DONORA, Pa. • Exactly where home plate was at American Legion Field, which sits behind what used to be Donora High, alma mater of Stan Musial, is impossible to say. Back then, the field had no grass, a byproduct of the severe air pollution caused by the steel and zinc plants in the town.
In a tribute to the virtues of environmentalism, and the demise of the mills, the air is now clean in Donora, and the field is now covered in grass. But the field is run-down. Weeds and even small shrubs have popped up between rows of the unused bleachers built into the hillside along the first-base line. The chain-link fence that surrounds the field has fallen down in places, and it has been down long enough that the grass has grown up over it in some parts.
Still, this is where Stan Musial’s baseball career got under way, one of several ballfields in Donora where he first put his legendary swing to work.
“This,” says Charles Stacey, the former principal at the school and a tour guide for the day, with a smile, “is sacred ground.”
Before he became Stan the Man, before he became the pride and joy of St. Louis, Stan Musial was a kid from a mill town in western Pennsylvania. They are still proud of him in Donora, though there are far fewer people here who remember him than there once were. When Musial lived here and the mills were open, the town’s population was about 14,000. Now, it’s 5,000, and McKean Avenue, the town’s main street, has one empty store after another. On a drive through town, Stacey points out what every building used to be.
“It used to be people three abreast on the sidewalk,” says Edie Jericho, who helps run the Donora Smog Museum on McKean, dedicated to the town’s other tie to history, the killer emissions from the Donora Zinc Works that settled over town for five days in October 1948 and killed 20 people. “Now, I may not see a car go by for an hour, an hour and a half.” The town has no grocery store, no gas station. Two of the town’s three banks are closing, as is the Catholic church. You can buy a house here for $10,000.
The mayor of Donora, John “Chummy” Lignelli, is planning a memorial service for Musial in February. Lignelli is 91, one year younger than Musial, and when you ask him if he’s going to run for re-election later this year, he says, “Hell yes.” Lignelli was the man behind naming the bridge that runs into town over the Monongahela River the Stan “The Man” Musial Bridge. In his office is a poster of Musial promoting the bridge dedication ceremony. On the wall is an autographed Musial bat, and on his desk a copy of George Vecsey’s biography of Musial and printouts of Musial obituaries from various newspapers around the country, all of which mention Donora.
“Stan Musial made this town,” Lignelli said. “If it wasn’t for Stan Musial, they wouldn’t have known this town ... they would have forgotten it. There were many people that went through here that said this is Donora — my right hand to God — this is where Stan Musial came from. They would tell us what part of the country they were from. He put Donora on the map.
“He is the greatest guy that ever lived for Donora. I don’t care if we had ballplayers, All-American football players, you name them, we had them. That’s why they call Donora the Home of Champions. But Stan Musial stands out.”
Even after he moved to St. Louis, Musial didn’t forget Donora. He kept his membership in clubs in Donora. He regularly sent a doctor in town boxes of autographed baseballs; Lignelli used some of them in a raffle to raise money for the United Way. In addition to the bridge, the city named a ball field in the town’s giant park on the north end of town in Musial’s honor.
“He was one in a million,” Lignelli said. “You never heard a bad word about him. The guy is a saint. If there’s a heaven, he’ll be there.”
While Musial went to Donora High, Lignelli went to rival Monongahela High. But he lived near the home of Lillian Labash, the future Mrs. Stan Musial and the daughter of the man who ran the grocery on the south side of town.
“They were just an ordinary couple in love with one another,” Lignelli said. “They weren’t the talk of the town, not at all. He was just growing up. He was out there struggling.
“He was a very good guy. Everyone looked up to him. He never got in trouble, nothing like that.”
To walk in Musial’s footsteps in his former hometown is difficult. The house where he grew up on the hill on the north side of town is gone. The grade school he went to is gone, replaced by a row of townhouses. His junior high school is a vacant lot. His high school was converted to an elementary school and eventually closed, though you can stand on the ball field and look down toward right field, where it’s more than 500 feet to the fence.
The Labash family store, once a bustling business, sits abandoned, an automobile tire resting against the wall in the entryway that has not been used in years. The boards covering the windows have been there so long that even they are falling apart. The Labash family lived on the second floor, and you can imagine a young Musial standing on the street below, waiting for his girlfriend during their courtship.
“That’s what kept him in good shape,” Stacey said. “Walking to school and walking to see his girlfriend.”
As you cross the Musial bridge into Donora, a large sign reads “Home of Champions.” In addition to Musial, Donora produced Ken Griffey Sr. and Jr., and “Deacon” Dan Towler, who led the NFL in rushing in 1952 and went to the Pro Bowl four times. And they are just the highlights.
But now, the field behind Donora High doesn’t get much use. “The midget league practiced here,” said Stacey, who is 81, “but not much anymore. There aren’t many kids in Donora from what I can see.”
“Stan really put Donora on the map, there’s no question about that. Donora was just another one of the western Pennsylvania industrial towns. Stan came along, and folks came to know Donora. It became the home of champions. It’s unfortunate that legacy is fading away rapidly, if it hasn’t faded away completely at this point. It’s not what it used to be.”