MONTREAL – The Montreal Expos’ first year in baseball was a joyous time, and at the centre of it all was Le Grand Orange.
Rusty Staub, who died Thursday in West Palm Beach, Fla. of multiple organ failures, was the Expos’ first superstar when major league baseball moved into Canada in 1969 with an expansion club playing out of a temporary stadium in Jarry Park.
He power bat, the bright orange hair that gave him both his nicknames — Rusty and Le Grand Orange — and his openness to francophone culture in Montreal made him the darling of a city getting its first taste of big-league ball.
“Everybody loved Rusty,” said Claude Raymond, the pitcher from St-Jean-Sur-Richelieu, Que., who was Staub’s teammate in the Expos’ early years. “He was young. He was a redhead. He was always trying to help people.
“I remember when he came back in 1979, he was so happy. He really enjoyed Montreal and I think Montreal enjoyed him too.”
Born Daniel Joseph Staub, the New Orleans native would have turned 74 on Sunday.
The New York Mets issued a message confirming his death hours before the start of the baseball season.
Staub, a six-time all-star, played 23 seasons from 1963 to 1985 with Houston, Montreal, the Mets, Detroit and Texas. The left-handed hitter spent nine seasons with the Mets, where he is equally revered as a player and a humanitarian, but Canadians remember him most from the Expos’ first three seasons in the National League.
On a bad Expos team in 1969, he hit .302 with 29 home runs, while using his powerful arm to produce 16 outfield assists. For show, he would sometimes make spectacular-looking sliding catches on routine fly balls.
“One time he called time out right in the middle of the inning because he wanted to go to the bathroom,” said Raymond. “The umpires granted him the time out and he came back and the people gave him a standing ovation.
“It was hard not to like this guy.”
There are conflicting reports on why the Expos traded Staub to the Mets in 1972 for Ken Singleton, Mike Jorgensen and Tim Foli. One was that he wanted a $100,000 salary, the other that the Expos were tired of losing and wanted to shake things up.
Staub was a hit in New York, helping the Mets to an NL pennant in 1973.
He was dealt back to Montreal by Detroit in July, 1979, with the Expos in a pennant race with Pittsburgh. He went in as a pinch hitter in the eighth inning of the first game of a double-header against the Pirates and was given a five-minute standing ovation — before he popped up.
Staub debuted with the Houston Colt 45s, who became the Astros in 1965, as a $110,000 bonus baby. His trade to Montreal ahead of the 1969 campaign was blocked because Donn Clendenon refused to report to Houston, but commissioner Bowie Kuhn ordered the Expos to send two players and $100,000 to the Astros and the deal was completed.
Staub moved to Montreal that winter and immediately began to learn French.
“I felt I should be able to communicate with the people of Montreal in their own language,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1970. “After all, they were interested in baseball. I thought I should be interested enough in them to learn how to converse with them.”
It was a public relations home run for the Expos, who drew 1.2 million fans to Jarry Park in their first season, an impressive number at the time.
He was named to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2012.
“Rusty Staub was our country’s first major league superstar,” Hall of Fame director of operations Scott Crawford said in a statement. “He may have only played three-and-a-half seasons with the Montreal Expos, but he gave his heart and soul to the franchise and to the city of Montreal.
“He immersed himself in the city’s culture as much as any Expo and the fans loved him for it. It was evident when he returned to Canada for his induction into our Hall of Fame in 2012 that part of his heart still belonged to the city of Montreal and its baseball fans. Today is a sad day. We’ll miss Le Grand Orange, but we’ll never forget him.”
Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons was Staub’s teammate with the Mets in the 1980s, calling him one of the top pinch hitters of the day.
“He was always good to me,” said Gibbons. “My first year in the big leagues in ’84 we were up there playing in Montreal and of course he had played there.
“First hockey game I ever saw, we had a day game and he got a bunch of tickets, it was a playoff game Canadiens vs. Islanders (Eastern Conference Final) at the Forum. So a bunch of us went over and I got to see my first hockey game. Then the next week we went and saw them at Nassau Coliseum.
“But he was a great man, great baseball player. It’s a sad day for baseball.”
The Expos, who relocated to Washington after the 2004 season, retired his No. 10 jersey in 1993.
Staub recorded 2,716 hits with 292 home runs and 1,466 RBIs during his career. He was the only player in major league history to have at least 500 hits with four different teams.
He had 508 hits in only 480 games for Montreal, where his .402 on-base percentage is a franchise record.
Staub had battled numerous health issues since leaving the game. He nearly died in 2015 when he suffered a heart attack on a plane. He had reportedly been diagnosed with cellulitis in January and complications led to kidney failure.
In New York, he ran a foundation that raised more than $100 million for the families of police and firefighters killed or injured while on duty.
— wit a file from Melissa Couto in Toronto