Donora is a decaying town, yet another Western Pennsylvania borough hit by hard times. But it’s also the birthplace of the Griffeys and Stan Musial, and that’s something that keeps its residents going.
DONORA, Pa. — The peeling sign greets drivers as they cross the Monongahela River on the “Stan The Man” Musial Bridge.
“Donora, The Home of Champions.”
Donora is a decaying town, another in a long line of once-flourishing Rust Belt boroughs along the river in Western Pennsylvania that have hit hard times. The steel mills closed long ago. A broken-down bridge that was Donora’s last business life line was imploded last year. Inhabitants wonder if their city is ever going to get its luster back.
“It’s really depressing, and basically, everybody moves out of this town,” said Dennis Lomax, 64, who grew up in Donora and moved back about 10 years ago to be near his daughter and two grandchildren.
“Basically, what I call this is a holding cell for the funeral home,” he said. “It’s like, who’s dying next? So many people are dying.”
Lomax doesn’t have a car any more, and doesn’t miss it.
“There’s nowhere to go,” he said bitingly. “Where you going to go in Donora?”
Yet even as stores keep shuttering at staggering rates, leaving a virtual ghost town on the main drag of McKean Avenue, Donora clings to its amazing sports legacy. That’s about all it has now, other than a perverse recognition as the site of the deadly 1948 Donora Smog, one of America’s first, and worst, environmental disasters.
Donora is famously the home of Stan Musial. And it’s the birthplace of Ken Griffey Jr., overwhelmingly elected to join Musial in the Hall of Fame last January.
This week, I found myself in Pittsburgh and had a free day. Donora, 25 miles south down the industrial clutter of Highway 51, beckoned. I had long been intrigued by the town that birthed two left-handed baseball icons. And, in a bit of exquisite trivia that continues to floor me, both arrived on the same day, Nov. 21 — Musial in 1920, Griffey Jr. in 1969.
Griffey’s grandfather, Joseph “Buddy” Griffey, worked in the steel plant along the river and played ball with Musial at Donora High School before leaving his wife, Ruth, to raise six kids by herself in the harsh Donora housing projects. Ruth’s brood included 2-year-old Ken Griffey Sr., who grew up to be another Donora sports legend.
Kenny, as Griffey Sr. is still remembered, was a four-sport superstar at Donora, playing football on the same field where his dad starred as a running back, and Joe Montana, who grew up in nearby Monongahela, would later play his home games.
As a senior, Griffey was voted king of the winter dance (the queen was white, not a major deal in 1969 in this racially diverse community). At Donora High, Kenny wooed and eventually married classmate Alberta Littleton, known to all as Birdie, who gave birth to Ken Jr. mere months after her husband signed a contract with the Reds out of high school.
The Griffeys, who added another son, Craig, in 1971, kept their base in Donora until 1973, when Griffey Sr. was called up to the Reds and the family moved to Cincinnati. Griffey Sr. would go on to have a distinguished 19-year career in his own right, with a .296 average (12 points higher than his son), 2,143 hits, two World Series titles with the fabled Big Red Machine, and a memorable stint alongside Junior with the Mariners. But all that has been somewhat obscured by the Donora royalty that bookended him.
“If Stan and Junior didn’t exist, Senior would be a prominent figure by himself,’’ said Mark Pawelec, a member of the Donora Historical Society. “He had a great career; it was just overshadowed by his son and Stan, who everybody was overshadowed by.”
Donnie Pavelko, Donora’s mayor, says there are plans to add Junior’s name to the highway sign, and to declare July 24, the day of the Hall of Fame induction, as Ken Griffey Jr. Day in Donora.
But you won’t find too many tangible signs that Griffey, or Musial, hailed from here. That doesn’t stop a steady stream of Midwesterners, to whom Musial’s name remains sacred, from crossing the bridge to pay homage to The Man.
“It is incredible,’’ Pawelec said. “People do come and make pilgrimages for Stan, from all over the Midwest. They want to come to the birthplace of Stan Musial.
“Maybe with the excitement over Junior, people will start to do that for him, too.”
My pilgrimage is a quest for knowledge and discovery, and the first stop was the public library, where I pored over The Dragon yearbooks from the senior years at Donora High of Musial and Buddy Griffey, in 1939, and Kenny Griffey, in 1969.
Musial’s entry notes he played baseball, basketball, intramural pingpong and tennis, and belonged to the Monogram Club. “Stan’s far more than an athlete,” it reads. “He’s friendly, full of fun, and neat.”
One page earlier is the handsome visage of Buddy Griffey, who played baseball, football and intramural mushball (whatever that is), and was also a member of the Monogram Club: “A spark plug with speed galore. Who could ask for anything more?”
Senior’s yearbook is sprinkled with his athletic exploits in football, basketball, baseball and track. His entry says, “Masculinity personified … sports is his life … popular … fun to be with.”
At the library I met Lomax, who has worked there for several years. He graduated with Griffey Sr., co-captained the Dragons’ basketball team with him as a senior, and lived next door to the Griffeys growing up in The Terrace housing project. While Lomax’s father eventually used his steel-mill earnings to buy a house, the Griffeys had no bread winner after Buddy left for another job in Cleveland following the closure of the American Steel and Wire mill in 1952. Ruth and the children stayed in Donora, and the couple divorced.
Ruth Griffey cleaned houses and worked as a nurse’s aid. Because she didn’t drive, part of her wages went toward paying a neighbor $2 a game to take her to her sons’ athletic events.
Ken Griffey Sr. has said in articles he’s not sure if his sons believed his tales of growing up on welfare, subsisting on powdered eggs and government cheese. Lomax vouches for the poverty of the family.
“He was one of the poorest people in town,” Lomax said quietly. “The steel mill was running, and they didn’t have a father in the house. They had Kenny, Bill, Ron, Squeeze, Ruby and Freddy, all them people in the house up in the projects, so you can imagine. But everybody was poor, so you didn’t know what poor was.”
It was the height of the civil-rights movement, but the mill was a great equalizer. It brought together all ethnicities, including eastern Europeans who had emigrated in the early 1900s, and Southern blacks who headed north in search of a better life.
Sports was the other equalizer. If you could help Donora High win, you were accepted. Another picture in the yearbook shows the baseball team, with Musial and his brother, Ed, in the back row, and Buddy Griffey right in front of Stan.
Wayne Stewart, who wrote “Stan the Man: The Life and Times of Stan Musial,” tells of the time the Donora team went to a tournament in Pittsburgh. A restaurant wouldn’t serve Buddy, so Stan and his teammates walked out. Later, with the Cardinals, Musial helped defuse a boycott that his teammates were planning when they faced Jackie Robinson.
“Everybody looked up to sports people, so you had … ‘OK, you’re black, but you’re OK. I don’t like the other blacks,’ Lomax said. “The kids played together and grew up together, so there was no problem.”
But everything wasn’t sanguine. Lomax flips through the yearbook, trying to find the page dedicated to Ricky Butler, their classmate who drowned in the Monongahela at age 16. All the swimming pools in the area were closed to blacks.
“The river’s not a good place to start learning to swim, but the blacks didn’t have a swimming place to go,’’ Lomax said. “Another dude drowned, too. So in the black community, there was a distrust. When we’re playing basketball or football or track or whatever, it’s OK. But we can’t socialize with you. It works on you, man.”
I headed over to the Smog Museum, which sits on the corner of Sixth and McKean. Musial grew up not too far away up the hill on Sixth Avenue in the house where Lukasz, a Polish immigrant, and Mary, the daughter of Czechoslovakian immigrants, raised Stan and his five siblings.
On Oct. 27, 1948, darkness settled over Donora during the afternoon, not unusual with the Donora Zinc Works and American Steel and Wire plant spewing exhaust. But this was different, the combination of smoke and fog combining with an air inversion to send deadly pathogens that lasted four days. Twenty residents died that week, and 50 others died soon after, including 58-year-old Lukasz Musial, thus denied seeing the bulk of his son’s stupendous career.
It was an incident that helped coin the phrase “smog” and jump-started the environmental movement and the formation of clean-air laws.
I walked up and down McKean, which is a shell of the lively area that existed in the halcyon days before the smog. The streets resemble a scene in a post-Apocalyptic “American Graffiti.” I walk past one empty storefront after another. All three banks have gone out of business. There is no grocery store, no newspaper, no school. Lomax notes sadly that even the taverns, which used to be plentiful, have dwindled to a precious few.
“And if you ain’t got a bar, you know you ain’t got too much of anything,” he said.
“Donora is what it is — a rundown steel town,’’ said Pawelec.
One business that has doggedly remained open is the pizza joint, Anthony’s Italiano, the only full-service restaurant on McKean.
The proprietor, Anthony DiDonato, started the shop in 1977. He tells me that lunch service is down 75 percent since the Donora-Webster Bridge was shut down in 2009. He hangs in there on the strength of a still-robust nighttime delivery service and sheer determination.
Everyone in town points to the closing of the 106-year-old bridge, connecting Donora with the small town of Webster, as the breaking point for Donora, leaving it essentially isolated on an island no one bothered to visit. The folks on the other side simply went to the big-box stores in Rostraver Township to do their business. Bridge repairs cost too much for PennDOT to consider, despite lobbying and downright pleading, from Donora. The population of Donora is under 5,000 now and dropping. It peaked at 14,131 in 1920.
DiDonato gave me directions to the old Donora High School to continue my pilgrimage. It had been turned into an Elementary Center after the high school merged with nearby Monongahela High in Monongahela to form Ringgold High.
Now the school building is vacant, and the football field where Montana and the Griffeys thrilled with their exploits is grown over, with crumbling bleachers sitting like rusted relics of a lost era.
I continued on to Palmer Park, where the Stan “The Man” Musial Baseball Field is also in disrepair. It looks like no one has played on it in recent memory, with rough patches of grass and a mud pond down the first-base line.
But Ken Griffey Baseball Field, a Junior tape-measure shot away from the old high school, is in much better shape, the home of two well-kept Little League fields. The two diamonds are dedicated to Griffey Sr. and his close friend, Joe Perrotta, who died nearly nine years ago.
I talked to Perrotta’s son, Colby, who is trying to keep the Griffey Sr. legacy alive in Donora, and his dad’s as well. Colby chokes up as he tells me about his upcoming sojourn to Cooperstown, N.Y., for Junior’s induction. Colby has met Junior many times through his dad’s friendship with Ken Sr.
“It was a special bond me and my dad had, and I miss him all the time,’’ he said. “I tell people I’m making the trip as much for my dad as for myself.”
The bond between Griffey Sr. and Perrotta was ironclad as well. At Joe Perrotta’s funeral, Griffey pulled Colby aside and told him, “I’m not going to let people forget your dad.”
Griffey Sr. started a charity golf tournament in Joe’s memory, held every summer. I saw the concession stand at the ballpark that was built from the proceeds.
“Without Ken, it never would have happened,’’ Colby said.
Griffey Sr. passed through Donora in January and brought with him some of his memorabilia for the museum with a promise to supply more. Pawelec is intent upon expanding that portion of the museum display.
Each Griffey Sr. visit is like royalty coming to town. One time, according to lore, he showed up in a Rolls-Royce.
Junior has been here a handful of times, to visit his grandmother or see a cousin, Darrell Harding, play football at nearby Charlerol High. One time, he dropped by the Perrotta home, giving Colby an autographed Mariners jersey. It still hangs in his office.
By all accounts, including his own, Griffey Sr. struggled to come to terms with his father abandoning the family. He told The Seattle Times in 1990, “My relationship with Kenny and Craig is more important than the one I had with my father. I never had one. My father left when I was 2. I didn’t see him again until I was 9, then again at 17. I didn’t know what he looked like.”
Donora still clings zealously to its sports heroes. And the town clings to hope for better times ahead, even if that sounds like so much wishful thinking. Maybe they’ll rebuild the bridge one day. Maybe the booming Marcellus Shale industry will drift into Donora. Maybe all that will coax back a bank one day.
But it’s hard not to wallow in the gloom.
“It’s just terrible,’’ Lomax said. “You have all these old people, they’re living in that high rise down there, just waiting to die. All the young people are gone, so basically, unless someone comes in this place, we’re going to die.”
DiDonato doesn’t want to hear the litany of Donora’s woes. He’s been living it for too long.
“Let’s talk about the good things here,’’ he says. “Like my pizza.’’
He’s right. It was a damned fine pie. His wife, Theresa, takes my $13.41 tab and writes underneath it, “Seattle price: $24.00.”
No matter what happens, Donora will always have Stan the Man. And they’ll always have the Griffeys. Put that down as another good thing about Donora, a town with a good heart and a strong soul that desperately needs a transfusion of new blood.
“It’s really quite incredible, a town like ours, pretty much a ghost town now, has produced three Major League Baseball players,” Perrotta said. “I don’t know if it will ever change here. I don’t know how to bring it back to life.
“A town like ours, we’ve gone downhill. We’re not really known for much good anymore. It’s not that we’re known for bad, but people say, ‘Why would you want to go there?’
“Having these guys, it’s something to hang your hat on. They’re ours, and we’re proud of them.”