Third in an 11-part series examining the vagaries of awards voting.
Just as performing marginally on a pennant winner still can earn accolades in the MVP vote (see my Elston Howard article), a team's last-place finish can make a valiant individual performance nigh unto invisible. Rusty Staub had just such a season in the Montreal Expos’ inaugural year of 1969.
Led by the most generous pitching staff in the Senior Circuit (4.33 team ERA), Montreal tied fellow National League newbies, the San Diego Padres, in bringing up the rear in their respective divisions, with identical 52-110 records.
But Expos hurlers hardly shouldered the blame by themselves. Like most expansion clubs, Montreal was deficient in all areas of the game. It led the league in errors and fielding percentage, and the only reason Montreal managed to turn the most double plays was because it allowed so many baserunners (Expos pitchers issued nearly 100 more walks than the next-highest team).
At the plate, only San Diego kept the Expos from scoring the fewest runs and registering the lowest on-base percentage. When Expos were fortunate enough to reach base, Montreal batters proved more adept than any other NL team in killing rallies, leading the league in double plays grounded into.
Little wonder Montreal fell into the National League basement by April 29 and never emerged.
But Montreal had itself a genuine star in Rusty Staub—and Rusty had a season in 1969 that was lost in the painful glare of 110 losses and a team more Canadian curiosity than contender.
Montreal acquired Staub from the Houston Astros 11 weeks before Opening Day. The fledgling franchise had plucked Donn Clendenon from the Pittsburgh Pirates and Jesus Alou from the San Francisco Giants during the previous October’s expansion draft and then shrewdly swapped them to Houston for Staub.
Already a two-time All Star who had hit .333 and led the NL in doubles in 1967, Rusty not only brought cachet to Parc Jarry but endeared himself to Montrealers by learning French and becoming a member of the Quebecois community.
In his trade to Montreal, Le Grand Orange, as hometown fans anointed the personable redhead, indirectly figured in the king-making of several World Series champions.
Clendenon refused to report to Houston, so along with Alou, Montreal sent two pitchers and $100,000. Now persona non grata to Montreal management, Clendenon played 38 ineffectual games for the Expos before being swapped to the New York Mets in mid-June. Clendenon helped the soon-to-be Amazins into the playoffs and then exploded in the Fall Classic, slamming three home runs and winning the World Series MVP.
One of the pitchers packed off to Houston in Clendenon’s stead was Jack Billingham, himself snared from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the expansion draft but never to pitch for the Expos. Two-and-a-half years later, Billingham was part of the blockbuster deal that also sent Joe Morgan, Cesar Geronimo, Denis Menke and Ed Armbrister to the Cincinnati Reds.
Billingham became the ace of the new-and-improved Big Red Machine and led it to two consecutive championships and a third pennant, logging an all-time Series best 0.36 ERA in 25.1 innings.
Back in Montreal, batting third in front of powerful left fielder Mack Jones, Rusty hit .302, including 29 home runs—as many as bona fide sluggers Willie Stargell and Ron Santo. Staub should have collected more than 79 RBIs, but Montreal’s leadoff and No. 2 hitters did a poor job all season of getting on base for the heart of the order.
Perhaps most impressively, Rusty fashioned a .426 on-base percentage, fourth-best in the league and a hair less than batting champion Pete Rose, who had outhit Staub by 46 points. Rusty’s 110 walks, tied for third with ex-teammate Joe Morgan, combined with robust .526 slugging to notch an OPS of .952, also fourth-best in the NL. Staub also ranked 10th in total bases.
This all added up to a WAR of 6.2, tied for seventh-best among position players in the National League and surpassing, among others, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, Stargell and Santo—the latter of whom finished fifth in MVP voting.
Staub’s are not numbers to sneeze at—but they were sneezed at because he played on a 110-loss expansion club that voters likely thought couldn’t have gotten much worse. Yet without Staub, Montreal might have approached the 1962 New York Mets’ legendary futility. Had Rusty worn a Mets or Atlanta Braves uniform that season, he would have garnered serious MVP consideration.
As it was, Rusty earned a single 10th-place vote, tied for last place in the MVP race (he was the only member of either NL expansion squad to appear on any ballot, not counting Tony González, whose MVP votes were unquestionably earned after his June 13 trade from dead-in-the-water San Diego to first-place Atlanta).
I’m not going to make the Andre Dawson argument that, despite playing for a last-place squad, Staub should have finished at or near the top of the voting. I don’t believe Andre Dawson should have gotten anywhere near the 1987 NL MVP—the bottom half of the top 10 would have sufficed.
Which is where Rusty Staub should have finished.
Perhaps a particular game early in the 1969 schedule epitomized Staub’s intrepid season: On April 17, Rusty was a one-man wrecking crew against the Philadelphia Phillies, smashing three doubles, homering and driving in three runs in a 7-0 whitewashing of the Expos’ NL East rivals.
As fate would have it, Rusty’s awesome performance was rendered an afterthought by teammate Bill Stoneman, who—in just the ninth game of the Expos' existence and the fifth start of his career—twirled a no-hitter (the hard-throwing, hard-luck Stoneman pitched a second 7-0 no-hitter in 1972 before arm trouble short-circuited his career).
It was just an under-the-radar kind of season for Rusty.
Staub had two more excellent campaigns in Montreal before saying au revoir for greener pastures in New York and Detroit. And perhaps Rusty enjoyed some karma in 1978 when he finished fifth in the AL MVP vote by driving in 121 runs, bettered only by Jim Rice. Appearing as the designated hitter in every one of the Tigers’ games, Staub became the first player ever to appear solely as a DH and finish in the top 10 in MVP voting.
Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.