2018-03-29 12:10:58 UTC
Rusty Staub, beloved Mets icon, dead at 73
NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Thursday, March 29, 2018, 7:37 AM
In every way, Rusty Staub, the beloved Mets' hitting icon, who passed away early Thursday morning at age 73, was bigger than life — a bigger-than-life baseball personality, humanitarian, gourmet chef, wine connoisseur, friend-to-all and, to the fans of Montreal, quite simply, "Le Grand Orange."
The hulking 6-2 Staub, whose post-retirement weight fluctuated from 250-300 pounds, had battled a number of health issues in recent years, including a near-fatal heart attack, October 2, 2015, on a plane flight from Ireland to New York. He reportedly became woozy while playing golf near his Palm Beach Gardens, Fl. home in late January and was later discovered to be suffering from cellulitis, which evolved into a blood infection that resulted in a shutdown of his kidneys.
Staub died at 12:30 a.m. Thursday at the Good Samaritan Medical Center in Palm Beach, Florida, due to multiple organ failure. He was initially admitted with pneumonia, dehydration and an infection and had spent the last eight weeks in the hospital. He would have turned 74 on Sunday.
Staub’s legacy is immense and will be immediately felt at Citi Field, where the Mets open their season Thursday afternoon against the Cardinals.
A prolific hitter, Staub compiled a lifetime .279 average with 2,716 hits, 292 homers, 499 doubles and a major league record-tying 25 pinch hit RBI in 2,951 games over 23 seasons with Houston, the Montreal Expos, Mets, Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers from 1963-85. In 1983, at age 39 with the Mets, he tied Dave Philley as the only players in baseball history with eight consecutive pinch hits. In addition, he is the only major leaguer in history to achieve 500 hits with four different teams, and, along with Ty Cobb, Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield, one of only four players in history to hit home runs in the majors before turning 20 years old after turning 40.
Off the field, Staub was a prominent humanitarian. His Rusty Staub Foundation, which in 1986 established the New York Police and Fire Widows and Children's Benefit Fund, distributed over $11 million in the first 15 years of its existence to the families of New York area police and fire fighters killed in the line of duty, and since the September 11, 2001 attacks, received over $112 million in contributions. On January 8, Staub announced that, in conjunction with Catholic Charities, his foundation had also served 9,043,741 meals to the hungry at food pantries throughout New York over last 10 years, with funds though his annual wine auction dinner and foundation golf tournament.
Daniel Joseph Staub was born April 1, 1944 in New Orleans, but as his mother, Alma, explained, he became "Rusty" before he left the hospital. "One of the nurses nicknamed him “Rusty” because of the red fuzz he had all over his head and it just stuck." His father, Ray, was a minor league catcher in the Class D Florida State League in 1937-38 who gave him a bat when he was 3 years old and instructed him to swing at anything round he could find. By the time he was a teenager, Rusty was a star first baseman at Jesuit High in New Orleans and after leading his team to the 1961 Louisiana State AAA championship, he signed a $100,000 bonus with the then-National League expansion Houston Colt 45s.
After just one season of minor league ball, Staub joined the Colt 45s in 1963 as a 19-year-old rookie and Opening Day cleanup hitter, but hit only .224 with six homers in 150 games. He clearly wasn't ready, but after being sent back to the minors in mid-season 1964, he returned to Houston in 1965 a much more finished product, batting .256 with 14 HR and 63 RBI. Two years later, made his first of his six All-Star teams, batting .333 with 10 HR, 74 RBI and a league-leading 44 doubles.
Staub attributed his '67 breakthrough to Houston's move to the spacious Astrodome (where they were renamed the Astros). "I was originally signed as a home run hitter," he said, "but when we moved to the Dome, I didn't try to pump the ball as much."
At the same time he was establishing himself as Houston's first star, he was developing a reputation for being a very tough salary negotiator, holding out for eight days into the 1968 season before finally signing his contract. The holdout led to a strained relationship with Astro GM "Spec" Richardson who, the following January, traded him to the Expos for outfielder Jesus Alou and first baseman Donn Clendenon. However, the trade hit a snag when Clendenon, an African American, decided to retire rather than to report to the Astros, purportedly because he felt Houston manager Harry Walker (for whom he'd played previously in Pittsburgh) was a racist.
A major dispute ensued between Astros CEO Roy Hofheinz and Commissioner Bowie Kuhn after Kuhn ordered the trade to go through with Montreal sending two (far inferior) substitute players to Houston in place of Clendenon.
For Staub, who, by his New Orleans heritage was steeped in French culture, the trade to Montreal became an instant love affair with the French-Canadian fans. He hit .302 with 29 homers his first season, 1969, with the Expos as the lone All-Star on a dreadful 110-loss team. After hitting a two-run homer and making a specular game-ending catch to break a 20-game Expo losing streak, Montreal Gazette sportswriter Ted Blackman began referring to him as "Le Grand Orange." It stuck with him the rest of his life.
Staub had two more All-Star seasons in Montreal and, in the process, developed a close personal relationship with Expos owner, Seagrams whiskey heir Charles Bronfman, who introduced him to fine wines and took him to tastings in the U.S. and Europe. Staub had already begun to take up cooking and his celebrity status enabled him to get introductions to the chefs in all of Montreal's finest restaurants.
Despite the bond of admiration between Staub and Montreal, the Expos, on the eve of the 1972 season, decided the only way they were ever going to get better was to trade their one star player for a parcel of young talent that could fill a number of positions — in this case to the Mets in exchange for outfielder Ken Singleton, first baseman Mike Jorgensen and infielder Tim Foli.
With the Mets, Staub fell in love with a whole new city (again the feeling being mutual). After being limited to just 66 games his initial season after Cincinnati pitcher Ross Grimsley broke his hand with a pitch, June 18, Staub played a pivotal role in the Mets' comeback to the National League pennant in 1973, hitting .279 with 15 HR and 76 RBI in the regular season, clouting three homers with five RBI against the Reds in the NLCS and, finally, .423 with a homer and six RBI against the A's in the World Series.
In 1975, Staub became the first Met to drive in 100 runs in a season (105), but by then the team was in decline and looking to dump payroll. As the second-highest-paid player on the team ($120,000) behind Tom Seaver, Staub was traded to the Tigers for veteran lefthander Mickey Lolich. It was the first in a series of bad trades (that later included Seaver) made by the M. Donald Grant regime.
Staub had three more productive seasons in Detroit, driving in 101 and 121 runs respectively in 1977 and '78, primarily as a designated hitter — but again frequently butted heads with upper management over his salary. In an effort to get a contract extension with Tigers GM Jim Campbell, Staub sat out all of spring training in 1979 and threatened to quit baseball to attend to his popular new Manhattan ribs restaurant, Rusty's, on 3rd Avenue and 73rd St. After missing the whole first month of the season, Staub finally relented and reported to the Tigers, May 3.
By now he had become a principal figure in the fledging Players Association and thus regarded as a troublemaker by the old school Campbell, who, on July 20, traded him back to the Expos. Just prior to the 1980 season, he was once again traded by the Expos, this time to the Texas Rangers for whom he he hit .300 in 109 games that season.
A free agent for the first time in 1980, as Rusty later put it, "I wanted to come home to momma" (meaning the Mets and New York) and he signed a three-year, $1 million deal with the Mets with the promise from GM Frank Cashen he would be their everyday first baseman. It proved to be a hollow promise when, on February 28, 1981, Cashen acquired Dave Kingman in a trade from the Cubs.
Although Staub spent the last five seasons of his career with the Mets and flourished as pinch-hitter extraordinaire while burnishing his rep as one of their most popular and beloved players ever, he was never a regular again. In 1986, he was elected to the Mets Hall of Fame (ironically with Bud Harrelson who recently revealed he has Alzheimer's Disease), but in later years he frequently lamented his decision to sign with the Mets and not finish his career in the American League. "Cashen lied to me," he said. "I wasn't ready to be a backup player. I still had a lot of hits in me."
Conceivably, had he been able to patch things up with Campbell and stayed in Detroit, or signed with another AL team where he could be a full-time DH, he'd have easily gotten those extra 284 hits for 3,000 and a likely ticket to the Hall of Fame. As it was, the highest percentage he got in seven years the Hall-of-Fame ballot was 7.9%.
In an interview with me a few weeks after 9/11 — in which one of his closest friends and foundation partner, Frank Brennan, a bond trader with Cantor-Fitzgerald, was killed — Rusty talked about what brought him to his life's work after baseball. "My mother's brother was a policeman killed in the line of duty in New Orleans. I was just a little kid, sitting on my bed with my mom and my brother saying the rosary, and I never got over that."
"Then, in 1984, I was sitting in my old restaurant when a cop I knew was killed, leaving a wife and three kids. I remember saying to Frank: 'Someone needs to do something about this.'"
Somebody did, and a fitting epitaph for his great life and all his good works would be his own favorite expression: "Amen, brother."