Rusty Staub: The Making Of A Muscular Millionaire

He plays right field for the Montreal Expos, hit .302 last year and is adulated by fans as 'Le Grand Orange.' But his eye is also on the big green

HARRY BRUCE July 1 1970

Rusty Staub: The Making Of A Muscular Millionaire

He plays right field for the Montreal Expos, hit .302 last year and is adulated by fans as 'Le Grand Orange.' But his eye is also on the big green

HARRY BRUCE July 1 1970

“RUSTEE, RUSTEE,” they said. “Monsieur Staub, Monsieur Staub,” and they pushed the ballpoint pens up at his face, and the old baseball programs, the pocket notebooks, and the cigarette boxes, and he kept on signing his name, just that, just his name, Rusty Staub, Rusty Staub, Rusty Staub, and he’d pass the pens and the scraps of paper back down to the hands that were like the bills of hungry baby birds, and his mouth was closed over a small comfortable smile, and he’d murmur bon soir, bon soir, bon soir. Rustee, merci. Merci, merci, merci, Rustee. And they’d go away, feeling good, taking the piece of paper with just his name on it and tucking it away in a special place. You could tell that they were feeling good by watching their eyes and, for anyone who had not seen this ritual of the sports world before, the odd thing about it all was that these guys were not 11- and 12-year-olds; they were not the skinny little "Rusty Staubs” of the sandlots and the back-alley baseball of downtown Montreal. No, these guys were big businessmen, or at least they were as big as they’d been able to make themselves.

They were members of the Richelieu Clubs of Metropolitan Montreal. The Richelieu is French Canada's most powerful service club, and these men were top beer salesmen, merchants, tailors, stockbrokers, manufacturers, insurance executives and undertakers, and the last organized ball that any of them had ever played was probably a quarter of a century ago, 'way back in the time when they could still get away with shaving only once a day.

But look now, will you just take a look at that Rusty Staub! The Supreme Sports Hero. He hit .302 for the Expos last year, and 29 home runs. He’s six-foot-two and, this evening anyway, he's down to a good clean 200 pounds. The diet is working. The famous red hair ripples back in neat but generous waves. The hair fits his head, and it's laced with gold. The suit is soft green, and it's cut in an edgy, military, Edwardian style that proclaims not only the clean breadth of Staub's shoulders, not only the youth of his waistline, but also a certain knowledge of what's going on, a conviction about where the action is, how to find it, how to exploit it, and how to make out. Staub is the tallest, youngest, healthiest and, physically, the most accomplished man in this whole hallful of 300 men and, as if that were not enough, there's something about him that suggests he thinks it’s entirely possible that, one day fairly soon, he will also have more dollars than any of them. He's the cock of the walk. He’s Le Grand Orange.

He came to Montreal only about a year and a half ago and already he's inspired the rhapsodic sort of public adulation that Jean Béliveau has spent half a lifetime to build for himself. Indeed, late last summer one of Montreal's French-language newspapers polled its readers to discover the city's most popular sports hero, and the winner was not Le Gros Bill at all, it was Le Grand Orange. (Béliveau, a friend and sometimes golfing partner of Staub, observed mildly that, after all, the hockey season had not yet started.) Staub's fans insist he’s even more popular than Santa Claus and, as proof, they cite what happened during the last Grey Cup parade. Eaton's was apprehensive about the ways in which assorted political troublemakers might react to the company's traditional Christmas parade so they called it off, and consoled themselves by entering the old gentleman in the Grey Cup parade. Staub, too, went along for the ride, and his admirers insist that, all the way down the long, cheering corridors of Montrealers, Staub got a louder hand than Santa.

In midwinter, Staub appeared at the Montreal Forum, unannounced, during a baseball skit performed by the Harlem Globetrotters’ basketball troupe, and there were something close to 17,000 people there, and they caught sight of that flaming-red head down among the black basketball players, and they set up a racket that was louder than anything Staub had heard since his appearance in an all-star ball game at Houston. And he'd played for the Houston organization for eight years. Staub remembers the night at the Forum. “Ah was awed by it,” he says. “It’s hard to get awed by yourself, but Ah was awed by it. Ah didn’t believe it.” Until you have heard Rusty Staub say he was awed by something, really awed, you have just not heard a real Southern accent.

But now, the Richelieu Clubs of Montreal have just given Le Grand Orange a fat, brassy plaque. That's the ostensible reason why he's here. To accept that plaque. He is getting the plaque because he took 25 French lessons during the off-season, and it's strange how the press finds these things out, but now everybody knows that Le Grand Orange is trying to master the French language and, for Staub, it's all working out as just about the niftiest piece of personal public relations in the modern history of professional sport. This evening, he has thrown away the nice, smooth little speech that the Expos' public relations staff gave him in the afternoon, and he is ad-libbing a few halting sentences in French, and he is getting away with it. He sounds like someone who is trying to say something that is his, in French, and his accent is better than that of several thousand WASP politicians in Canada. And, after all, he does come from a closely knit family (“About all we did in the family was goin’ to school, eatin’ and playin’ ball”), and he is a good Catholic, is he not? And did he not grow up only a few blocks from the French quarter in New Orleans?

Now, the House of Seagram — which includes Charles Bronfman, whose millions of dollars helped to bring the Expos to Montreal in the first place — shows the Richelieu Club its bicultural film about the sweet and famous and maybe even lucrative love affair between Montreal and its funny young baseball team and, every time Staub’s big, red head goes wagging across the silver screen, all the distinguished members of the Richelieu Club applaud like happy children and, later, one of them stands up and tells Le Grand Orange in English that if he really wants to master the French language there's only one thing to do. Get a French girl friend. (One of the Expos’ better pitchers, Bill Stoneman of Oak Park, Illinois, did just that, and married her, and settled down in Kirkland, Quebec.) And all of these friendly events give an unusual light of warmth and significance to this strange old rite, whereby a strong young man deigns to hand out his very own signature to adoring boys, to older men, and to other lesser males.

At the back of the room, and some distance from the banquet tables, there’s a 36-year-old man sitting on a folding chair, and watching Staub with some obvious pride and affection. He smiles, and he smiles, and he smiles. He wears horn-rimmed glasses, he is rather bald, and his blue pinstripe suit, with vest, is more conservative than Staub’s. The man is a bit chubby but not so chubby as he often says he is. He appears to be very benign and Staub, who knows him as well as he knows any Canadian, has said that he has never seen this man lose his temper. Staub, whose own temperament is anything but mild, said this with respect and amazement. The man is Gerry Patterson, business ' adviser to Rusty Staub, and to Jean Béliveau, and to Don Drysdale, and to Gordie Howe and, now and then, to Gump Worsley, Bill Stoneman, and half a dozen other pro athletes whose names alone may mean money. Patterson is an impossibly sunny combination of business and sales genius, sports fanatic, and work addict. (“It's just amazing,” he says, “how much work you can get done if you get downtown by 7 a.m.”)

Patterson is confident that if Staub plays well for the Expos during the next four years (assuming, of course, that the Expos survive that long), then he, Patterson, will have little trouble turning him, Staub, into a millionaire. At the moment, and for the next couple of years, Staub’s straight salary for playing right field for the Expos is a mere $67,000 a year. Patterson, however, has already set up Rusty Staub Inc. — the third member of the board of directors is Marvin Segal, president of Giovanni Inc., and the man responsible for Staub’s very snappy clothes — and he has registered the name Le Grand Orange. Before too long, you can expect to see Le Grand Orange baseball manuals, Le Grand Orange fielders’ gloves, Le Grand Orange uniforms and, of course, Le Grand Orange himself as he tells you all about the super qualities of assorted sports cars, watches, outboard motors, tea, financial institutions and so on, and on, and on.

Nor will Le Grand Orange necessarily be restricted simply to endorsements. “We’ve heard from four soft - drink companies,” Patterson says. “But I don’t know about that. Or why not a company of our own? If it’s the name that sells the stuff, why not have more control than just an endorsement program?”

For the moment, however, or for this season anyway, it is part of Patterson’s strategy to exploit Staub’s remarkably sudden popularity in a cool, solid and respectable way with a few cool, solid and respectable companies. Rusty Staub has a contract with General Mills, which pays him to like Wheaties. He is president of the Bank of Montreal's Young Expo Club. (“Who is 16 or under, eats popcorn, loves baseball and has lots of fun? A Young Expo.”) Late this spring, Patterson was also negotiating with American Motors to get for Staub the same sort of auto-endorsement deal that Béliveau enjoys. (Patterson, Béliveau and Staub all dutifully drive American Motors cars, and American Motors has donated two red-white-and-blue jeeps to the Expo club. Moreover, Béliveau wears sweaters from Caramy Knitting Mills; his refrigerator is filled with the same PurePak milk cartons that, on television, he claims are so great; and he recently took out a Sun Life policy in tribute to yet another endorsement arrangement that Patterson had set up for him. Staub drinks Seagram’s V.O. in honor of Charles Bronfman, the Expos’ very own angel. )

Patterson is the president of Sports Administration Inc., vice-president and shareholder of Jean Béliveau Inc., vice-president and shareholder of Rusty Staub Inc., and a director of Gordie Howe Promotions. One of Patterson’s hotter schemes is to use the names of Béliveau, Howe and Staub, and perhaps of some Canadian golf ace, to push sports equipment in an entirely new string of outlets across the country. Jean Béliveau Inc. moved into an office in Place Ville Marie as soon as the Canadiens missed the play-offs, and Patterson’s ambitions and plots for Le Gros Bill are immense, complicated and pretty sure to turn Béliveau into an extremely rich tycoon. And soon.

Headquarters for Rusty Staub Inc. are a desk in Staub’s $400-a-month, two-bedroom pad in Westmount Square. (Westmount Square is the sort of place that is invariably described as “posh.”) Patterson’s plans for Staub relate to what he calls a "dynasty theory” of sports heroes in French Canada. The theory goes like this: when Howie Morenz was a sports idol, Toe Blake was already coming along as the next sports idol; when Toe Blake was the idol, Rocket Richard was already coming along; when the Rocket was the idol, Béliveau was coming along. There was always an overlap but. now, Béliveau is 38, and who is there in the Canadiens’ organization to take over that special spot as The Superstar? Savard? Maybe. But maybe nobody. For Le Grand Orange, that vacuum could just be the chance of a lifetime. “If he were to win the batting championship,” Patterson says, “his opportunities would be just fantastic.”

Patterson’s firm, Sports Administration Inc., also handles all corporate promotions for the Montreal Baseball Club. Patterson has an office among the Expo front offices, and he’s there most days of the week. Since what's good for the Expos is also good for Rusty Staub and, in a sense, what’s good for Staub is also good for Patterson, this arrangement suits everyone pretty well except, occasionally, one pretty fagged-out baseball player. One week last winter, Patterson booked Staub into banquets in New York, Toronto, Montreal and London, Ontario; a network television appearance in Toronto; a business meeting with a machinery manufacturer back in Montreal; and appearances with the Expos’ promotion caravan in Plattsburgh, New York, and Ottawa. Staub was nervous before the television appearance, on CTV's Sports Hot Seat. Patterson says, “I just told him that sometimes you have to watch those guys [Toronto sportswriters] and, no matter what questions they fire at you, you just look nice and easy, you call them by their first names a lot, and smile for a couple of seconds before you answer.” It worked. Staub’s performance on Sports Hot Seat was a small masterpiece of charm and cool.

Staub was one of the seven Expo players who chose to make their offseason home in Montreal. This decision, and the rubber-chicken banquet circuit, and the French lessons, and the appearances on French-language television, and the generally sweet relations between Patterson, Staub and the press, were all part of what Patterson is pleased to call a “quality exposure program”; and, as far back as last January, when Staub had been in Canada only about eight months, Patterson was able to report to him that Sports Administration Inc. had already “established Rusty Staub in the Canadian community with particular emphasis on French Canada.” As the night at the Forum proved, and the night at the Richelieu Club, and a lot of other public nights around town, this was an understatement.

There’s a temptation to see that benign and smiling man on the sidelines as a fiendishly clever image-maker who turns big bland athletes into robots who need merely flash their dimples (or, in Staub’s case, freckles) in order to get people to give them money. Staub himself, however, wrecks this theory. He may talk as though he's just a poor boy from the country who’s trying to get ahead but, behind the easy southern grace, there’s a sharp awareness that, for Rusty Staub, Montreal is everything that people used to call The Main Chance. Staub’s notorious determination to stay with the Montreal club in the spring of 1969, even though the Houston Astros insisted he return to Texas, made him something of a hero in French Canada even before he’d once swung a genuine, powerized Hillerich and Bradsby Louisville Slugger on behalf of the Expos. "This is the greatest town Ah ever been in,” he says, “and mah opportunities are tremendously great here.” Staub did not need Gerry Patterson to tell him that, in the United States, the ball players who make the real bread off the field all live in New York or Los Angeles, and not in Kansas City, or Atlanta, or Houston; and that one way to rake in that New York-style money was to establish himself as the baseball hero of the one and only big-league team in all of Canada.

Establishing himself as a baseball hero has not always been easy. There’s evidence that, although Staub’s batting swing shows the long snapping grace of Ted Williams, he is not exactly the perfect athlete. His first year in the big leagues, with Houston, he hit only .224. True, he was just 19 then but, even a year later, after a painful banishment to a farm team, he hit only .216 for Houston. Three years ago, in the year he hit .333, Philadelphia Manager Gene Mauch said, “The best batting coach Houston ever had is Rusty Staub. That boy made himself into a hitter, and he did one hell of a job." No one had ever heard of the Montreal Expos in those days and it is one of those sweet and rare coincidences of pro baseball that Staub’s old admirer, Gene Mauch, is now the Expos' manager.

Staub has recurring problems with his ankles, and he is far from the fastest right fielder in baseball. He says he’s not so slow as some writers have claimed — “although Ah would not say that Ah am a gazelle at foot” — but that, in any event, he studies his pitchers, and the enemy batters, and thinks about the weather and the conditions of the field, and all this “gives you a knowledge of how to play a guy. You can do more with an intelligent approach than all the speed.” Staub’s fielding style is distinctly unorthodox. He snags flies with one hand, rather than two, and if the ball’s coming low and hard toward his feet he charges it and then, instead of diving for the shoestring catch, he sits down fast in front of the ball. That way, he argues, even if he misses the catch, the ball cannot scoot past him. His throwing arm is as natural and powerful as his swing, and he likes to point out that, last year, he led National League outfielders in assists, with 16. He also had 10 errors.

Staub reads books about positive thinking, how to think yourself rich, how to make speeches, how to win friends and influence people. If he reads any fiction at all these days, its stuff by Harold Robbins. He’s had to cut down on the less practical reading, however, because hotel rooms are not always too well lighted, buses jounce you around a lot, he found his eyes were stinging, and that scared him a bit. What’s a ballplayer with bad vision? He detests air travel too, but what’s a ballplayer who won’t go up in airplanes? He’s not all that crazy either about getting up early in some strange hotel room in a cold country, in the middle of January, and skipping rope, and doing hundreds of sit-ups and, over and over again, swinging a real baseball bat as hard as he possibly can as an imaginary ball rockets up to an imaginary strike zone. But what is a flabby Rusty Staub? What is a Rusty Staub who cannot hit? The answer — despite all the canny efforts of a partner who’s as clever as Gerry Patterson — is that a Rusty Staub who can’t hit is just another ageing baseball player who will never have a million dollars.

Staub, by comparison with most athletes, really does try harder; and perhaps this is because he wants harder; and, surely, with so much future riding on his current performance, he must worry harder, too. He says, “When Ah first came into the big leagues, Ah was desirous of some of the stuff that the established players had, and Ah knew, heck, to attain that Ah had to work mah ass off . . . and Ah did, and this is something Ah worked mah ass off for, to be able to stay in this apartment and pay this rent . . . You worry, sure. You tell yourself you don’t worry, you just work. You say what are you worrying about? You’re making more money than anyone 26 years old can reasonably expect to make. But some things, like that contract Gerry was talking about a little while ago, it’s like when you're hungry, and you could almost taste the food in your mouth. And sure Ah want it, but you just try to go back to the basic thought: the only thing Ah can do is right now. It’s what’s taking place now. It’s what you have to apply right now. It’s not the last pitch, and it’s not the next pitch, but it’s this pitch. And there’s the enchilada.”

That was in April and, though the Expos were playing disastrous baseball, Staub was hitting well over .350 and, everywhere he moved in the city, men and soft-eyed young women would recognize him, wave at him, smile at him, and wish him well. In a bar, he startled a juicy girl with dark hair by helping her off with her coat. They’d never met. “Actually,” he told her, “Ah'm not that nice a gentleman.” She smiled right back in his face, and said, “I know, but you're one hell of a baseball player.” If you walk with Le Grand Orange almost anywhere in downtown Montreal, the city feels kind and cheerful, the way small towns are supposed to feel, and it is hard to believe that he does not deserve what he can get. □