|Rusty Staub, "Le Grand Orange"|
I have an image of him from his 1964 Topps baseball card, a card with "Colt .45s" at the top. Cold .45s! The name might not pass the political correctness test today. This was the team that got launched in Houston. It morphed into the Astros. Staub was signed by those fledgling Colt .45s when he was 17. He was one of those celebrated "bonus babies." The dollar figures seemed high then. How quaint. If you want an idea of what your typical ballplayers was dealing with then, in terms of contract, get ahold of Jim Bouton's "Ball Four."
Staub lived up to expectations. He didn't need extended grooming in the minors. He became only the second major league rookie since 1900 to play 150 games as a teenager! Down the road he joined Ty Cobb and Gary Sheffield as the only players to hit a home run as a teenager and an over-40 player.
Houston was hardly known as a hitters' haven. The '60s were a time when hitters were penned in - the climax came in 1968's "year of the pitcher." I have always wondered why the powers-that-be allowed things to get that bad, to where "goose eggs" on the scoreboard really prevailed. Of course, America had much bigger problems: the Viet Nam war was at its tragic climax. Us kids couldn't stop the war, though we tried. We found escapism in baseball.
Those boxscores showed a young Rusty performing superbly in 1967. He had "arrived," as they say, and his bat sizzled with a .333 average. However it was only good for fifth in league, the list topped by the legendary Roberto Clemente (.357). Staub was tops in league in doubles, his bat pounding 44. He made the All-Star team for the first of five straight seasons.
Bowie Kuhn was commissioner. He became a highly maligned man. Baseball was heading into a time of considerable conflict. I'm not sure anyone could have navigated the seas as well as Kuhn, who came off as a very classy gentleman in his autobiography. Kuhn prodded the interested parties to get things smoothed out, so Staub could pull on an Expos cap and enter French-speaking country. That he did. He even made a special effort to gain some fluency in French.
The bond between Rusty and his new city was total. He delivered, batting .302 with 29 home runs, plus he drew 110 walks. He was the lone Expo on the all-star team for three seasons. You might remember that he got the nickname "Le Grand Orange." His red hair inspired the name. "Rusty" was inspired the same way.
I'm surprised "Rusty" isn't a more common name. Wasn't that the name of one of the kids on the old Danny Thomas TV show?
Staub's destination: the Big Apple. Now he's a New York Met. Again he would make a big impression with a new team. His four years with the Mets gave Rusty a springboard for post-season play. In 1973 (my first summer after high school) he hit .423 in the World Series, a Series in which New York was edged in seven games by the Oakland A's. He was a fixture at the No. 3 spot in the Mets' batting order. He pounded 36 doubles in the regular season. He slugged three home runs in five games in the National League championship series.
Staub had gas left in the tank when he left New York for Detroit after 1975. Now he's an American Leaguer. Whole new audiences could now appreciate him. He had two 100-plus RBI seasons in his Detroit tenure which spanned nearly four years. He drove in 96 runs in another of those seasons. He carved out a niche in 1978 when he had the unusual distinction of playing all 162 games in a season without playing in the field!
He was an all-star in 1976 for the sixth and final time. He was No. 5 in MVP voting in 1978 (the year I graduated from college).
But wait, there's more to the story. Staub's baseball journey isn't done yet. Partway through 1979, he made a triumphant return to the expansion team that treated him so well, the one in French-speaking country. It's like a scene from a movie: Staub's debut game back in Montreal saw the crowd of 59,000 give him a standing ovation of over three minutes! He wasn't handling fielding duties well. The National League doesn't have the DH of course.
Staub became a Texas Ranger for 1980. Indeed: more gas left in the tank, as Staub batted .300. Perhaps his gas gauge was only halfway expired, as he played five more seasons with the Mets after his Texas stint. Fascinating: he had a triumphant comeback return as both an Expo and Met. He batted .317 in 1981 wearing that soft blue color of the Mets. He was able to play first base.
Subsequently he carved out a reputation as pinch-hitting specialist. He slowly retired his glove. But as pinch-hitter he stayed most definitely in the groove. He played 104 games in 1983, of which five were at first base, five in the outfield and a record 94 as pinch-hitter! I remember that stance that made you think a base hit was on the way. Staub had a premier reputation as a sheer contact hitter. He held the bat vertically as he awaited the pitch.
Today he mans the Rusty Staub Foundation, focusing on emergency food pantries.
Fans have analyzed whether Staub belongs in the Hall of Fame. Personally I'd just say "yes." He was such a companion for us boomer fans from those newspaper boxscores through all those years. Far-reaching as his impact was, he didn't reach the obvious Hall of Fame "markers." Maybe on-base percentage should be weighed more. Playing with weak teams much of the time, Staub got "pitched around" rather often. Had he gotten fewer walks, maybe he'd be at the 3000-hit plateau.
He was age 41 when retiring. What an incredible road from when he was that "bonus baby!"
Click on the link below to see video of Rusty Staub's Game 4 home run in the 1973 World Series. That was my first summer after high school!
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - firstname.lastname@example.org