In the spring of 1965, I was an 11-year old baseball fanatic. Still am. But in those days, the game was much different than it is today. So was the generosity of the players. Hint: they didn’t have agents.
I was living in Houston, and my parents and I went to the first Major League Baseball game ever played indoors—opening day at the Astrodome. As the first paid-attendee, and being a kid, I was treated like royalty. The ushers made sure we had plenty of soft drinks and hot dogs, and during batting practice, I was escorted down to the Astros dugout where none other than Rusty Staub gave me one of his bats! He smiled and said something nice to me, my head was lost in the uproar of the moment, and I carried my treasured prize back to our seats. It was on April 9, 1965, an exhibition game against the New York Yankees. The Astros won 2-1, but it was the pregame experience I’ll never forget.
Last Thursday, Staub passed away in a hospital in West Palm Beach, Florida, just three days before his 74th birthday. He’d been in ill health for a couple of months. He played for 23 seasons in the majors, the first six with Houston (the Colt .45s for his first years, and the Astros for the last ones). The red-headed Staub was known as “Le Grande Orange,” a nickname he earned while playing for the Montreal Expos. He also played for Detroit and the New York Mets, finished with 2,716 hits and 292 home runs, and was a first baseman, outfielder and eventually a designated hitter over those 23 campaigns.
Rusty Staub arrived in Houston in 1963 at age 18, a young player that Houston ownership needed as a drawing card for a new, and struggling, franchise. Like Staub, many of his early teammates became all-stars over time, guys like Bob Watson, Joe Morgan, Sonny Jackson, Doug Rader, Jimmy Wynn, Cesar Cedeno, Mike Cuellar, Larry Dierker, Don Wilson and third baseman Bob Aspromonte. It was Aspro and Staub who took a stand after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. All games were cancelled on June 8th, three days after the assassination, but MLB told players they could choose to play on June 9th or sit it out. Aspro and Staub sat it out in respect to Kennedy—losing pay for the day (a total of $500 between the two of them). They were both traded at season’s end.
Staub had a fine career—a six-time All-Star. He left baseball and started the Rusty Staub Foundation that supported emergency food pantries in New Yorki. He also created the New York Police and Fire Widows’ and Children’s Benefit Fund, raising millions of dollars for the families of uniformed personnel killed in the line of duty. The fund has distributed over $9 million since he started it.
Those who knew him called him principled, dedicated to his craft and causes, and an overall great humanitarian. I knew him as the major league player who made the day for an 11-year-old fan 53 years ago. I’m sure there were many more young people he reached out to over five decades. I was just fortunate to be one of them.
By the way, the bat was lost many years ago when I went off the college. My mother either threw it away or gave it to someone. But she was there that day when Rusty Staub delivered his biggest Major League hit—at least to me.