Only four years ago he was clumsy and awkward as a colt—which was fitting in a way, since he played in the outfield for the Houston Colt .45s. Every time a batted ball came his way he seemed to shy at it and then chase it in the wrong direction. They tried him at first base. One night Pitcher Hal Woodeshick caught baserunner Pete Rose of Cincinnati leaning the wrong way and picked him off first. He picked off his first baseman, too. The ball flew past 19-year-old Rusty Staub's ear, rolled down into the right-field corner and Rose ran all the way around the bases and scored. It was hilarious.
"He never saw it," said the late Fred Hutchinson, then manager of the Reds. "But they won't be laughing at that kid three or four years from now. There aren't too many laughing at him right now when he's up at that dishrag." Houston sent him back into the outfield again, where he might endanger a ball game now and then but not his life. And Hutchinson was right. Now, in August 1967, Rusty Staub is up there with the best hitters in the major leagues—Clemente, Cepeda, Robinson—with a batting average in the .350s.
There were those who said Staub should have been hitting like that all along. He always had the swing, they insisted, that marvelous swing. Ted Williams called him one of the best young hitters he ever saw. But today Rusty Staub does not even stand at the plate the way he used to—upright, proud, his bat gripped down at the end and held high, ready for the big swing; instead, he bends at the knees and at the waist, squeezes the bat an inch above the knob and strokes the pitch into left field, center or right. "I see the Astros hired Harry Walker as a batting coach," said Philadelphia Manager Gene Mauch recently. "Well, I'll tell you this: 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."
Daniel Joseph Staub has been called Rusty since April Fool's Day 1944, when he was born. "I wanted to name him Daniel so I could call him Danny for short," said Mrs. Staub, who is, of course, Irish. "But one of the nurses nicknamed him Rusty for the red fuzz he had all over his head, and it stuck."
The name—and the fuzz. Today Staub's hair is red, a flaming red that looks even redder when he wears that loud blue sports jacket he had on last week in Philadelphia. He has brown eyes that open wide when he speaks, and freckles—hundreds of freckles—scattered like friendly measles all over a face that turns pink under too much sun.
He grew up on the corner of Royal Street near Almonaster in New Orleans, about five minutes from the French Quarter. When he was 3 years old his father, a schoolteacher, shoved a bat into his hands with orders to "swing it," and Rusty did. At acorns, apples, rocks, basketballs, softballs—anything. By the time he was 10, playing in games with boys two and three years older, Staub could put his bat on any pitch thrown to him. Later, when he played American Legion baseball, he helped Crescent City Post 125 win the national championship in Hastings, Neb. The plane ride back to New Orleans—and the 4,000 people who met the team at the airport—gave Staub a thrill that was the greatest he's ever had in baseball. "When you're a bunch of kids who haven't been away from home much, that is an exciting thing to be a part of," Staub remembers. "A band. Your folks. Your girl. There aren't many times in your life when you're so happy you have to fight back tears."
By his senior year in high school Staub was "hitting .300 on home runs alone" and was having difficulty accommodating all the major league scouts on his doorstep. Ted Williams came down from Boston for the Red Sox and talked to Rusty about hitting and fishing—which gave Staub his second biggest thrill in baseball. Scouts from 16 teams were there, or on their way, when Hurricane Carla blew in. Two Phillie scouts, pressed by their management for a report on Staub, said, "He sure runs well in the rain." But Hurricane Carla could not put off Paul Richards, then general manager of the new Houston franchise. "I wanted Houston from the start," Staub says, "because that looked like the quickest route to the big leagues. When Mr. Richards made his offer, I signed."
He got $90,000 and all the pressure a new major league franchise could exert on an 18-year-old. Houston made it clear that it looked upon Rusty Staub as the child who would lead the club out of the wilderness someday. After all the press conferences were over, he was sent to Durham in the Carolina League, where he batted .293 and hit 23 home runs, and the next year he was up with Houston. He batted only .224 for the season, got off to a worse start the following year and in July, when he was batting .202, Houston farmed him out again, this time to Oklahoma City. "It might as well have been the end of the world," Staub recalls. "I bit my lip all the way to the airport to keep from crying. Then, on the plane, I broke down."
A year later he was back with Houston, batting a promising .256 and beginning to think like a major leaguer. When the Astros moved under the Dome, Staub took to wearing special rubber-cleated shoes on the Astroturf because of ankle defects that had caused him to be rejected for military service. He wears conventional spikes on his left foot when batting, changing into the special shoe whenever he reaches base. Last year he hit .280 with 13 home runs and 81 runs batted in and was named the Astros' Most Valuable Player.
"I've got power," says Staub, "but not enough to hit home runs consistently in the Astrodome. I had to decide what kind of hitter I was going to be. Now I go up to bat with the idea of hitting the ball where it's pitched and hitting it on a line or on the ground. I tell myself to stay back and wait until I see the pitch. When I do I attack it. Snap! One reflex action—the same every time."
If the principles sound vaguely familiar, they should. Williams, Musial, DiMaggio preached the same things. "It's easy to recite the rules of hitting," says Staub, "but just try to apply them. It takes concentration. Watch the batting cage sometime. Watch how many guys are up there screwing around. You do that in practice, you do it in a game. Do it 50 times a year and...."
Do it 50 times and you do not win the National League batting championship. Every morning at breakfast Staub grabs the paper and checks the box scores—particularly Pittsburgh (Clemente) and St. Louis (Cepeda). Three weeks ago the Astros went into Pittsburgh for four games and lost three of them, 9-1, 15-2 and 15-2. In the face of such hitting by Pittsburgh it seemed impossible for Staub to retain his slim lead over Clemente in the batting race. But Staub somehow matched Clemente almost hit for hit, and when the Pirates came to the Astrodome four days later Staub still led .353 to .352. In the three games between the two clubs in Houston, Staub made seven hits in 12 tries, Clemente only 3 for 8, and Staub increased his margin to five points.
"Winning the batting title is important to me, if I do it," Staub says. "But if I don't it won't kill me. It's a long season, and it's too early for me to give myself more than a good chance. Right now the thrill of baseball is almost gone. I don't mean I'm tired of it. I mean I get my pleasure from the sense of accomplishment I feel when I make a good play or get my hits. I've had to prove so much to so many people that I don't want them to think this year is a mistake. I've never forgotten how I felt when I was sent down. A couple of days ago Charley Harrison was sent out. Now, I don't know Charley that well, but I knew exactly how he felt. I went over to him and said, "Charley, I'm sorry.' He looked at me and I didn't know what else to say. It's baseball, but it's a terrible thing to happen to a man. When it happens to The Flea I just don't know what I'll do."
"The Flea" is Bob Lillis, a lean, 37-year-old journeyman shortstop who, through determination and hard work, has kept himself in the major leagues for nine years. "When I came up and acted like a kid," Staub says, "everybody treated me like a kid. Everybody except The Flea. He treated me like a man, like a pro. I'll never forget him for that."
The way Rusty Staub has developed as a major leaguer—the way he plays, the way he thinks—it's certain that nobody is going to forget him for a long time, either.