After a long illness, Rusty Staub has passed away. He was one of the first great Detroit designated hitters, earning an All-Star selection in 1976. Two years later he finished fifth in AL Most Valuable Player voting as a Tiger. Staub was 73 years old.
Born Daniel Joseph Staub, the red-headed “Rusty” spent his career primarily with four teams, and was immensely popular in all four cities, a testament to his personality and production. He’s the only player to collect 500 hits for four different teams. His career totals are excellent: 2,716 hits, 499 doubles, 292 home runs, a .279 batting average, 1,255 walks, and 1,466 runs batted in.
But Staub was best known for his ability to drive in runs and his likable personality. He was an unusual ballplayer: educated, cerebral, sophisticated, and a renaissance man. He loved people, art, culture, food, and of course he loved hitting a baseball.
The left-hander from New Orleans debuted in the big leagues when he was only 19 years old in 1963 for the Houston Colt 45s, as part of a youth movement by that expansion team. He was one of Houston’s first hitting stars, but another expansion team, the Expos, acquired him in a big trade before the 1969 season. Staub became a beloved star in that metropolitan Canadian city.
Rusty hit .302 with 29 home runs in friendly Jarry Park in his first season in Montreal. He hit 30 homers the following season and batted .300 again in his third year with the club. With a chance to see major league baseball for the first time, fans in Montreal loved their new team and their star outfielder whom they called “Le Grande Orange.” He was an All-Star in each of his three full seasons as an Expo. He also ingratiated himself with the people and culture of the city, honing culinary skills that would lead Staub to opening restaurants later in his life.
The Mets traded three players in April of 1972 to get Staub’s much-needed bat in their lineup. Rusty’s batting average dipped while in New York, but he continued to drive in runs, topping the 100-RBI mark for the first time. In 1973 he was an important factor in the pennant race. That season the Mets battled for a division title in the final month of the season as the standings flipped and flopped every day with as many as four teams jostling for first place. Rusty hit four key homers in the finals weeks of the season and helped New York cop the NL East crown. But he saved his best for the his first taste of the postseason.
A shoulder injury held Staub back in the NL Championship Series between his Mets and the Cincinnati Reds. He appeared in only four of the five games, and had only three hits, but all three of them were home runs, and two of them were game-winners. The Mets upset the favored Big Red Machine and advanced to the World Series to face the Oakland A’s.
In the ’73 Fall Classic, Staub proved his ability to hit in the clutch, batting .423 (11-for-23 in seven games) with one home runs and six RBIs. He nearly single-handedly carried his team to victory, but the A’s edged the Mets in seven games. Staub’s performance on the biggest stage in the sport elevated his status among Mets faithful.
After Staub produced a great season in 1975, the Mets decided that the 31-year old was on the wrong side of 30 and put him on the trade market. That winter they dealt Rusty to Detroit for veteran pitcher Mickey Lolich. The trade was unpopular in both cities, but proved to be a good deal for the Tigers.
As he always had, Staub brought his hitting gloves with him to Motown, averaging .283 with 175 hits, 31 doubles, 20 homers, and 106 RBIs as a Tiger. He usually batted third and played either right field or DH. He was famous for his odd batting stance and his painfully slow running. But neither stopped him from being a star on the diamond. He started the 1976 All-Star Game, along with teammates Ron LeFlore and Mark Fidrych. In ’76 when “The Bird” captured the hearts of Detroit fans and baseball fans everywhere with his mound performance and antics, Staub was one of Fidrych’s biggest fans. It was Staub who coaxed The Bird to take his first curtain call after manhandling the Yankees on a nationally-televised Monday Night Baseball game.
While Staub was loved by Tiger fans, he was not well-liked by the front office. A veteran who understood the workings on baseball, Staub was outspoken, a trait that didn’t sit well with the Tigers’ crusty general manager Jim Campbell. Playing under the terms of a contract signed with the Mets, Staub was the highest-paid Tiger in history, earning more than $170,00 in 1978 when he finished fifth in MVP voting. The veteran RBI-man wanted a raise in 1979, but Campbell refused. Both sides dug in for a contract battle, and neither Staub nor Campbell seemed to want to budge. Spring training came and went, and Staub was not in uniform. He also took to the newspapers and made the fight public, which angered Campbell. Finally, in late April, with three weeks of the season already played, Staub and the Tigers agreed on a salary that made Rusty the first Tiger to earn $200,000 for a season. But the holdout and public nature of the contract fight had soured Rusty’s stay in Detroit. Over the All-Star break, Campbell negotiated a deal to send Staub back to Montreal. He got rid of his headache, a player new manager Sparky Anderson saw as a threat as a “clubhouse lawyer.”
The following year the 36-year old worked as the DH for the Rangers and hit .300 for his new team, but his stay in Texas was brief. The Mets signed Rusty as a free agent in 1981 and he spent the final five years of his career as a valuable and effective pinch-hitter, while earning over $300,000 each season. In his second stay with the Mets, Rusty led the NL in pinch-hits three times, and resumed his love affair with The Big Apple and fans of the team. He became the second player in baseball history to hit a home run before the age of 20 and after 40 (the first was Ty Cobb). He hit his final homer against his old team the Expos, a pinch-hit go-ahead three-run blast at Shea Stadium.
By the time he was a pinch-hitter extraordinare for the Mets, Staub owned a restaurant in Manhattan called Rusty’s Place. He later opened a second. Always a food lover, especially creole and Cajun dishes, Staub never tired of exploring new cuisine or wine. One of his nicknames as a player was “The Galloping Gourmet.”
Staub continued to stay involved in baseball, lending his experience to the MLB Players Union, as well as being involved in the MLB Players Alumni Association, which gave money to help former players in need. He remained in New York for years, still operating his restaurants. He established charities to provide aid to first responders. If there was a New York City policeman or fireman in need, Rusty would find a way to assist them.
Staub was a friend of Jane Forbes Clark, the chairman of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, and he frequently traveled to Cooperstown for Hall of Fame Weekend and other events. He was always gracious with reporters and fans. He was known for his fastidious style of dress and bright red hair.
As a player, Staub belongs comfortably in the group of players who are just outside of the Hall of Fame. “The Near-Hall-of-Famers” who put up great numbers but are just on the fence. He ranks 13th all-time in games played, 64th in hits, 52nd in walks, and 60th in runs batted in. Perhaps his best legacy is the fact that he is remembered fondly by fans in every city he played in. In the final season of baseball in Montreal, the team had a special day for their former star. The Mets named him to their all-time team in 2002, the occasion of their 40th anniversary. He also earned a place on the all-time teams of the Astros and Expos in 2000.
Staub arrived in Detroit at a transitional period, just as the team was moving into a phase of youth and rebuilding from within their farm system. He mentored young sluggers Steve Kemp and Jason Thompson. He was a veteran presence when Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker arrived. He was a steady influence in the clubhouse and an established big leaguer on a very green team. He delighted fans with his hits and RBIs, and his trademark high socks.
Rusty Staub is one of the most popular players to ever have worn the Old English D and his place in Tiger history is secure. Rest in Peace, Le Grane Orange.