Part II: Canadian Hall of Fame–Rusty Staub
Part I of this essay, The Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame Honours its Own, introduced Induction Day at the Canadian Hall’s St. Marys, Ontario, home base on June 23, 2010. The special guests of honour that day were Rheal Cormier, Doug Melville, the Canadian Senior Men’s National Baseball team, winners of the gold meal at the 2011 Pan Am Games and Rusty Staub. Part I covered the initial phases of the ceremony. Part II puts the focus on Rusty Staub.
The last of the honorees to be introduced on June 23 was Rusty Staub, the Montreal Expos first superstar. According to Gentleman Jim Fanning, the Grand Old Man of Expos baseball, who signed Staub to his initial Montreal contract and who on this day had the honour of introducing him to the St. Marys faithful, Staub belongs in Cooperstown. “You will see,” said Fanning, “the Veterans’ Committee will surely vote him into the Hall of Fame.”
Fanning joined the Expos in 1968 and remained with the club until 1992, holding down just about every management job in the books. He was himself inducted into the Canadian Hall in 2000 and the following year joined Toronto Blue Jays in their front office. Now in his eighties, Fanning still serves as a roving ambassador for the club. In early 2012, after residing 44 years in this country he became a Canadian citizen.
Fanning’s contention that Staub should be Cooperstown bound is borne out by the slugger’s statistics. He accumulated over 2000 hits, including more that 500 with four different clubs, an accomplishment unmatched by anyone. He joins Ty Cobb and Gary Sheffield as the only men to hit home runs before the age of 20 and beyond the age of 40. And if his baseball performances weren’t sufficient, Staub is an exemplary citizen as well. He has been associated with the Mets of 35 years or more, and his Rusty Staub Foundation, founded in 1985, is exemplary in its dedication “to promoting access to healthy food for New Yorkers.”
Staub came to Montreal via Houston where he had compiled the kind of record that would have been a career for many others – and he was still a kid. Although his time in Montreal was heart-breakingly short, he made such an impact and so advanced the cause of the Expos when they first hit the ground running in 1969 – that as long as old men sit around and talk about the weather so will they talk forever about Le Grand Orange (the Big Orange), a nod to the tangerine hue of the thick and wavy head of hair beneath his cap. Staub inspires the same sort of reverence in Montreal baseball mythology that hockey fans reserve for the likes of Howie Morenz and Maurice “The Rocket” Richard.
Staub spoke at length about his time in Montreal and how much it had meant to him, both as a player and career-wise – even though his days in the city were brief. He still recalls that winter in 1969 when he left the sunny south for a frozen Montreal and minus five degrees Fahrenheit temperatures. He was immediately taken to the still-to-be completed Jarry Park, home to the Expos for their first seven years. “All I could see,” said Staub, “was six feet of ice on the field.
Staub made very clear that in spite of his long association with the Mets, he still bears a deep fondness for Montreal. Almost from the day he arrived he was struck by the class and professionalism that surrounded the club. He credited team owner Charles Bronfman – today the men are close friends – and senior executives John McHale and Jim Fanning for ensuring that although the Expos were an expansion club, there was nothing shabby about their operation. Players were treated properly; for example the Expos were among the first teams to make extensive use of charter flights to distant cities.
Staub felt that in many ways the Expos exceeded expectations in those first years and believes much of the credit has to go to manager Gene Mauch. “He was the smartest guy I ever met in baseball,” he said. “I was honoured to have him as my manager.” And Mauch felt the same way about Staub. Why not, Rusty could do it all: hit, hit home runs, steal, make storybook catches in right field, and throw runners out at home – on the fly.
Lest one get too carried away here, Fanning did remind the St. Marys faithful that Staub was as fallible as the next guy. To illustrate, he told the story of the day at Jarry Park when, at the start of an inning, instead of running out to his spot in right field, Staub made a dash for the clubhouse hidden under the left field bleachers. (This section of Jarry Park was forever known as Jonesville in homage to Mack Jones, the Expos’ first batting hero.)
Staub’s teammates stood around mystified; the umpires stood around getting ever hotter under the collar – just at the moment they were about to lose all patience, Staub ran back onto the field and took up his position. It was evident that he had donned a new pair of pants. He offered little by way of explanation – except to say, “when a man’s gotta go, he’s gotta go!”
And sadly, for most Expos fans, Staub did go, and much too soon. In a move that made baseball sense even though it broke our hearts, he was traded at the start of the 1972 season to the New York Mets. In return the Metropolitans sent Tim Foli, Mike Jorgensen and Ken Singleton to Montreal. All immediately became starters and made a major contribution toward bringing the club’s credibility level to new heights.
Staub mentioned during his induction remarks that while in Montreal he was represented by Gerry Patterson, who also happened to be Jean Beliveau’s agent. Inevitably, the two superstars became friends, and are still close today. Staub recalled a particular Saturday night when he was having guests for dinner, including the great ‘Gros Bill’ himself. Jean had made clear he would arrive late, as les Canadiens were hosting the Minnesota North Stars at the Forum that night. It was February 11, 1971. Beliveau was 39 years old.
As he prepared the meal Staub kept one eye on the game. He smiled when Beliveau scored early in the first period, and again when the big centerman potted another goal several minutes later. But he really started to pay attention after the broadcasters noted that Beliveau was now within one goal of the magic 500. And he got it. In the second period, a hat trick, Believeau’s third goal of the night gloriously moved him into the illustrious company of Richard, Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull.
Stopping everything he was doing, Rusty dug out a large piece of cardboard, scribbled a few words on it and stuck it on the front door. When Beliveau arrived for dinner the first thing he saw was this hurriedly hand printed sign. It read: “Only 500 Goal Scorers Admitted here”!
Rusty Staub left no doubt that he loved Montreal. In the early days, during the winter, the Expos would travel all over Quebec Province, stopping in cities and town in every corner of the land to introduce players and talk up the team. Rusty understood the importance of this campaign and not only participated freely, he made a deliberate attempt to learn enough French so as to be able to express himself in a coherent, albeit elementary fashion. In this he was inspired by Claude Raymond and Jean-Pierre Roy, both very well-known ball players in Quebec – and as one might imagine, his willingness to be so open and available heightened his popularity many times over.
Sensing an opportunity to capitalize on the Expos’ newness and the Staub drawing power, the Bank of Montreal, a major Canadian financial institution, convinced the dapper right fielder to act as the bank’s country-wide ambassador for kids. It created the Young Expos Club which gave out all sorts of gifts and bonuses, and, bottom line, encouraged youngsters to open accounts with the bank. This initiative was so successful, so far beyond the bank’s expectations that the corporation had to hire extra staff just to keep track of it. They say that at one point the Young Expos Club boasted a roster of over 155,000 names.
Staub loved playing in Montreal. He loved Jarry Park, a band box of a ball park erected as a temporary stadium to serve until the permanent one was built. Completely open to the elements, its concrete bleacher-style configuration covered in diamond double-deck metal sheeting, it became party central during the Staub years, the place to be seen. As Staub recalled, there was a character called the dancer who would spontaneously break into a jig mid-inning; there was the irrepressible Fern Lapierre on the organ (Some us still living would give our eye teeth to hear Monsieur Lapierre play Val-de-ri, Val-de-ra, one more time.) There was the little girl with the beautiful voice who frequently sang the American and Canadian National Anthems. Today the world knows her as Celine Dion. There were the gorgeous mini-skirted usherettes and the model-like sirens who paraded up and down the aisles, putting the seams of their day-glo tight-fitting hot pants to the ultimate test. Staub said that as players you always knew when one of these beauties was on the move. All eyes would suddenly turn from the field to the stands, and that included players, coaches and umpires. Those were the days.
However, for most of us, they ended too soon, even thought Staub did get to enjoy a second act back in Montreal. On July 20, 1979, the Detroit Tigers traded him to Montreal for a player to be named later (Randy Schafer). The world was different now. The Expos had moved into Olympic Stadium and in 1979 managed to win more games than ever, before or since. Staub was older and coming off a leg injury.
He made his first appearance at the Big “O” on July 27 in front of a capacity crowd, stepping in as a pinch hitter for reliever Elias Sosa in the 8th inning. There were two out and a runner on first, with Pirates leading 5-4. The standing ovation that greeted him as he walked to the plate was prolonged and deafening. But there would be no fairy-tale endings: he flied out, paradoxically to right field. He told the St. Marys audience that this particular at-bat was one of the toughest of his career, because of the crowd’s overwhelming reaction. He ranked it up there with the accolades of gratitude showered on him by Mets fans years later as among his greatest thrills in baseball.
But he was never able to recapture the glory – an in March of the following year he was traded to Texas. He did return again but much later, this time on May 10, 1993, to take part as the Expos retired his familiar number. 10.
In concluding his remarks to the Hall of Fame gathering Staub mentioned that he was honoured to be so graciously received by Canadians, that he loved his days in Montreal – and that if the truth were known, “there is a little piece of my heart that has Montreal carved right on it.”
The induction ceremony ended with humour and music and then folks just milled about, renewing old acquaintances and lining up for autographs. It was a fitting end to a glorious day.
And to think, they get to do this all over again next year. Bookmakers are already toying with an unofficial morning line on a new list of nominees. Stay tuned.