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Rusty Staub, Mets legend and humanitarian, dies at 73

He received his nickname from a nurse shortly after his birth in a New Orleans hospital, when it was clear he would have a bright red mane.

Before Opening Day on Thursday, Mets fans reflected back on the life of former Met Rusty Staub. (Credit: Newsday / Casey Musarra)

In many ways and in two languages, Rusty Staub was a big hit and a big help. In Montreal, he was Le Grand Orange, who put major league baseball on the map in Canada. In New York, he helped the Mets win an unlikely pennant and later he helped the families of fallen first responders get back on their feet.

The colorful, run-producing humanitarian died Thursday in a hospital in West Palm Beach, Florida, the Mets announced. He was 73.

“The Mets family suffered another loss earlier today when Daniel ‘Rusty’ Staub passed away in a West Palm Beach Hospital after an illness,” the team said in a statement. “He was almost as well known for his philanthropic work as he was for his career as a baseball player, which spanned 23 seasons.”

Chuck Staub said his brother had been in the hospital undergoing dialysis treatment, and was showing improvement after a staph infection. He said his brother suffered a heart attack last night.

“He died as soon as it happened,” Chuck Staub said. “He didn’t have to go through a lot of pain.’’

Mets general manager Sandy Alderson and others from the team had visited Staub in the hospital during spring training.

“How sorry and somewhat surprised we are at the passing of Rusty Staub today,’’ Alderson said at Citi Field before Thursday’s season opener against the Cardinals. “Those of us who saw him during the spring had hopes that he would recover from this latest illness, but that was not the case. . . . It’s a sad day for the Mets, ironic that it’s Opening Day. Perhaps the overcast, though, is an indication of how Mets nation is feeling today.’’

Staub received his nickname from a nurse, shortly after his birth in a New Orleans hospital, when it was clear he would have a bright red mane. He carried that moniker cheerfully through 23 big league seasons, which featured 2,716 hits and 1,466 runs batted in, then into his second phase as a broadcaster, restaurateur and charitable fundraiser. Especially close to his heart was the New York Police and Fire Widows’ and Children’s Benefit Fund, which he established in 1985, the year he retired.

“There wasn’t a cause he didn’t champion. Rusty helped children, the poor, the elderly and then there was his pride and joy The New York Police and Fire Widows’ and Children’s Benefit Fund,” the Mets said. “The entire Mets organization sends its deepest sympathy to his brother, Chuck, and sisters Sue Tully and Sally Johnson. He will be missed by everyone.”

Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred praised Staub’s life in a statement.

“Rusty was a superb ambassador for our sport and a generous individual known for community efforts, particularly for the New York City Police and Fire Departments,” Manfred said. “On behalf of Major League Baseball, I extend my deepest condolences to Rusty’s family and friends, Mets fans and his many admirers in the United States and Canada.”

A 1969 trade from the Houston Astros to the expansion Expos turned Staub into a full-fledged personality, as he immersed himself in French Canadian culture while excelling at the plate. He was devastated when the Expos, looking to build with youth and depth, dealt him to the Mets in 1972.

But that changed his life and turned him into a true New Yorker.

Staub was a key member of the group that went from last place to the World Series in 1973. The lefthanded batter had three home runs in the National League Championship Series against the Cincinnati Reds and still holds a share of the franchise records with five RBIs in a postseason game.

Having played for both the Tom Seaver-Bud Harrelson Era Mets and the Dwight Gooden-Keith Hernandez Era Mets, he was inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame in 1986. That same year he began a stint until 1995 as a Mets broadcaster on WWOR/9.

Harrelson, who is battling Alzheimer’s Disease, was Staub’s teammate on the 1973 Mets.

“He looked out for me, he would take me out to dinner and made sure I ate well,’’ Harrelson said. “He was my best friend. I know he was sick, but I’m sad he’s gone. I will miss him.’’

Staub’s popularity remained strong in his adopted home for the rest of his life, witnessed by the ovation he received when he threw the ceremonial first pitch during a Mets’ 2015 postseason game. Eleven days earlier he had nearly died of a heart attack during a flight home from Ireland.

“God wasn’t ready for me yet,” he said at the time. That night, he told mlb.com, “I was tap dancing in front of St. Peter. He could have taken me easily. But maybe he had some more good for me to do. You know, I do some pretty good work. And I don’t know how much time I’ve got. So, I guess I’d better hurry up.”

Last July, he was at Citi Field as Austin Tuozzolo, 5, threw a ceremonial first pitch before a Mets game. The youth from Huntington had lost his father Paul, an NYPD sergeant, in a Bronx shootout. The former outfielder’s organization gave financial and emotional support to the child’s family.

“If it gives them that little surge of energy that is very hard to find in things in life, to bring some joy and happiness to them, that’s the purpose of this organization,” said Staub, whose uncle, Marvin Morton, was a New Orleans motorcycle cop killed in the line of duty.

Stephen Dannhauser, chairman of the New York Police and Fire Widows’ and Children’s Benefit Fund said in a statement: “Late last night, we lost our founder, our friend and a pillar of the community. For more than 30 years, Rusty dedicated his life to helping others. He worked tirelessly on behalf of the widows, widowers, and children of New York City’s fallen heroes.”

Jake Lemonda, president of the FDNY Uniformed Fire Officers Association said in a statement: “On behalf of our entire membership, I would like to offer sympathy and comfort to the family and friends of one of our most cherished benefactors, Rusty Staub. More than his accomplishments on the playing field, Rusty typified the kind of person whose mission in life was to give back to others, and none were more fortunate of his efforts than the widows and orphans of the FDNY. He will be sadly missed.”Also last year, Staub announced that the Rusty Staub Foundation had donated more than $1 million to its participating charities in 2017.

All of that was built on the baseball career of a six-time All-Star who also played for the Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers, hit .300 or better five times and had three 100-plus-RBI seasons. Along with being honored by the Mets, he was enshrined in the Texas and Canadian Baseball halls of fame. In a reflection of his longevity, he hit a home run as a teenager with the Astros in 1963 and as a 40-year-old with the Mets in 1984.

Daniel Joseph Staub was born April 1, 1944, to Alma Morton Staub and her husband, Ray, a teacher who had been a catcher in the Florida State League. Rusty began swinging a bat at 3 and was a star (with his brother Chuck) at Jesuit High in New Orleans. He received a $100,000 signing bonus with the then-expansion Houston Colt .45s in 1962 and made the Opening Day roster in 1963.

By 1969, he was a two-time All-Star but was not a favorite of manager Harry Walker, the former batting coach. Staub was still only 24 when the club traded him to Montreal in a deal that would indirectly help the Mets greatly — the key player in return was Donn Clendenon, who refused to report to Houston, was traded to the Mets and became the Most Valuable Player of the World Series.

Staub flourished in Montreal, taking multiple French classes and embracing the nickname Le Grand Orange bestowed on him by Ted Blackman of the Montreal Gazette. He developed an interest in fine food and wine, which would lead to his later decision to open two Manhattan restaurants in the 1990s.

He was unhappy when the Expos traded him for Ken Singleton, Tim Foli and Mike Jorgensen on April 5, 1972, but he then became a New York fixture. He earned a place in Mets fans’ hearts forever as he helped the club rise from 11½ games out on Aug. 5, 1973, to Game 7 of the World Series, which the Mets lost to the Oakland A’s.

Those fans never did understand the December 1975 trade that sent him to Detroit for beyond-his-prime pitcher Mickey Lolich, and they welcomed Staub back when he signed with the Mets as a free agent in 1980 after a short reprise in Montreal and one season with the Rangers.

When Keith Hernandez was traded to the Mets in 1983, he became close friends with Staub.

“He was the one who introduced me to the city,’’ said Hernandez, an analyst for Mets telecasts on SNY who visited Staub in the hospital on Saturday. “He’s just been a great friend, but he was in a lot of pain . . . He’s in a better place.’’

The club named Staub its Goodwill Ambassador as well as a broadcaster. On Rusty Staub Day, July 13, 1986, Mets players came on the field during the ceremony wearing bright red wigs and presented him a plaque with their signatures on it.

In his remarks that day, Staub told the crowd, “I wish I could find the words to really make you understand how much I appreciate how much you’ve meant to me.”

Chuck Staub said his brother lived in West Palm Beach, but in Manhattan during the baseball season. Chuck Staub said it was his brother’s wishes to be buried in France. Rusty Staub was known as a connoisseur of fine wines.

“He used to go to France every Christmas,” Chuck Staub said. “That’s when he would buy the wine for his functions. He did it for many years.’’

Chuck Staub said memorial services in West Palm Beach, New York and New Orleans will be announced at a later time.

With Steven Marcus and Laura Albanese

New York Sports