expos for the first time in his return, Staub received a standing ovation from the fans in Montreal, who remembered him well from his first tenure with the team. He played sparingly over the balance of the season, used mostly as a pinch-hitter and part-time player. The following spring, Staub found himself on the move again. Making room for younger players, the Expos dealt him to the Texas Rangers for two minor leaguers. Staub became the Rangers’ primary DH and delivered a .300 batting average, but with little power. After the season, the Rangers allowed him to leave via free agency.

Staub decided to return to his National League roots, this time with the Mets; the move allowed him to be closer to his New York restaurant. He took on a role as a pinch-hitter and backup, and played especially well in his first year back, hitting .317 off the bench. For the next four seasons, he remained a productive player for the Mets, a pinch-hitting specialist who usually turned in quality at-bats in the late innings. One of the highlights of his career occurred in 1984, when he hit a home run at the age of 40. He joined Ty Cobb as the only players in history to hit home runs prior to their 20th birthday and after their 40th birthday.

Staub continued to fill a role as a pinch-hitter through the 1985 season, finally retiring at the age of 41. Even in his final season, Staub remained a tough out. In 55 plate appearances, Staub posted an OPS of .800.

If Staub had hung on for one final season, he would have earned a World Series ring as part of the 1986 Mets. Instead, he concentrated his efforts on his two New York restaurants, did color commentary for the Mets on both radio and TV, and formed two charitable organizations, one aimed at helping the widows of police and firefighters and the other geared toward providing food for children in underprivileged families.

On a personal level, Staub’s health remained relatively good until he suffered a heart attack while on a flight to New York City from Ireland in October of 2015. But he a made a remarkably fast recovery, feeling well enough to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the National League Division Series only one week later.

With his restaurants now closed, Staub is now enjoying retirement. He is mostly remembered for his years in New York and Montreal, while his tenure in Detroit tends to have faded from memory. That’s unfortunate in light of how Staub gave the Tigers three full seasons of productive hitting, at a time when Tigers fans were waiting for the team to become good again.

With his high stirrups, his unusual running style, and his scientific approach to hitting, not to mention that flaming red hair, Rusty Staub became far more than a footnote in Tigers history.

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About Bruce Markusen

Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY. He is the author of seven books on baseball.