Opening Day 2011 will be the 50th Opening Day in Mets history. To honor that, around here we’ll be counting down the top 50 Mets in team history, one every weekday from now until we’ve done ‘em all. Today, #42, Rusty Staub:
Most plate appearances by a player not in the Hall of Fame:
Bonds, Biggio, Vizquel, Griffey, and Sheffield are not eligible yet; Rose is banned from baseball and, apparently, most reputable barber shops; and while Raphael Palmeiro became eligible this year, he tested positive for steroids in 2005. This unofficially makes Rusty Staub the player with the most plate appearances in baseball history, who could be in the Hall of Fame, but is not in the Hall of Fame.
Why isn’t Rusty Staub a Hall of Famer, and how did he get to play so much anyway? Staub’s own website provides an good answer to the first part: “He was never a great player . . .” Well, that’s certainly modest. For my part, I would argue that Staub was a great player for a few seasons, particularly his three seasons with Montreal, when he hit .296/.404/.501 and averaged 26 home runs, 90 RBI, 94 runs, and 99 walks a year . . . but that’s besides the point. Three great seasons don’t make a Hall of Fame career, and although he hung on the ballot for seven years, I don’t think anyone thinks Rusty Staub not being in the Hall is a serious injustice.
So the second part of the question: Staub’s career was so lengthy, playing for five teams over twenty-three years, mostly because he happened to be at the right place at the right time during the beginning and ending of his career. His first organization was the expansion Houston Colt .45s — Billy Dee Williams’ favorite baseball team — who let Staub play 150 games as a 19 year old in 1963. The Mets, another expansion team short on talent, did a similar thing with Ed Kranepool, letting him struggle in the big leagues as a teenager. For most of the last half century, it’s hard to reach the majors as a teenage regular unless you’re really good, or your team is an expansion one and just doesn’t have anyone else. Staub was able to pick up 1,375 plate appearances before turning twenty-two, which accounts for over 12% of his career total — he hit .233 over those first three years, but he got to play anyway.
The middle of Staub’s career follows a normal arc, with his explosion in Montreal being followed by four good seasons with the Mets and three-and-a-half good years as a DH with the Tigers, but Staub was mostly done as a full time player after 1978 — he never broke 400 plate appearances in a season again after that point. Instead, he turned himself into a great pinch hitter for the Mets from 1981-85, having his best season in 1983, driving in 25 runs on 24 pinch hits. In this part time role over his final five seasons in New York, Staub picked up 702 plate appearances, or 6% of his career total. So 18% of his career plate appearances came either before he was twenty two or after he was done as a full time player.
Had he been a modern player, it would have been extremely difficult for Staub to hang on for five seasons as a pinch hitter, no matter how good he was in that role. The expansion of bullpens has gradually limited benches to five players, and one of the five must catch, one must play anywhere on the infield, and one must play anywhere in the outfield. This leaves just two players of wiggle room, and it’s difficult to justify spending a roster spot on someone who gets just five plate appearances a week and can’t play a defensive position. Staub’s career timing was again fortuitous, in that he played before Tony La Russa inflated bullpens to their current sizes, allowing him to extend his career as a bench player.
And that is how Staub was able to amass 11,229 career trips to the plate despite not being a great player. He first played for an expansion team that was desperate for anyone, then served as one of the early designated hitters, and then as a pinch hitter at the end of his career. He was a very good player who happened to be in the right place at the right time for most of his career. I would guess that it would be difficult for someone with Staub’s skill set to ever have such a long career again. Chalk it up to karma at work, maybe, for the philanthropist Staub.
Inspired by Dan Lewis’ Now I Know newsletter, here’s a Rusty Staub bonus fact. Only this isn’t really a fact, and more like a thing. I guess it’s a bonus thing that happens to be sort of true: Playing six degrees of Kevin Bacon, you can connect Rusty Staub with the Muppets’ keyboardist Doctor Teeth using just one connection. Staub, who grew up in New Orleans, attended Jesuit High School, graduating in 1961; the voodoo jazz pianist/singer Dr. John, three and a half years older than Staub, also attended Jesuit High School, though he did not graduate. (Because the great Dr. didn’t finish, I don’t know if the two were ever in school simultaneously, so we might need another student or a teacher to connect the two. Let’s pretend we don’t.) Anyway, Dr. John was loosely the inspiration for Doctor Teeth, band leader and keyboardist of Muppet band, the Electric Mayhem. Rusty Staub to Doctor Teeth in just one degree of separation.
And just because I have to now, Doctor Teeth appeared in The Muppet Movie, which features a cameo by Steve Martin as a waiter. Martin starred in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, near the beginning of which he races another man for a cab in New York City. The actor playing the man he races? A young Kevin Bacon. Rusty Staub to Kevin Bacon.