By Marty Appel
Daniel “Rusty” Staub, who died in March 2018, was remarkably unique among the more than 19,200 men who have appeared in a Major League box score.
Had he not been a baseball player, his work as a philanthropist, broadcaster, restaurateur, gourmet chef and wine connoisseur would have made him a significant presence.
But of course, little of that might have been possible without his success as a player over a long career which included some historic milestones.
When he retired after 23 seasons in 1985, he was seventh in baseball history in games played, trailing only Pete Rose, Carl Yastrzemski, Hank Aaron, Ty Cobb, Stan Musial, and Willie Mays. He still ranks 13th.
Perhaps most significantly, Rusty was a hero almost upon arrival, and perhaps the most popular player in three different cities – Houston, Montreal and New York. And he is the only player to record 500 hits with four different teams, adding Detroit to the mix.
He was never really “Daniel”. A baby nurse in the New Orleans hospital where he was born took one look at that red hair and proclaimed him “Rusty.” Twenty-five years later when he joined the expansion Montreal Expos, he became Le Grande Orange, one of the great baseball nicknames of all time.
Before signing with Houston, his American Legion team won the 1960 national championship, which he always considered his greatest thrill. The much watched series sent a hoard of scouts his way, including no less than Ted Williams representing the Red Sox. These were the waning days of wild west signings, before the amateur draft was installed in 1965. He signed for $125,000 bonus with the geographically close Colt .45s and in 1963, became their first home grown hero
At 19 he hit his first of 292 home runs. Only Staub and Ty Cobb homered as teens and again after turning 40.
At the end of his rookie season of 1963, he was part of the game’s only all-rookie starting lineup, which included Jim Wynn, Joe Morgan, Sonny Jackson and Jerry Grote.
At Houston, despite his youth, he resigned from the most prestigious country club in the city when they wouldn’t allow Joe Morgan in, establishing himself as an outspoken team leader,
He was twice an all-star in Houston, and he batted .333 in 1967, challenging Roberto Clemente for a time as the National League batting leader. It was a shock to the city when the newly formed Montreal Expos traded two of their expansion draft picks – Donn Clendenon and Jesus Alou – to the Astros in exchange for Staub.
Trading off the team’s most popular player was high risk for Houston. Some insiders thought it was related to his decision to sit out the day of national mourning for Bobby Kennedy, even if MLB did not approve, following the RFK assassination in June, 1968. He, along with teammate Bob Aspromonte, and opposing players Milt Pappas and Maury Wills were all fined. In 1968, there was little place for free thinking players in the game.
But Rusty could be stubborn. He had his ideals. Some might call them Rusty Doctrines, from which he wouldn’t budge. It was one of the defining traits of his personality – friendly, helpful, ever-smiling – but not to be crossed.
The trade produced other ripples for baseball, including the first test of Bowie Kuhn’s commissionership. Clendenon announced that he would retire rather than go to Houston. Would that nullify the deal and send Staub back?
This dragged on into spring training until Montreal finally sent another two players to Houston to complete the deal. (Meanwhile, Clendenon “unretired,” joined the Expos, and would be traded to the Mets in mid-season, helping them win the miracle 1969 world championship).
Rusty’s three years in Montreal was special. Tres special. He ingratiated himself with the community and with the media by learning French. The team was too young to contend but in his time there, he hit a career high of 30 home runs in 1970, and twice he hit over .300.
In spring training of 1972, the Players Association called the first strike in the history of Major League Baseball. The union was led by Marvin Miller, and Rusty was an early and outspoken union man, participating in meetings and decisions almost from the time Miller arrived.
It was during the strike of 1972 that Rusty was caught unaware of a fateful day in his own life.
The Expos trained in West Palm Beach, and all the players were instructed to remain where they were, because it was thought the strike might only be a few days.
And so Rusty, a devout Catholic, went to Mass on Easter Sunday, where he noticed a contingent of New York Mets in the church. The Mets had been in West Palm to play the Expos, and remained there, waiting out the strike too.
At the end of the service, Rusty waited in the back to say hello to Gil Hodges, the Mets manager, widely admired throughout baseball. Hours later, Hodges dropped dead at a local golf course in the company of his coaches.
At Hodges’s funeral, the Mets PR people whispered to attending media, “We will have an announcement later today.”
Actually, they had two announcements. Yogi Berra was named the team’s new manager, and they were acquiring Rusty from the Expos for Ken Singleton, Mike Jorgensen and Tim Foli. It was probably bad form for the Mets to make these announcements on that very day, but they did, and Rusty signed a $99,000 contract with New York. (The team wanted Tom Seaver to be their highest paid at $1,000 more). Montreal fans went into their own mourning. He was gone after just three years, the first great star of the first team outside of the U.S.
And now, he was on the biggest stage in baseball, the New York Mets, still the “Miracle Mets” in the minds of baseball fans, three seasons removed from their world championship, but still very much a contender in the National League East. Rusty had never been with a contender before.
He quickly embraced New York City and the fans took to him as they had in Houston and Montreal. He established lifelong connections through friendships, business relationships, and the media. He became a close friend of the New York Baseball Writers Association members as well as the Baseball Hall of Fame people. There would be few events over the next 40 years that did not include Rusty’s presence.
His star shone in New York, especially after the Mets returned to the World Series in his second season, one in which he was teamed with Willie Mays and Seaver and the “gotta believe” cheerleading of reliver Tug McGraw. It would be his only post-season appearances, and he batted .423 in the World Series against Oakland.
In 1976, he was off to Detroit in a trade for Mickey Lolich, seeing the American League for the first time and seeing his final regular action as a defensive player. The remaining 11 years of his career would largely be spent as a designated hitter and a deluxe pinch hitter, which landed him high on the charts of all-time pinch hitting appearances and hits. (He had 100 pinch hits, now 19th on the charts).
He made an emotional return to the Expos in 1979, went to Texas for one season in 1980, and then spent his final five seasons back with the Mets, cementing his presence as a beloved New Yorker. On one memorable day near the end in 1985, the 41-year old was forced to play the outfield in an extra inning game, and he made a heroic catch at the right field line at full speed (such as it was), grabbing the fly ball at his shins.
He was by now a regular presence at charity events – either by request of the Mets or of his own volition. By 1985, his final year as a player, these would lead to the establishment of the Rusty Staub Foundation, and the New York Police and Fire Widows’ and Children’s Benefit Fund.
The Rusty Staub Foundation is synonymous with the motto that has been the driving force behind this commitment: benefiting youth, fighting hunger. The Foundation provides educational scholarships, grants, meals and donations for charitable and educational purposes.
That same year, 1985, Rusty created the New York Police & Fire Widows’ & Children’s Benefit Fund a non-profit organization dedicated to assisting the families of New York City Firefighters, Police Officers, Port Authority Police, and EMS personnel killed in the line of duty. (When Rusty was a child, his uncle, a New Orleans policeman, was killed in a motorcycle accident). The fund provided the grieving family with $25,000 and every year thereafter, and $4,000 a year after that for the remainder of the widow or widower’s life.
This latter charity was especially active beginning immediately on 9/11, making Rusty a central figure in the aftermath of the attack on New York. That was the day that 343 firefighters and 60 police and Port Authority lost their lives and Rusty and his foundation had to move quickly amidst all the shock and horror, to be there for the grieving families. Rusty was up to the task and became a hero of the 9/11 recovery, distributing more than $17 million.
He opened two restaurants in New York, one a memorabilia-filled ribs restaurant on the east side, and the other an upscale Fifth Avenue restaurant that appealed to his gourmet interests and wine knowledge. He frequently traveled to Europe for wine selections – and in 2015 suffered a heart attack on his flight home from Ireland.
He survived the heart attack, but other issues – cancer, eye surgery – were forcing him into more hospital time. He loved to eat and his weight showed it. But he never complained. When he died in a West Palm Beach hospital on March 29, 2018, he was only 73, but had lived a life of enormous accomplishment, ranging from his playing career to his broadcasting Mets games with Ralph Kiner, to his philanthropy, to his restaurants, to his devotion to baseball in so many ways.
He was indeed a rare presence on the baseball scene. There were no quite like him.