Of the many deaths in 2018 of former major league baseball players, that of Rusty Staub impacted me most.
Staub died last March, on the eve of the 2018 baseball season and three days shy of his 74th birthday. His big-league baseball life started in 1963, at age 19; he played with Houston before moving on to the Montreal Expos (1969-1971). Staub also wore the uniforms of the New York Mets (1972-1975), the Detroit Tigers (1976-1979), the Expos again (part of 1979), and the Texas Rangers (1980). He went back to the Mets from 1981 through 1985, when he closed out his playing career at the age of 41.
Staub compiled a lifetime batting average of .279 and had 292 home runs among his 2,716 hits. The only time he played in a World Series was in 1973, with the Mets. The Mets lost the Series to Oakland, but Staub starred by collecting 11 hits and batting .423.
Trusty Rusty – as Tigers play-by-play man Ernie Harwell called him – is the only major league player to have had 500 hits with four different teams. And he is one of only four players to have hit a home run both before the age of 20 and after the age of 40. (The others are Ty Cobb, Alex Rodriguez, and Gary Sheffield.)
Rusty had a reputation for being somewhat fussy and demanding of club management, and for serving as his own agent during contract negotiations. One of his demands had the Tigers install a bed for his exclusive use in a small room adjacent to the clubhouse. If you put your ears close to the door, you would hear Rusty snoring while the visiting team was taking batting practice.
I had many conversations with Rusty, who was considered baseball’s most eligible bachelor, while on the baseball beat. Twice, with his permission, I taped our conversations for stories.
Here are just a few of my questions and his answers:
- You played with and against many star and superstar players in the 1960s and 1970s. Who was the best?
- For a 10-year stretch, it has to be Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente. In their peak years, they could do so many things offensively and defensively. It was a great honor just to be on the same field with them.
- Later in your career you were a designated hitter while in the American League. You of course didn’t have to play in the field. What did you do between at-bats?
- I did crosswords quite a bit. You have to get your mind off the previous at-bat, especially the bad ones. Besides the puzzles, I jumped rope and did push-ups and sit-ups.
- You’re well-known for carrying bottled water and taking bottles on road trips. Why?
- You don’t know what comes out of water taps, especially on the road. It looks terrible and tastes the same way in many hotels.
- Did you go through the kosher cookbooks I gave you?
- Yes. I enjoyed many of the recipes.
- You’re well known for being a gourmet cook. When did you acquire that talent?
- It started out of necessity in the minor leagues. Players didn’t earn enough to eat out much at good places. I told my roommates that I would do all of the shopping and the cooking if they would take care of all of the cleaning.
I really enjoyed the cooking. And when I played for the Mets, before I opened my Manhattan restaurants, I’d go into a restaurant and meet the owner and the chef and they’d let me go into the kitchen, teach me things and let me do things. In New York I probably spent about 800 to 1,000 hours working in different kitchens over a three-or four-year period. Cooking comes in handy if you’re a bachelor like me.
- Any marriage plans?
- Marriage is something that I take very seriously and respect a great deal. Baseball and the restaurant business take up a lot of hours, especially evenings and weekends. I can’t do it until I know I can make it a 50-50 arrangement.
Staub, who grew up in New Orleans idolizing Mickey Mantle, kept busy after his playing career. He was a broadcaster for the Mets and also served as a goodwill ambassador for the franchise. Besides owning and operating two Manhattan restaurants, he founded the New York Police and Fire Widows and Children’s Benefit Fund. He also worked on behalf of other charities. He found the time to write a children’s book, “Hello, Mr. Met.”
Former players kept in touch with him as he was chairman of the Major League Players Alumni Association.
Rusty Staub was unique and classy.