This article was written by Robert Duval
Canadian-born Gus Dugas was an injury-plagued journeyman major leaguer for parts of four seasons in the 1930s, but a hard-hitting minor-league slugger for 14 years. Born on March 24, 1907, in the small central Quebec village of Saint-Jean-de-Matha, Joseph Augustin Dugas was the sixth of seven children of Azarie Dugas and his wife, Marie (Archambault) Dugas. A dairy farmer who also made maple syrup in the spring, Azarie was tempted like many other French Canadians by the possibility of a better life in the textile mills of New England. The family settled at 29 Providence Street in the Taftville district of Norwich, Connecticut, most likely in 1909. The elder Dugas found work at the Ponemah Mill, the region’s largest employer.
Young Augustin could be seen often in his youth playing on a baseball field close to Taftville’s Sacred Heart Church and just a short walk from the family home. Quickly he became one of the best young players in town. He played for the Taftville Knights of Columbus baseball club, the Taftville Athletic Association, and the Sacred Heart Young Men’s Association. His skills made him a local star. In 1926 he was named MVP of the Norwich Twilight League. It was said that once he hit a ball that crossed the fence at 317 feet but still was gaining altitude. After that, locals began to call him the French Canadian Babe Ruth, but it was Lefty that stuck as a nickname and with good reason: Dugas both batted and threw from the left.
Dugas had a trial with Hartford of the Eastern League in 1928. He remained with Hartford two weeks before being sent home. He finished the season in the semipro Blackstone Valley League with the Millbury, Massachusetts, club. The following year found him in East Douglas of the same league, a teammate of future Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg. East Douglas played an exhibition game late in the season against the Boston Braves and Dugas hit two doubles and a home run. Scouts for the New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates were at the game and were impressed. Dugas soon after signed with the Pirates.
In 1930, 23-year-old Gus Dugas began his professional career with the Wichita Aviators of the Western League, a Class A affiliate of the Pirates. Success came immediately. His .349 batting average was third in the league. He finished second in home runs with 26 and fourth with a slugging average of .565. Impressed by their new recruit, the Pirates called him up before the end of the season, and he played right field in nine of the team’s last 11 games of the season, making his debut on September 17. Throughout his career, Dugas always had a flair for the spectacular and his debut in the majors was no exception. He got three singles in five at-bats with two runs scored in a 12-5 Pirates win over the Philadelphia Phillies. For what would prove to be a rare occurrence in his career, Dugas was used on a regular basis by the Pirates and he finished the season with a decent .290 batting average. On September 28 he made history by being the first hitter to face 20-year-old rookie pitcher Dizzy Dean of the St. Louis Cardinals. Dugas got a base on balls and scored the Pirates’ only run on a single by Pie Traynor. Dean collected the first win of his career.
The Pirates gave Dugas a new contract after his late-season performance. On February 25, 1931, he left for Paso Robles, California, for spring training and played well enough to secure a reserve position on the team, when the first of three serious injuries that would plague his career occurred. Dugas was an aggressive player who liked to run hard to catch balls hit his way. On April 20 during a practice, he and shortstop Ben Sankey collided violently as they both tried to catch the same fly ball behind third base. Sankey was only stunned and recovered quickly. Dugas was not so lucky. He remained unconscious for several minutes, lost some teeth, and, most importantly, suffered a broken jaw.
Dugas recovered but on June 15 he was optioned to the Kansas City Blues of the Double-A American Association. His stint with the Blues was extraordinary: In 93 games he had an incredible batting average of .419. His 137 hits included 25 doubles, 11 triples, and 8 home runs, and he drove in 73 runs. He had a .636 slugging average. After the season Dugas came home to a hero’s welcome as Taftville celebrated him by throwing a big parade. He rode in a Desoto convertible automobile wearing his old Sacred Heart Young Men’s Association uniform while several thousand people cheered along the way.
Given his statistics in Kansas City, Dugas was considered a great prospect in Pittsburgh, but the fact that he was a left-handed hitter was somewhat of a drawback. To become a regular with the Pirates, Dugas would have to do better than one of the Waner brothers, two left-handed hitters who both later were elected to the Hall of Fame. Dugas had perhaps a chance in left field but a team with three starting outfielders batting from the left is rare. The Pirates’ left fielder was the right-handed Adam Comorosky, who had been injured for much of 1931 and hit only .243 with 48 RBIs. Dugas’s chances of making it as a starter would have been better had he been right-handed.
The Pirates’ training camp was again held in Paso Robles in 1932 and Dugas held his own once more. He was even a favorite to become the starting left fielder. But Comorosky was manager George Gibson’s man in left field on Opening Day, and remained there for all of April even though he was batting only .140 at the end of the month. All the while, Dugas was used only nine times as a pinch-hitter. Manager Gibson finally announced that he would have Dugas play against right-handed pitchers while Dave Barbee would start against southpaws.
From May 1 to May 4 Dugas was the regular left fielder and got two hits in 13 at-bats (a single and a triple). Gibson was dissatisfied and he decided to use Barbee exclusively. For the rest of May Dugas was used only as a pinch-hitter. He ended up playing only 55 games at season’s end. In 97 at-bats he had an anemic batting average of .237, with three home runs. Thirty-three of his at-bats were as a pinch-hitter. In the eight games he started in right field, Dugas batted .394 with a slugging percentage of .788. On December 12 he was traded to the Phillies in a three-team deal that also involved the New York Giants.
Dugas’s future with the Phillies was uncertain. The team was packed in the outfield with Hal Lee in left, Chick Fullis (obtained from the Giants in the three-team trade) in center and in right field, Dugas’s favorite position, future Hall of Famer Chuck Klein. Dugas was aiming for the center-field job but first baseman Don Hurst, who had hit .339 with a league-leading 143 RBIs the year before, left the Phillies’ Winter Haven, Florida, training camp in a contractual dispute. Immediately, manager Burt Shotton entrusted the job to Dugas, who had spent time there during camp. But Dugas had never played a regular-season game at first base and at 5-feet-9 was short for a first baseman. And he certainly could not expect to replace Hurst after his return. Players had no bargaining power at the time, and Hurst had no choice but to come back to the team and reclaim his job. And Dugas, while playing first base, had lost his chance to battle for a spot in center field, a position at which he would have been much more able.
Perhaps because Hurst was not in great shape after having missed so much training time, but most probably to punish him, Shotton used Dugas at first base on Opening Day, and for the next six games. He was then replaced by Hurst but returned to first base for the last three games of April. Dugas, who usually performed well when used on a regular basis, finished the month with a batting average of only .150. After that he was used mostly as a pinch-hitter with no real success, and on August 5, the Phillies sent him to the Albany Senators of the International League. With the Phillies he had played in 37 games with 71 at bats and batted .169 with 3 doubles and nine RBIs.
Once in Albany and playing on a regular basis in right field, Dugas found his batting eye and batted .379 in 38 games with a .538 slugging average. These figures attracted the attention of other teams in the league. The Montreal Royals apparently tried to secure his services, but Dugas had dreams of playing again in the majors and the Washington Senators had invited him to spring training for the 1934 season. That season turned out to be pivotal in Dugas’s life and career.
As in every other year, Dugas did well with the Senators at their training camp in Biloxi, Mississippi. He signed a contract with the Senators on April 13, but this time it was clear that he was to be a utility player. The Senators had just won the American League pennant under manager Joe Cronin, and could count on an outfield of John Stone, Fred Schulte, and Heinie Manush, another future Hall of Fame inductee. As a consequence, Dugas never got the chance to start a game, playing parts of two games in the outfield, and was used almost exclusively as a pinch-hitter. He got one hit, a double on May 17 in Cleveland. He finished the year with 19 at-bats, his double and one RBI for a batting average of .053. He played his last game in the majors on June 28. Then, for the second year in a row Dugas found himself in the International League with Albany. He was sent there by the Senators in mid-July and again he had an extraordinary home stretch. In 57 games with Albany, he batted .371, with 72 hits, including 17 doubles, five triples and five home runs.
After the season, on October 22, Dugas married Doris Buteau in St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Baltic, Connecticut. The newlyweds settled in Norwich in a house bought by Gus’s father from the Ponomah Mills. The house was within walking distance of Gus’s parents. They lived in it the rest of their lives. The couple would go on to have four children. One of their great-grandchildren, Andrew Carignan, was drafted in the fifth round in 2007 by the Oakland Athletics and played for the A’s in 2011.
On November 21, 1934, the Montreal Royals purchased Dugas’s contract from Albany. In early 1935, while visiting relatives in his native province of Quebec, Dugas stopped in Montreal to sign a contract with the Royals, the first written in French in the history of Organized Baseball. He was delighted to be playing for a club in his home province.
The presence of two Franco-Americans, Dugas and Del Bissonette (born in Maine), greatly increased the enthusiasm of French-Canadians for the Royals, who proceeded to finish first in the International League in 1935 with 92 wins and 62 losses. Dugas contributed greatly to the team’s success with a batting average of .308, 29 doubles, three triples, 22 home runs, and 97 RBIs. He had amazing games on several occasions. On May 21 he hit two home runs, a single, and a double in a 12-10 loss to Buffalo. In a doubleheader sweep at Albany on June 16, Dugas got 12 RBIs on seven hits, including a grand slam and a double. He helped attract more than 300,000 people to Delorimier Stadium, as the Royals outdrew several major-league teams.
In the playoffs, the Royals beat Buffalo in six games, and faced Syracuse for the Governor’s Cup. The Chiefs won the first two games in Montreal and the Royals the following three in Syracuse. The Royals needed only one more win to secure the Cup. In Montreal on September 22, with the score tied 2-2 and one out in the ninth inning, Dugas smacked the ball against a net over the scoreboard. Usually, balls hit with such force turned out to be home runs but this one bounced off the net and back on the field for a ground-rule double. The Royals ended up losing the game 3-2 in the 10th inning and the Cup as well after a 2-1 defeat the following day. Dugas finished the playoffs with a .357 average. (After the season the ground rule was changed so that all balls hitting the net were home runs.)
The Royals slid to sixth in 1936, but Dugas picked up where he had left off the year before: a .308 average, 26 doubles, 15 triples, 18 home runs, and 91 RBIs. He had a number of memorable games at the plate, and in August he hit four triples in a week.
In 1937 the Royals finished second under new manager Rabbit Maranville, but were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. On June 29 Dugas suffered a heel injury in a play at the plate in Montreal and was not in uniform for the July 1 and 2 games. Despite a badly swollen foot, on July 3 he pinch-hit with the bases loaded, two outs, and the Royals losing 5-1. Dugas hit a ball into the net over the scoreboard, tying the game. Dugas could barely walk the bases and reach home plate while people in the stands gave him the biggest standing ovation of his career.
Dugas came back to play a while later but he was seriously injured on August 3 in Baltimore when he collided with Orioles second baseman Bill Cissell after stealing second. Dugas lost two teeth and had to leave the game. He started the game the next day but collapsed after two at-bats. He was taken to a Baltimore hospital, where he was diagnosed with a collapsed lung. His season was over and he did not leave the hospital until August 16. He had finished the season with a .324 average, 28 doubles, 3 triples, 11 home runs, and 62 RBIs.
Despite the Royals’ doubts about Dugas’s health, he had a great training camp in 1938 and began the season by posting a .430 batting average in the first nine games of the season. On May 1 in Jersey City he went 5-for-7 in a doubleheader with five RBIs. Eight days later, he hit a game-winning home run against Jersey City in Montreal. But his batting average gradually slipped and the Royals’ doubts about his health began to resurface. The team’s management believed that things could get worse when hot and humid weather arrived. On June 22 the Royals sent Dugas to Baltimore in a four-player trade. The rest of the season showed that the Royals had been wrong about Lefty’s health. Dugas batted .330 in Baltimore. Overall he hit .314 with 16 home runs and 81 RBIs. The Royals had sacrificed their most popular player since the club’s return to Montreal in 1928.
In 1939 Dugas started the year in Baltimore but was on very bad terms with his new manager, Rogers Hornsby. He didn’t play much. On June 20 he was traded to the Nashville Volunteers of the Southern Association. Now in his mid-30s, Gus had four successful seasons for Nashville, with a composite .316 batting average and 74 home runs. He led the league in RBIs in 1940 with 118. All this despite playing only 88 games in 1939 (he arrived in Nashville in late June) and 59 games in 1941 because of a broken leg and a dislocated ankle that ended his season on June 14. From 1939 to 1942, he helped the Volunteers win four consecutive league championships and the Dixie Series three times (1940-42). He earned $10,000 more in Nashville than the salary he got during his best season in the Majors.
At the start of the 1943 season Dugas chose to remain in Norwich. He was now 36 years old and the father of two children but mostly he wanted to participate in the war effort so he found work at Hamilton Standard, a maker of airplane propellers in Norwich, Connecticut. When he learned in late May that Nashville had sold his contract to Toronto of the International League to replace the service-bound Ralph Kiner, he joined the Maple Leafs, and in his debut on June 3 he hit a three-run walk-off home run in the tenth inning. Though he played in only 48 games, he helped Toronto finish in first place. Toronto lost to Syracuse in the finals of the Governors’ Cup but Dugas produced five of the 13 Maple Leaf runs during the series. In 1944 and 1945 Dugas did not play professional baseball but returned to Hamilton Standard. He played for a local semipro club. He continued to distinguish himself at bat. In 1946, despite being 39 years old, he played in 16 games for the Providence Chiefs of the Class B New England League batting .260 with two home runs. With that, his playing days as a professional were over.
Dugas found work as an extrusion operator at the Plastic Wire and Cable Co. in Jewett City, Connecticut, and worked there until he retired in 1972. He continued to play baseball with local teams, often acting as player-manager. He organized baseball clinics and umpired games in the Norwich City League. His bond with the people of Montreal never faded and the Royals and later the Expos regularly invited him to their games. Along with fellow Quebec-born major leaguers Tim Harkness, Raymond Daviault, Georges Maranda, Ron Piché, Claude Raymond, and Jean-Pierre Roy, he threw the ceremonial first pitch before the inaugural Expos game at Olympic Stadium on April 15, 1977.
In 1969 Dugas was the first inductee into the Norwich Sports Hall of Fame. In 1995 a new baseball park, Dodd Stadium, was built for the newly formed Norwich Navigators of the Double-A Eastern League. It sits on Lefty Dugas Drive in Norwich. Dugas attended games and threw the first pitch on several occasions. Shortly after his 90th birthday, he suffered a stroke. He died two weeks later, on April 14, 1997 at the Colchester Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. Gus’s funeral was held on April 16 at the church he attended all his life, Sacred Heart. He was buried at St. Joseph Cemetery, an old ballfield, and people in attendance sang “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”
As luck would have it, the front page of the Norwich Bulletin for April 15, 1997, was headlined: “Norwich mourns death of Lefty Dugas.” Also on that page, it was announced that Major League Baseball was about to honor Jackie Robinson that day because he had broken the color barrier 50 years earlier. And so two great Montreal Royals met, photos and all, on the front page of the same newspaper.
Marshall D. Wright, The International League, Year-by-Year Statistics,1884-1953 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2005).
William Brown, Baseball’s Fabulous Montreal Royals (Montreal: Robert Davies Publishing, 1996).
The Gazette (Montreal)
Norwich Sunday Bulletin
La Patrie (Montreal)
SABR Québec website, http://quebec.sabr.org
Freeman Buteau (telephone interview June 28, 2010); Ann Marie Dugas Carignan (interviews, June 28-30, 2010); Andrew Carignan (emails, February 2011); Carol Dugas Giorno (interview, June 29, 2010); Richard Racine (interview, April 2010); Jean Pierre Roy (telephone interview December 20, 2010)