Mike Trout captured the attention of the baseball world in 2012 as a 20-year-old rookie phenom, and he’s already being tagged as one of the game’s best players. Back in 1963, New Orleans native Rusty Staub made his major league debut at age 19. However, he didn’t quite make the same impression as Trout, yet his 23-year career turned out to be a very productive one nonetheless—one that most professional players would be delighted to have. Recent efforts to update my New Orleans Area Player Database prompted me to look back in time at Rusty’s celebrated career.
Nicknamed for his reddish-blonde hair, Daniel Joseph “Rusty” Staub frequently made the headlines in New Orleans as an amateur baseball player in the playgrounds and at Jesuit High School. His towering home runs became legendary in the city. He was instrumental in his American Legion team, the Tulane Shirts, winning the World Series in 1960.
Rusty signed a $125,000 bonus package with the Houston Colt .45s organization out of high school in September 1961. Houston played its inaugural season as a National League expansion team in 1962. As with other expansion franchises, they were dependent on a draft of un-claimed players from other teams and did not have the benefit of an established pipeline of prospects in the minor leagues. Thus, when 18-year-old Rusty excelled in his first professional season (23 HR, 93 RBI, and .293 batting average) at Class-B Durham in 1962, Houston thrust him into its major league lineup the next season as the starting first baseman. However, even though Houston had touted Rusty as the Ted Williams of the next baseball generation, the left-handed hitter was hardly ready for the big-leagues. He made his major league debut on April 9, 1963, just a few days after his 19th birthday.
In fact, Rusty did struggle offensively in his first two major league seasons, even being sent down to the minors for a spell during 1964. The fledgling Colts made history in 1963 by fielding an all-rookie team on September 27, which included Rusty at first base. Future Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, Jimmy Wynn, and Jerry Grote were also members of that team.
In 1965, Houston’s first season in the Astrodome, Rusty’s batting improved, as he hit 14 HR and 63 RBI, while averaging .256. He was switched to the outfield where he would establish himself as a top-flight fielder. Two years later, he batted .333, which was good enough for fifth place in the National League, while also leading the league in doubles with 44. In 1967, at age 23, Rusty was selected to the first of his six all-star teams.
In 1969, Rusty contributed to the ground floor of another new National League franchise, when he was traded to the Montreal Expos in January. He was a popular player among Canadian fans, and it was there that Rusty acquired his French nickname “Le Grande Orange.” He was clearly the best player on the new team with 29 HR, 79 RBI, and a .303 batting average, but the team won only 52 games. By this time, Rusty had become a perennial all-star in the National League.
After two more superb seasons with the hapless Expos, Rusty was traded to the New York Mets for three players prior to the 1972 season. With the Mets, he finally got a chance to become part of a winning team. The Mets defeated Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine” for the National League pennant in 1973, but then lost to the Oakland A’s, who won their second of three consecutive World Series.
Defensively, Rusty excelled as an outfielder. Between 1965 and 1975, he led National League right- fielders in assists for five years and ranked in the top four in assists for four additional seasons.
During the winter of 1975, Rusty was traded to the Detroit Tigers, where he was used as their primary designated hitter. The veteran hitter put together his best three consecutive seasons (1976-1978) when he averaged 20 home runs and 106 RBI. In 1978, he became the first major leaguer to play 162 regular-season games exclusively as a designated hitter.
Rusty had short stints with Montreal and Texas before returning to the New York Mets for his final five seasons. He was used primarily as a pinch-hitter during his last three campaigns with the Mets, when they twice finished in second place in the National League East Division. He completed his career at age 41 in 1985.
Rusty remained a celebrity after his career on the diamond. He was a TV broadcaster for the Mets, paired with Ralph Kiner and Tim McCarver during 1986-1995. He also owned two popular Manhattan restaurants, “Rusty’s” and “Rusty Staub’s on Fifth.”
During his career, Rusty had more than 500 hits for four different teams. Ty Cobb, Gary Sheffield, and Rusty are the only players in major league history to hit home runs before age 20 and after age 40. He is currently 61st all-time in career hits with 2,716, while compiling a .279 careering batting average. He hit 292 home runs and drove in 1,466 runs and is currently 13th all-time in games played with 2,951. Thus, while Rusty may not have measured up to Houston’s Ted Williams expectations, he certainly had nothing to apologize for in his career.
Rusty never got serious consideration for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was often put into a category with major league stars like Bill Buckner, Al Oliver, and Steve Garvey, who got close to the magic number of 3,000 career hits and garnered their share of all-star selections, but never quite distinguished themselves as being the best among their peers.
Rusty ranks among the best major leaguers from the New Orleans area, along with Hall of Famer Mel Ott and fellow Jesuit High School alumni Will Clark. Rusty’s baseball pedigree stems from his father, Ray Sr., who played minor league baseball in 1937 and 1938 in the Cleveland Indians organization. Also, Rusty’s brother, Ray Jr. (Chuck), played in the Houston Astros organization in 1962 and 1963.