This article was written by Yves Chartrand
Like fellow Vermont native Jean Dubuc, George Leclair was a right-handed pitcher of French-Canadian descent. The two were actually teammates for a short time with the Montreal Royals, but Leclair lacked Dubuc’s obvious talent, and his life was not destined for the long and interestingly varied flavor of his teammate’s. Following three mediocre minor league seasons, George pitched in a short-lived third major league known as the Federal League, compiling a 7-12 record and 3.36 ERA during its only two years of existence. After three more seasons in the minors, Leclair returned to Quebec. There a flu epidemic snuffed out his short life before his 32nd birthday.
According to Total Baseball, George Lewis “Frenchy” LaClaire was born in Milton, Vermont, on October 18, 1886. The spelling of his last name appears to be an anglicization of the common French name Leclair; George himself preferred the French spelling, and that is what appears on his tombstone at the St. Romuald Roman Catholic Cemetery in Farnham, Quebec.
There is also some question whether the pitcher actually was born in the northwestern Vermont village of Milton. No birth certificate exists, and there is no record of his baptism at the Catholic church in Milton or in any of the neighboring parishes. Apparently the only evidence is a form filled out around 1914 and contained in Leclair’s file at the National Baseball Library. In his own hand he listed Milton as his birthplace.
By the time of George’s tenth birthday his family was living in Farnham, not far from the Vermont border. According to local historian Alban Berthiaume, Leclair’s parents, Louis Leclair and Emelie Pelletier, operated a shoestore. Next to nothing is known about young George’s childhood. In fact, the first we know anything about him is when he emerged as a young baseball star.
On Opening Day of the independent Eastern Canada League’s 1906 season, George pitched Farnham to a 9-2 victory. Two weeks later he recorded 16 strikeouts in a 5-4 win over St. Jean. After the season Leclair married Annie Choquette, the sister of the Farnham team’s manager.
In his five seasons with Farnham, George Leclair pitched well enough to earn his first shot at organized baseball in the fall of 1910. He even signed a major-league contract that fall, and the man who made that possible was Larry Gardner. The two Vermonters had met while playing together on the Farnham team during the summer of 1906.
After the Boston Red Sox played an exhibition game in Burlington on October 10, 1910, manager Patsy Donovan announced that he was signing a local player on Gardner’s recommendation. “The new man is George L. LeClair,” the Burlington Free Press reported, “a native of Farnham, P.Q., who did the twirling at some hard games for Montreal during the past season.”
Actually Leclair had pitched in only a single game for Montreal. On the last weekend of the 1910 season, he started the second game of a doubleheader against Rochester, champions of the Eastern League. After striking out the leadoff man, a nervous Leclair was hit hard by four consecutive batters, resulting in two runs. He regained his composure, however, and allowed only two hits over the next four innings. The Royals scored once in the bottom of the first and four times in the fourth to give Leclair a rain-shortened 5-2 victory in his professional debut.
Whatever happened to George Leclair’s contract with the Boston Red Sox remains a mystery. On March 27, 1911, he arrived at spring training with the Montreal Royals in Newport News, Virginia. Accompanying Leclair was Jean Dubuc, who had been retained as special correspondent by La Presse, one of Montreal’s French-language daily newspapers.
On April 1, Leclair pitched six strong innings for the regulars in a 9-1 victory over the rookies. Playing right field for the rookies, Dubuc picked up two of his team’s four hits but was still impressed by the Vermonter’s performance. “Leclair is making a very good impression,” he wrote in La Presse. “He just has to keep going to secure a place on the team.”
Apparently Leclair kept going because he was one of Montreal’s six pitchers when the regular season opened on April 21. But he did not pitch until the ninth game of the season, when La Presse reported that he was the only hurler to do well in a 6-3 loss to Jersey City. Over the course of the 1911 season, Leclair pitched in only ten games for the Royals, pitching 29.1 innings.
Montreal invited him to spring training again in 1912, and again he made the team. But before the season was a month old the Royals shipped Leclair to Bridgeport of the Class-B Connecticut League. The following year Montreal released him after only one spring training appearance.
Leclair spent the 1913 season with LaCrosse, Wisconsin, of the Class-C Northern League. He finished with the league’s worst winning percentage, prevailing in just two of his 16 decisions and yielding 161 hits in 133 innings. His career in baseball appeared to be headed downward — yet days in the big leagues were just around the corner.
After operating as a minor league the previous season, Federal League owners decided to compete with the two existing major leagues in 1914. To bolster their credibility they signed a number of established major leaguers. George Leclair’s teammates on the 1914 Pittsburgh Stogies, for example, included Rebel Oakes, formerly of the Cardinals; ex-Tiger Davy Jones; and Howie Camnitz, a former Pirate. Still, that Leclair could make a Federal League roster may say more about the circuit’s quality of play than the quality of his pitching.
The Milton native signed with Pittsburgh in April but did not make his major-league debut until June 5, 1914. The Stogies were already down 6-0 to the Baltimore Terrapins that day when he entered in the fifth inning. The game ended as a 14-3 Baltimore rout, with George finishing out the massacre. It was a typical game for the Stogies, who finished seventh in an eight-team race. Leclair fared better than his teammates, compiling a 5-2 record in 22 games, mostly in relief.
George saw several new faces when he returned to Pittsburgh in 1915. Over the winter the Stogies had stolen the crosstown Pirates’ corner infielders, slugging first baseman Ed Konetchy and slick-fielding third baseman Mike Mowrey. Even though Pittsburgh improved to second place that season, Leclair’s record actually suffered; he was only 1-2 when the Buffeds acquired him in late June.
In Buffalo Leclair joined Bob Smith, the only other Vermonter to throw in with the Feds, but the two were teammates for less than a month when George was dispatched to the last place Terrapins. Wearing the uniform of his third Federal League team of the season, Leclair actually pitched much better for Baltimore than his dismal 1-8 record reflects. For the entire 1915 season, he pitched in 33 games, gave up 123 hits in 132.2 innings and finished with a 2.85 ERA.
The demise of the Federal League after the 1915 season meant the end of George Leclair’s career as a major leaguer. In the Feds’ peace settlement with the traditional circuits, Leclair’s rights went to the American League’s St. Louis Browns.
The Browns assigned Leclair to Little Rock of the Southern Association to begin the 1916 season, but he pitched poorly in his infrequent appearances. In September he was demoted to Peoria of the Class-B Three-I League. George was pitching well as a regular starter for Peoria in 1917 when World War I caused the Three-I League to disband on July 8. His performance slipped somewhat after Peoria transferred to the Central League. Still, when Leclair returned to Farnham to pitch in a postseason exhibition, La Presse reported that he had won both ends of three doubleheaders that summer and several International League teams were interested in his services.
After pitching for Elmira of the New York State League in 1918, Leclair returned to Farnham in the offseason and found work with the Canadian Pacific Railways. He died suddenly on October 14, four days short of his 32nd birthday, a victim of the Spanish Flu. Contrary to reports, the flu epidemic did not wipe out Leclair’s entire family. In fact, George’s wife gave birth to a daughter seven months after his death, and his namesake grandson, Georges Leclair III, lived in Iberville, Quebec as of 2000.
A version of this biography originally appeared in Green Mountain Boys of Summer: Vermonters in the Major Leagues 1882-1993, edited by Tom Simon (New England Press, 2000).
In researching this article, the author made use of the subject’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library and various local newspapers.