It’s a most unlikely story, that two baseball hall of famers should be born exactly 49 years apart in the same tiny mill town on the Monongahela River, but the story of Donora, Pa., the self-proclaimed “home of champions,” always was hard to fathom.
Perhaps the best place to begin is with a grainy, black-and-white photo of the 1939 Donora High School baseball team. There, in the top row, is a skinny boy named Stan Musial. Directly in front of him is Buddy Griffey, whose son and grandson would later become the only father-son tandem to hit back-to-back home runs in a major league game.
On Wednesday, Ken Griffey Jr., the sweet-swinging center fielder, was elected to the Hall of Fame in a landslide decision, as he was on a record 437 of 440 Baseball Writers Association of America ballots. Joining him in the 2016 hall of fame class is catcher Mike Piazza.
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Former Pirates outfielder Barry Bonds, still haunted by steroid allegations, was on 44.3 percent of ballots, well short of the 75 percent needed to gain induction. Former Pirates catcher Jason Kendall was on 0.5 percent of ballots, below the threshold of 5 percent needed to remain on next year’s ballot.
Anywhere else, Ken Griffey Jr., the first overall pick by the Seattle Mariners in 1987, would be the chosen son of his hometown. A 13-time All-Star, he had 10 Gold Gloves and seven Silver Sluggers, was named the 1997 American League MVP and is sixth on the all-time home run list with 630.
But, as baseball statistician Bill James once wrote, the younger Griffey is “the second-best left-handed hitting, left-handed throwing outfielder ever born in Donora, Pennsylvania on November 21.” After all, the best way over the Monongahela River in this town is by way of the Stan Musial Bridge.
Donora mayor Donald Pavelko said Wednesday he plans to issue a proclamation to make July 24, the day of the hall of fame induction ceremony, “Junior Day” in Donora.
“In this time when money is short and there’s bad news here and there, it's always great to have a shot in the arm like this,” Mr. Pavelko said. “For our community, it brightens everybody's day up.”
Nested along a horseshoe bend in the Monongahela River, Donora has shared the economic struggles of so many Rust Belt towns. Driving down McKean Avenue, past one shuttered storefront after another, it’s easy to miss the town’s storied athletic legacy. There are no billboards and no murals depicting the baseball greats, nor quarterbacks Bernie and Arnold “Pope” Galiffa, four-time Pro Bowler Dan “Deacon” Towler and boxer Lee Sala.
No, the town’s shrine to its sporting legends is tucked away in the back corner of the Donora Smog Museum, where Griffey and Musial jerseys hang on the wall, and photographs and autographed baseballs are proudly set out in glass display cases.
The rest of the museum, however, traces through the town’s industrial history, and particularly the 1948 air-pollution disaster that put Donora on the map. For four days that October, an air inversion trapped smoke billowing from the U.S. Steel’s American Steel & Wire plant and the Donora Zinc Works close to the ground.
Edith Jericho, 80, who helps run the Donora Smog Museum, remembers the weekend well. To her, at age 13, the situation wasn’t so dire. She recalls going across the river for a Halloween parade, then being sent home early.
About 20 people died, including Mrs. Jericho’s next-door neighbor Emma Hobbs, and thousands more suffered respiratory illnesses. The disaster prompted the government to develop the Clean Air Act and helped spark an environmental revolution.
Today, however, Donora is a shell of its once-vibrant self. The population peaked at over 14,000 in the 1920s, but the total is now closer to 4,000.
Within the city limits, Mrs. Jericho pointed out, there is no bank, no school, no grocery store and no gas station. She gestured toward a three-story brick building across the street from the museum and said it recently sold for $500 — it cost thousands more just to pay for an auctioneer.
• Ken Griffey Jr.’s year-by-year home runs, RBIs and hits:
There are those who still see promise in disappearing Donora. Dennis Lomax, who works the desk at the Donora Public Library now, graduated with Ken Griffey Sr. in 1969.
He proudly pored over a high school yearbook Wednesday afternoon to point out Ken Griffey Sr.’s senior photo and then, a few pages later, Ken Griffey Jr.’s mother, Birdie. They were part of the final graduation class, he said, before the Donora and Monongahela school districts merged.
Mr. Pavelko said Ken Griffey Sr. visits Donora fairly often, as he still has family in the area, and added the former big-leaguer is always generous with his time and resources. Up a hill and down the other side from Donora’s downtown is a proper youth baseball diamond named “Ken Griffey Baseball Field.” He didn’t raise his son there, but Donora stayed close to his heart.
The 2011 major-league season was the first since 1970 in which no Donora native played in the majors. Perhaps the shrinking town’s heyday is behind it, but with two hall of famers to its name, Donora’s proud baseball legacy has not faded yet.
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