Small town's run of baseball royalty ends

Donora, Pa., no longer has major leaguer with Griffey Jr.'s retirement

April 21, 2011|By Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

DONORA, Pa. — This downriver town has long endured the drooping narrative of Rust Belt endings, in which most of what is gets dwarfed by most of what used to be. But it has never been a place where people have trouble getting to the point.

The little business at the edge of Donora is called Beer, Butts and Bets, so no one will mistake it for the regional office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. I wolfed a burger the other day at a breakfast and lunch place called, helpfully, Breakfast and Lunch.

That's what the sign outside said.

A man at the Formica counter was poring through the paper.

"Pirates lost. What a shock!" he announced to no one in particular.

I asked the nice woman if I could get fries.

"We don't carry fries," she said. "We have potato wedges."

Ah. Either a pleasant culinary variation or a leftover from the global politics of the Iraq invasion era, but we didn't get into it.

No one has paid it much notice, at least anywhere but here, but we've just begun the first baseball season since 1972 that will have no one from Donora in the big leagues. More to the sweet nostalgic point, only 10 major league seasons in the last 70 years have passed without a young native of Donora swinging a deadly left-handed bat.

From the 1941 debut of Stan Musial through the fine career of Ken Griffey until last May's retirement of Ken Griffey Jr., Donora hasn't just claimed a piece of the big leagues. It has burned a Made In Donora brand into players who were among the absolute best baseball had to offer.

The chances of three players the caliber of these — or of any caliber — being born in the same nest of small-town streets on the same fleck of Pennsylvania Rust Belt represent about the same probability that a collection of toxic pollutant smog could get trapped within a town's cloud layer for four days, killing dozens, sickening thousands and damaging the long-term health of who knows how many more. That also happened in Donora — in 1948.

U.S. Steel, which operated the adjacent zinc plant and fought legal culpability, called that an act of God. Really, God built zinc plants, did he? No, Stan Musial, Ken Griffey, Ken Griffey Jr. — those are acts of God.

"I seldom go into Donora anymore," Brian Herman was telling me about his hometown. "It's in pretty bad shape. One of the bridges into it is closed now."

Herman went to high school here, spent a couple of years at Point Park in the early '60s and went straight to work at the old Donora Herald-American. A year later, he started at the Valley Independent, which brings up another local ending that should not go unnoticed.

Herman has chronicled this area's athletes for the last 46 years — both Griffeys, Joe Montana, all of the great and worthy competitors of Donora and Monongahela High and the eventually commingled Ringgold.

When Musial was born Nov. 21, 1920, Donora had more than 14,000 residents. Now it has about a third of that.

No one on any big league team's list of prospects or even suspects has Donora as his hometown. For the foreseeable future, the place will subsist on its wondrous overabundance of baseball memories and ironies.

Musial played on a high school team with Buddy Griffey, Ken's father. Ken Jr. and Musial share the same birthday, 49 years apart.

Together the three Donorans accounted for 1,257 homers, 4,646 runs batted in, 36 All-Star appearances, 10 Gold Gloves, seven batting titles and four MVP awards.

"The thing I like to tell people is that Ken Griffey Sr.'s worst sport was baseball," Herman said. "He was a tremendous receiver in football, and in basketball he set scoring records. In baseball, he was a .200 hitter, but he had that speed. In those days, they used to say if you could run and throw, they could teach you to hit. I believe he wound up hitting .296 lifetime."

Which, of course, he did, in a championship career that would be hard to overshadow unless you were named Ken Griffey Jr. or Stan Musial.

Now all those careers are over, and Friday after next, Brian Herman will go to work at 5 a.m. and work until about 10 a.m. putting out the evening paper. Then he'll go back at 5 p.m. and work until 1 a.m. putting out the morning paper. That's been his Friday for a long time.

In a place where too many things are ending, you have to stop and look back once in a while, to a Donora, where summers meant a delicious, conspicuous wealth of box score glory.

Gene Collier is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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