Skip to main content

Former Expos great Rusty Staub, known as ‘Le Grand Orange,’ dies at 73

This is a March 1975 file photo showing New York Mets baseball player Rusty Staub in St. Petersburg, Fla. Staub, who became a huge hit with baseball fans in two countries during an All-Star career that spanned 23 major league seasons, died March 29, 2018, in Florida.

HARRY HARRIS/AP

Daniel Joseph Staub was described by sportswriters as a "carrot-topped slugger" and as a "young, red-headed Adonis." He was dubbed Rusty for his red hair by a nurse on the day he was born. In Quebec, he was known as Le Grand Orange, three words which invoke nostalgia for fans of a certain age.

Mr. Staub, who died on Thursday morning at 73, only hours before the first pitch of the 2018 season, was a baseball player whose popularity in Montreal transcended his considerable talents. When the expansion Montreal Expos first took to the field at Jarry Park, a makeshift diamond for Major League Baseball's first franchise outside the United States, the lone star on a roster of rejects and castoffs was Mr. Staub.

The handsome outfielder took it as his responsibility to represent the Expos on and off the field. "He was very friendly and he got involved with everybody," said former pitcher Claude Raymond, his Montreal teammate from nearby St-Jean who became a long-time broadcaster. "He told people he was going to learn French and he took a crash course. You know, he could speak pretty good French after a month."

Story continues below advertisement

In winter, Mr. Staub remained in frozen Montreal to promote the club. He was a guest between periods on Hockey Night in Canada and represented the Expos in goodwill appearances.

A slugging outfielder, Mr. Staub served as the team's only representative in the 1969 All-Star Game, though he did not get a chance to take the field.

The Expos won only 52 games in their inaugural season against 110 losses, a dismal performance. In the face of adversity and almost certain defeat, Mr. Staub, armed only with a wooden bat, seemed a figure of medieval chivalry. His success at the plate – a .302 average with 29 home runs – offered respite from chronic failure on the scoreboard.

Despite sometimes woeful play, including a numbing 20-game losing streak, fans flocked to Jarry Park, lured less by the play on the field than by the carnival in the grandstand. An organist rallied the crowd, a fiddler danced jigs atop a dugout, hostesses in chic uniforms patrolled the aisles, and a bilingual public address announcer pronounced the name of third-string catcher John Boccabella in operatic fashion. Spectators gawked at the fan who purchased a box seat for his pet duck. On occasion attention was directed to the field whenever Mr. Staub or one of the supporting cast made a rare play worth celebrating.

"It was truly a place where people went to be seen," Mr. Staub once said, "as much as they went to watch a game."

Mr. Staub appeared in numerous advertisements, endorsing a wide range of products including, predictably, the soft drink Orange Crush. One of his more successful ventures was to serve as president of a bank-sponsored Young Expos Club whose members could purchase a bleacher seat in the aluminum left-field stands at Jarry Park for 50 cents. More than 150,000 children signed up.

After three seasons, the Expos traded Mr. Staub to the New York Mets. As the Expos made a challenge for the pennant in 1979, the team once again picked up Mr. Staub. On his first return appearance in an Expos uniform in Montreal, he was greeted by a rapturous ovation lasting, by some accounts, five minutes.

Story continues below advertisement

Popular throughout baseball and readily identifiable for his wavy, red hair and quick smile, Mr. Staub's off-field pursuits earned him respect as a gourmand, restaurateur, oenophile, broadcaster and philanthropist. His amiability disguised a business savvy rare among his fraternity and Mr. Staub clashed more than once with managers who expected players to be servile, grateful and obedient.

He was born on April 1, 1944, in New Orleans, La., to the former Alma Josephine Morton, a tile fitter's daughter who worked as a legal secretary, and Raymond Staub, a teacher who had a brief professional career in the low minor leagues as a catcher. The boy joined an older brother, also named Raymond but known as Chuck, on the baseball diamond at Bunny Friend Playground in the city's Upper 9th Ward. In the summer of 1960, the Staub brothers led the Tulane Shirts to the American Legion World Series championship for teenaged amateurs. Rusty hit an astonishing .553 in league play the following season. He lettered in baseball and basketball for the Blue Jays of Jesuit High School and his 400-foot home run off a pitcher from Baton Rouge won the state championship in 1961.

The prodigy attracted the attention of all major-league teams. The Boston Red Sox assigned the great slugger Ted Williams to visit Louisiana to report on the phenom. He witnessed a monstrous grand slam, after which he visited the family's modest home. Mr. Williams, known as the Splendid Splinter for his legendary hitting prowess, signed the boy's yearbook with an encouraging note: "To a future major leaguer if I ever saw one."

In the end, a bidding war for his services was won by the Houston Colt .45s, an expansion team in the National League. General manager Paul Richards braved Hurricane Carla to get to New Orleans, fearing another team might sign the youth. The 17-year-old Mr. Staub agreed to a $125,000 bonus and immediately afterward the former altar boy went to St. Raphael's Church to pray.

He reported for spring training at Apache Junction, Ariz., where he was assigned to the Class-B Durham (N.C.) Bulls of the Carolina League for a year of seasoning.

Mr. Staub made his major-league debut with Houston just eight days after his 19th birthday. A 6-foot-2, 200-pound first baseman, Mr. Staub became the team's cleanup batter, an important offensive responsibility rarely given a rookie. Manager Harry Craft also had Mr. Staub play four dozen games in the outfield, where he could make better use of a strong throwing arm.

Story continues below advertisement

The left-handed batting rookie struggled at times, showing little power and in 1964 he was sent down to the Oklahoma City 89ers, a demotion that shocked a player who had enjoyed only success. "I needed the experience," he said later, "and I had to learn to be patient." The move paid off, as he regained confidence and in 1967 his .333 batting average was fifth best in the National League.

Newspaper articles touted the Houston outfielder as baseball's next superstar. He fell afoul of management in June, 1968, by refusing to play a game during the official mourning for the assassinated Robert F. Kennedy. Mr. Staub and teammate Bob Aspromonte were fined a day's pay. In the off-season, Houston traded Mr. Staub to the expansion Expos.

He was not the first player to be adopted as a folk hero by fans in the city. Mack Jones, a journeyman outfielder, hit a three-run home run and a two-run triple to power an 8-7 Expos victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in the first game played at Jarry Park. Fans in the left-field bleachers cheered Mr. Jones when he took his defensive position and the grandstand became known as Jonesville. Mr. Staub had a single and double in the game, scoring two runs.

The famous Le Grand Orange nickname came from Montreal journalist Ted Blackman after Mr. Staub's fine defensive play preserved a 4-3 victory at Dodger Stadium. The win ended a 20-game losing streak. The slump actually lasted 21 games, as the Expos even lost an exhibition game against their Vancouver Mounties farm team. It was in Vancouver that manager Gene Mauch convinced the outfielder to alter his swing to better pull the ball for power, as he had only hit five home runs into the first week of June. "I just bent my knees a little and dropped my hands a bit and started swinging, and it just felt free," Mr. Staub recounted in John Robertson's 1971 biography, Rusty Staub of the Expos. He hit batting-practice homer after batting-practice homer at Capilano (now Nat Bailey) Stadium in Vancouver.

"That was the day that I became a home-run hitter again," he later said.

Mr. Staub ended the season with 29 homers followed by 30 the following season.

He was traded to the Mets for prospects Tim Foli, Ken Singleton and Mike Jorgensen just before the start of the 1972 season. The deal shocked Expos fans and devastated Mr. Staub, who wept on learning the news. In 1973, Mr. Staub hit three home runs in 15 at-bats in the National League Championship Series against the Cincinnati Reds before meeting the Oakland A's in the World Series. Oakland prevailed in seven games, though Mr. Staub overcame a shoulder injury to swat 11 hits (eight singles, two doubles and a home run) in 26 at-bats (.423). He drove in five runs in a 6-1 victory in Game 4.

After four seasons, the Mets traded the outfielder to the Detroit Tigers for pitcher Mickey Lolich, likely a money-saving move, as Mr. Staub was the second-highest paid Met after pitcher Tom Seaver.

Mr. Staub was named the outstanding designated hitter in 1978, batting .273 with 24 home runs. He led all designated hitters in hits (175), runs batted in (121) and total bases (279).

On the strength of that performance, the outfielder refused to sign the contract offered by Tigers general manager Jim Campbell, insisting on an extension beyond the two years on offer. Mr. Staub refused to report to spring training, instead holding gourmet-cooking demonstrations in his hometown. He finally joined the club in mid-May. When he slumped at the plate, he was sold to the Expos, a welcome move for the player but a warning to younger Tigers players that they could be dispatched for insubordination.

"Part of the pride in what you do in baseball is how well you get paid," Mr. Staub once said. "Nothing is more insulting to a player than, after he's played for a number of years, to realize he has not given himself credit – that other people who are not doing the job he is doing are making more money."

The brief, second stint in Montreal ended when he was traded to the Texas Rangers during spring training in 1980. The Mets signed him as a free agent the following season, using him for spot duty at first base, in the outfield and as a pinch-hitter over the final five seasons of his career.

Mr. Staub retired with a career .279 average on 2,716 hits, 292 of those home runs. He joined Ty Cobb as the only players to have a hit a home run before the age of 20 and after the age of 40 (a feat since matched by two others). He remains the only batter to have struck 500 hits for each of four different teams (Houston, Montreal, New York, Detroit).

A witty and agreeable observer, Mr. Staub worked as a colour commentator on Mets radio and television broadcasts for 10 years. He was not a novice. He had made a creditable defence of the players' position during the 1981 strike while facing off against New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner on Face the Nation.

Mr. Staub learned about fine wines from Charles Bronfman, the billionaire owner of the Expos. A well-regarded cook, Mr. Staub added some 40 pounds to his frame during his playing days. When he first arrived in Manhattan, the New York Times published his mother's recipe for oysters Rockefeller.

In 1977, Mr. Staub opened a pub-style eatery named Rusty's at 1271 Third Avenue in Manhattan, which became known for rib-eating contests. A dozen years later, he launched a sports-themed restaurant called Rusty Staub's on Fifth at 575 Fifth Avenue. The Times praised the food at the latter, while also celebrating its extensive wine list.

The Montreal Expos retired Mr. Staub's No. 10 uniform in a ceremony before a game at Olympic Stadium in 1993. Fans were encouraged to wear orange clothes. He has been inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame (1989), New Orleans Professional Baseball Hall of Fame (2006), the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame (2012) and the Irish American Baseball Hall of Fame (2013), where he was enshrined with the Irish nickname an Rua Mór (the Big Redhead).

Mr. Staub's poor health has made the news in recent years. He suffered a heart attack while on a flight from Ireland to New York in 2015 and was revived on the plane by doctors and nurses. More recently, he suffered kidney failure after collapsing on a golf course. He died at a hospital at West Palm Beach, Fla. He is survived by a brother and two sisters. He never married.

For all his success on the baseball diamond, it was Mr. Staub's philanthropy that earned him the gratitude of legions of New Yorkers. He founded the charitable Rusty Staub Foundation in 1985 to feed and support poor youth in the city. The foundation now serves more than 800,000 meals annually. The following year he established the New York Police and Fire Widows' and Children's Benefit Fund, which has raised millions of dollars for immediate and long-term support of the families of fallen first responders. The fund was supporting 450 families on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, a number that nearly doubled by the end of the day. Mr. Staub started the fund in memory of his uncle, New Orleans patrolman Marvin Morton, who died in 1950 after swerving his motorcycle to avoid a collision with a car. He was 27.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons or for abuse. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.