What would it take for a small town with a population under 10,000 to be known for something other than producing two of the greatest players in baseball history?
One of the strangest, most tragic disasters in American history: a deadly smog that killed.
In 1948, had there been a Mt. Rushmore of baseball stars, Stan Musial would have been one of the four faces on that mountain. With Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller, and Ted Williams, Musial was one of the elite players in the game. When it came to success on the diamond, he was the Derek Jeter of his era – in four of his first five full seasons Musial’s Cardinals advanced to the World Series. The St. Louis Cardinals won the title in 1942, 1944, and 1946. At the age of 27, Musial already had a fist full of championship rings and a load of personal honors to go with them.
A modest man, Stanisław Franciszek Musial was born in Donora, Pennsylvania in 1920 to a working class Polish family. Every family in Donora was working class – the tiny town located on the banks of the Monongahela River was an industrial town where nearly every man and woman worked in the steel plants, mines or textile mills. Donora was a Rust Belt city with a capital “R.” Stan’s father, Lukasz worked long hours in the mills for much of his life after moving to the United States from his native Poland near the turn of the century
“Donora was a town where people did a hard day of work and went home to their families,” said Albert Friedlend, a resident in the 1930s and 1940s.
But Donora also played hard: fielding talented, competitive sports teams. The younger Musial wasn’t the only top athlete in Donora. In the mid-1940s, prep star Arnold Galiffa starred for the Donora football team, and went on to earn 11 varsity letters at West Point before forging a career as a quarterback in the NFL and Canadian Football League. One of Stan’s teammates on the Donora baseball team when he was a teenager was Buddy Griffey, a hard-hitting outfielder, the son of a miner. Buddy’s son, Ken Griffey would play nearly two decades in the major leagues and earn fame as a member of the Big Red Machine in Cincinnati in the 1970s. And of course, his son – Ken Jr. – was such a remarkable baseball player that he earned the single name of “Junior” and joined Musial in the Hall of Fame.
As if that weren’t enough talent for one area, just a mile or so upriver in New Eagle a kid named Joe Montana threw thousands upon thousands of spirals in his backyard on his way to becoming a legend on the gridiron. Maybe it was the up-at-dawn work ethic, but Donora could produce athletes.
The summer of 1948 was probably the best of Stan Musial’s career. That year the left-handed hitter with the peak-a-boo batting stance tore up NL pitching, winning the batting title by more than 40 points. He led the league in almost every single offensive category: runs batted in, doubles, triples, hits, runs scored, slugging, total bases, you name it. He missed out on the triple crown only when he lost a homer due to a rain out. In a remarkable career that included seven batting titles and three MVP Awards, 1948 was Musial’s magnum opus.
“That season he did everything you could do on a baseball field,” catcher Joe Garagiola said. To teammates like Garagiola, Musial was more than a simple ballplayer, he was a god in a wool uniform.
“Everyone looked to Stan, everyone on the team followed his lead,” shortstop Marty Marion said.
While 1948 would be a high point in Musial’s career, it would be a year of terror for his hometown. The announcement that Musial had won the 1948 MVP Award wouldn’t come for another few weeks when on October 27 a dark smog settled over Donora. At that time the town had a population of 14,000, and many of them soon became ill. The smog was a mixture of hydrogen fluoride and sulfur dioxide from the U.S. Steel Donora Zinc Works plant and other plants in the town. An environmental “perfect storm” made the smog even more lethal: the gasses were kept low to the ground due to a temperature inversion that trapped the pollutants in cold air. Hot air pressing down on the colder air near the surface created a dense fog cloud that hovered over Donora like looming death. The citizens were enveloped in poison.
Within 24 hours, six people had died and hundreds more were sick. Local health officials were overwhelmed and the hospital was forced to roll emergency cots into the halls to accommodate patients. The elderly were especially prone to respiratory problems.
The city became a ghost town, the streets barren as people stayed in their homes, sealing doors and windows to keep the deadly smog at bay. Police and emergency personnel wore gas masks that had been stockpiled as part of homeland preparations during World War II. It was nearly impossible to traverse the streets, and those who went out to deliver medical supplies could barely see a few feet in front of them. Doctors and firefighters exhausted the city’s supply of oxygen within 36 hours.
The next day got worse in Donora, as close to a thousand people were stricken with breathing difficulties and several more people died. With the situation seemingly hopeless and people fleeing the city in droves (and amazingly the plants still in partial operation), the community finally got a break on Halloween when rain clouds settled over the city. The rain washed away the smog.
But the damage had been done. In all, 20 people had died and according to some reports, as many as 7,000 residents of Donora fell ill, many with serious respiratory problems. Many would be sick for months, dealing with the poison air that had entered their lungs. Nearly every family and every neighborhood was impacted by the incident, either through loss of life or serious illness.
The likely culprit was emissions from the zinc plant, where for years plants, flowers, and even grass had refused to grow in a radius several hundred feet around the facility. Employees had complained of respiratory problems as well, but even with masks and oxygen, illnesses had persisted.
Ultimately, the toll was far more than just the initial victims of the disaster who died in October. For several months many more residents died from further complications, ranging from respiratory illness to cancer and strokes.
Lukasz and Mary Musial moved to St. Louis to live with their son Stan after the smog left Donora in early November. But the 58-year old Lukasz couldn’t shake the effects of the deadly air and he passed away on December 19, shortly after suffering a stroke.
The Griffey clan didn’t escape the tragedy either, as an elderly cousin of Buddy Griffey passed away early in 1949. In all, more than 100 people are said to have succumbed to the “Donora Smog of ’48.” Several thousand more were sick, and many of them had health problems for decades.
The smog had short-term and long-range effects on Donora. Within a year property values in the community plummeted. While initially the residents returned to their jobs in the mills and plants, eventually the incident caused several of the plants to shut down. By the 1960s, when a young Ken Griffey was starring in basketball, football, and baseball for the Donora high school, the population of Donora had been cut nearly in half. Today there are fewer than 6,000 residents in the Pennsylvania town. It’s not a ghost town, but it’s a ghost of its former self.
In 2008, on the 60th anniversary of the tragedy, the Donora Smog Museum was opened. The museum chronicles not only the events of October ’48 but also the movement for environmental regulations and protections that started in many ways because of what happened in the small community that is also known as the hometown of two baseball hall of famers.
Written by Dan Holmes