Rusty Staub was a big man—a 6-foot-2-inch slugger who hit towering home runs during a long Major League Baseball career. He also had a big heart, both as a player who loved delighting his fans and as a philanthropist who helped raise millions of dollars for those in need through his charity and its annual wine auction. Staub's heart gave out this morning, March 29. He died of a heart attack in West Palm Beach, Fla., three days shy of his 74th birthday.
Staub first made his mark on the field as a prolific hitter. Off the field, he opened two Manhattan restaurants. He also loved great wine, especially Burgundy, and used connections with vintners to help others, establishing a foundation and hosting an annual wine dinner and auction to raise money for it and other charities.
"Rusty was a friend and generous supporter of the Emeril Lagasse Foundation and so many other charitable causes," chef Emeril Lagasse told Wine Spectator. "He was dedicated to those less fortunate and his philanthropic efforts will always be remembered. He will be missed dearly."
Daniel Joseph Staub was born April 1, 1944, in New Orleans, the son of schoolteacher Ray Staub and his wife, Alma Morton Staub. They planned to call him Danny, but a nurse took one look at the red fuzz on his head and dubbed him Rusty.
Starting with Houston in 1963, Staub began a 23-year career as a powerful hitter and fan favorite. He compiled a lifetime .279 batting average with six different teams. Traded to Montreal in 1969, he learned French so he could speak with local fans, who dubbed him "Le Grand Orange." With the New York Mets from 1972 to 1975 and again from 1981 to 1985, Staub fell in love with New York, and the Big Apple fell in love with him. When he retired in 1985, he had 2,716 hits, 292 home runs in 2,951 games.
Staub had always loved food. In 1977, he opened a Manhattan restaurant, Rusty's. After he retired, he stayed in New York and opened a second eatery, Rusty Staub's on Fifth Avenue. He also loved wine, and became a prolific collector. And he would use that love for a good cause.
In 1984, he created the New York Police and Fire Widows and Children Benefit Fund to raise money for the families of first responders killed in the line of duty. The following year he started the Rusty Staub Foundation, which provides food for underprivileged children in New York. In 1991, Staub hosted the first Rusty Staub Foundation Wine Auction and Dinner, where he auctioned off some of his wines as well as those donated by vintners he knew. In recent years, the event has brought in well over a million dollars annually and has made the Wine Spectator Top 10 Charity Wine Auctions List repeatedly.
"Rusty was a tough guy who told you what you needed to hear. But he was also so giving," said Mets teammate and All-Star first baseman Keith Hernandez at a press conference today at Citi Field, as the Mets prepared for Opening Day with Staub's No. 10 painted on the pitcher's mound. "He went above and beyond. He could be as tough as hell or as soft as a mushroom."
As Staub told a writer for Major League Baseball a few years ago, "Those foundations are what I do. I want to give back. A lot of things in my life were great because of New York City. I didn't want to sit around and bask in the glory."
Staub is survived by his brother Chuck and his sisters Sally Johnson and Susan Tully.