Skip to main content
Original Issue

In Montreal they love Le Grand Orange

The Expos knew they were getting a good ballplayer when they traded for Rusty Staub, but not in their happiest dreams could they have imagined what a valuable ambassador of goodwill they had in the redhead

It was lunch hour in Montreal, and the outdoor mall of La Place Ville Marie was swinging noisily to the beat of a steel band as thousands of dark-haired French-Canadian secretaries, all wearing the micro-miniest of skirts, paraded around the kiosks, oblivious, it seemed, to the stares of tortured French-Canadian men. Suddenly, though, the mall was still and all eyes were fixed on the tall, red-haired man entering La Place from an adjacent building. A young girl shouted, "C'est Le Grand Orange."

Rusty Staub started to walk across the mall. Girls tried to guess his route so they could form human roadblocks. Some succeeded. Men, content perhaps to study the scurrying forms of the females, simply yelled at him.

"Quand gagneront les Expos une autre victoire? [When will the Expos win another game?]"

"Ce soir, j'espère [Tonight, I hope]," Staub answered.

He walked fast. Faster. Still faster. The crowd followed him, swelling in size. Finally, his clothes intact, Staub revolved through the doors of La Popina, a stylish restaurant. More people—sedate businessmen, housewives, shutterbug tourists—approached his table and requested autographs. Staub signed napkins, handkerchiefs, blank checks for all. "Mes Meilleurs Souhaits, Le Grand Orange [My Best Wishes, Rusty]," he wrote. Then he ordered his own lunch.

Staub laughed. "Have you ever seen such excitement, such absolute chaos in your life?" he asked. "And, remember, there were a lot of people in baseball who said Montreal would never be a major league city. Now show me a better one."

Le Grande Orange, more than anyone else, has helped make Montreal not only a major league city but also one of the half dozen best towns in baseball. After he was traded to the new Expos by the Houston Astros in January 1969, Staub, smartly, immersed himself completely in the city of Montreal, the province of Quebec and the entire country of Canada. He leased an apartment only a three-block underground walk from the Forum and became an instant Canadiens hockey nut. Then he hired a tutor and took French lessons.

"I felt I should be able to communicate with the people of Montreal in their own language," he explained. "After all, they were interested in baseball. I thought I should be interested enough in them to learn how to converse with them."

Staub surprises even himself with what he can say in French. "I still must translate English thoughts into French words," he says, "but there will be a day when I will be able to think in French, too." In the meantime, he makes speeches in French. Last winter he passed up all the warm-weather celebrity golf tournaments as well as Mardi Gras back home in New Orleans and gave talks at more than 50 places throughout frigid Canada—usually charging only for his legitimate expenses. In Quebec his tongue was French, everywhere else, English. "Rusty Staub," says John McHale, the president of the Expos, "did the greatest job of public relations for baseball that I have ever seen."

What Staub really did was sell baseball to a city—indeed, a whole nation—that will have to live with a losing team for more years than it probably ever imagined. In 1969, its first big-league season, Montreal finished last in the National League East but had a home attendance of over 1.2 million—approximately twice what either the San Diego or Seattle franchises drew—despite playing in tiny, 28,456-seat Parc Jarry. This was an amazing record for a city accustomed to winners (Les Canadiens and the old' Brooklyn Dodger farm club, the Royals). So far this season the Expos are still in last place, and they most likely will remain there, but home attendance has increased more than 34,000 for comparative dates.

"We do not hope our Expos lose the game tonight," a portly fan explained before a recent game the Expos lost to the Cincinnati Reds, "but we do not quite expect them to win the game, either. We come out here to have some fun, drink some beer and, of course, to see our Rusty hit the baseball."

Fortunately for Staub and the Expos, Le Grand Orange happened to arrive in Montreal at a time when Canada was desperately searching for a new sports hero. Traditionally, the idol of Canada has hit a puck and scored goals, usually for Les Canadiens. There were Howie Morenz, Toe Blake, Maurice (Rocket) Richard and, most recently, Jean Beliveau. But now Beliveau is almost 39 years old, and there is no hockey player ready to succeed him in the dynasty.

"I am well aware of the dynasty theory in Montreal," Staub says. "I know what is available to me here. It is something that I must handle delicately and professionally. Most importantly, Eve got to do it out there on the field."

Only 26, Staub has been doing well on the field since 1961, when Houston gave him a $132,000 bonus and announced that he would lead them to a pennant someday. In 1967 Staub came into his own as a big-league batter, hitting .333 and almost winning the batting championship. The following year he slipped to .291 but still was among the top 10 National League hitters.

Nevertheless, there was mutual disenchantment between Staub and the Astro management, which has been compared—with reason—to a Boy Scout operation. At spring training the players are locked into barracks every night. Almost every night during the season there is a bed check. "The entire operation is gripped by fear," Staub says. "Everything is an ultimatum."

Staub is a bachelor, and the Astros, it seems, always presumed that he was trying to become Houston's answer to Joe Willie Namath. "If I did half the things they thought I did, I'd be a cripple," he says. "Married players go out with their wives after games, why shouldn't I go out with a date? I'm no wild man."

The parting of the ways came on Jan. 22, 1969 when Staub was traded to Montreal for Outfielder Jesus Alou and First Baseman Donn Clendenon. Clendenon refused to report to Houston, and for a time it appeared that the trade would be voided. But Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn told Staub and Alou to report to their new teams and ordered the Expos to compensate the Astros for the loss of Clendenon. "Houston should lose Staub for even thinking about trading him," said Luman Harris, the manager of the Atlanta Braves and a former Houston manager. "Maybe that's what Kuhn was thinking, too."

The Staub trade was the first deal made by the Expos, and they will never make a better one. Last year, providing Montreal with its only real touch of professional respectability, Le Grand Orange hit for his usual high average (.302) but, more important, he also hit 29 home runs—the exact total of his home runs for the previous three seasons when he played half his games in the spacious Astrodome.

"I always knew Rusty had beaucoup power even before I knew what beaucoup meant," says Gene Mauch, the Expos' manager. "It was a matter of telling him he should swing for the fences and forget slapping the ball. He's a devastating hitter no matter what he does."

Staub's performances on the field permitted him to become a celebrity off it. Soon some of Canada's major corporations began to inquire about his availability for promotional work. Staub became associated with Gerry Patterson, who also conducts all of Jean Beliveau's business affairs, and now Rusty Staub is Rusty Staub, Inc., sharing a suite of offices high above La Place Ville Marie with Jean Beliveau, Inc. Often when the Expos are at home, Staub drives to the office and for a few hours conducts his business affairs. Most times this means a luncheon talk, some of it in French, of course.

There are some people, even in Montreal, who suspect that Staub is becoming too involved with his burgeoning business interests to pay sufficient attention to his performances on the field. Staub insists his life in a baseball uniform comes first, and it is true that if he has not hit with the same authority that he did last season, that is partly because rival pitchers rarely offer him anything to hit except waste pitches. He is the only tough out in the Expos' lineup. One day recently when he did get the pitches he wanted, he had 3 for 4, including a two-run homer, and threw out the tying run at the plate as the Expos beat the Mets 6-5 to stop their five-game win streak. Sunday his two-run homer downed the Mets again, 3-2.

Recently, walking through La Place Ville Marie, Staub paused to reflect on his coming to Montreal. "The Expos," he said, "traded for a ballplayer. I hope I've been more than a ballplayer to them."

Right then a girl shouted: "C'est Le Grand Orange!"