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Welcome to Donora, Pa.: The unlikely intersection of The Kid and Stan The Man

While planning a visit to his birthplace in preparation for the upcoming Hall of Fame induction, I ask Ken Griffey Jr. what I should go see in Donora, Pennsylania. He smiles.

"You're not gonna see much."

Granted, Donora isn't San Francisco or Paris, nor as pretty as Junior's swing. But there are things to see and know about this former steel town nicknamed "The Home of Champions."

Not only was Junior born here, so was his father, Ken Griffey Sr., who was a star athlete at Donora High School. As was Junior's grandfather, Buddy Griffey, who was a teammate there with ... Stan Musial. Yes, Stan the Man.

But Donora's baseball heritage is not just limited to the Griffeys and Musial, nor is its connection strictly on the field. Bob Coulson played in the big leagues from 1908-11, giving Donora four major leaguers. Ulice Payne Jr., who played for the 1977 NCAA champion Marquette basketball team, grew up here and became the first African-American major league CEO when he ran the Milwaukee Brewers in 2002. Another native is federal court judge Reggie Walton, who ruled in the Roger Clemens PED case.

"It was one of the luckiest things in my life to have grown up in a town that has a true sense of community pride in athletics," Payne says. "We really believed we were the best. And everybody just believed it and you went with it."

How amazing, and coincidental, is the Donora DNA? Not only is it the home of two Hall of Famers (and three All-Stars), Musial was born here on Nov. 21, 1920. And Junior was born here on Nov. 21 in 1969, the same year Musial was inducted into Cooperstown. Yes, two Hall of Famers born on the same day in the same little town in western Pennsylvania.

Junior laughs and says he had nothing to do with that. "You should ask my mom and dad. I guess it was a good month in Donora."

Donora has declined since Junior was born, with the mills shutting down in the late '60s and the population dropping to less than 5,000. But Donora will forever be the birthplace of The Man and The Kid.

"For everything that we lose, we will always say, 'Those are our guys. They're from here,"' Donora resident Colby Perrotta says. "You can take everything away but you're not taking that birthplace away."

The Past

Welcome to Donora, which is nestled in a meander on the Monongahela River, 27 miles south of Pittsburgh.

I begin by driving across the Stan Musial Bridge, which leads into Donora, then head to the Stan Musial Baseball Field. It's located on the edge of town in Palmer Park, where the Ken Griffey ball field used to be until it was relocated to make room for a park pavilion. The Stan Musial field remains, but on this June day, it doesn't look like anyone has played here in years. The infield is covered with weeds, and the weathered Musial sign is falling apart with the Cardinals-red "Welcome to" banner broken and hanging.

Once a robust steel town -- there was an open-hearth steel plant along with a zinc factory -- Donora has deteriorated substantially since the last mill shut down in 1968. Driving through downtown, businesses are boarded up, and few people walk the main street. There is no grocery store, no bank and no gas station. The average price of a home is $51,900. The old Donora High School that Musial and Griffey Sr. attended was closed and auctioned off for $22,000, including 30 surrounding acres.

"Donora used to be thriving," Dennis Lomax, who was co-captain of the high school basketball team with Griffey Sr., tells me in the town's library. "A lot of people were here. Generally, everybody's dad worked in a steel mill or had a business or something. Everybody played ball all the time. All the playgrounds were always filled. You would have all kinds of basketball games behind the high school. And people would play tackle football. They were always playing baseball. Everyone was always playing something.

"You go down the street now you won't see anything open. ... You can't even cash a check in Donora."

One of the few businesses definitely worth visiting is the Donora Historical Society and Smog Museum, named for the 1948 tragedy that killed more than 20 residents when a temperature inversion caused mill pollutants to mix with fog and form a deadly smog. Several dozen more died later because of respiratory issues.

Entering the museum, I immediately see a 1949 Life magazine with a Donora athlete on the cover. It's Arnold Galiffa, who grew up here and earned 11 varsity letters in baseball, basketball and football at West Point, where he finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy race. He was by no means the town's only football star. Former Rams running back "Deacon" Dan Towler, who led the NFL in rushing in 1952, grew up here, and a street is named for him. When the high schools in Donora and nearby Monongahela merged in 1964, Joe Montana played football on the same field Griffey Sr. did.

Baseball jerseys of Junior and Musial hang next to each other on a back wall. A display case holds photos and artifacts, including Musial's picture on the cover of a 1949 edition of Time magazine. If Junior and Musial being born on the same day was an incredible coincidence, how about two Donorans on the covers of Time and Life in the same year?

There is also a photo of the 1939 Donora High School varsity baseball team, with Musial standing in the back row and Buddy Griffey sitting in the front.

Buddy Griffey was the father of Ken Sr. and the grandfather of Ken Jr.

The Father and Grandfather

Ken Griffey Sr. says that his father and Musial were close friends and that both were scouted by the Cardinals. Or at least Buddy was until the team realized he was black. Senior says that before actually seeing Buddy, the team assumed that with the name Griffey (which has Welsh origins), he was white. After learning otherwise, there was no interest in Buddy because of baseball's color barrier.

Still, Buddy was able to play alongside Musial at Donora High School. Buddy started a family in Donora, but left his wife and six children in the early 1950s. Ken Sr. says he didn't see his father from age 2 until 16; Junior says he didn't meet his grandfather until his second year in the majors during a game in Cleveland.

Raised by a single mother and living on welfare, Griffey Sr. and his family did not have it easy. But they were not alone. The poor and middle class got by, making friends and playing sports.

"Donora is just a small town where everybody takes care of everybody," Senior says.

The Griffeys are famous for their baseball careers, but talk to Donora residents who grew up with Senior and they'll tell you that was not anticipated.

"No one thought he was going to become a star in baseball," Lomax says. "If he was going to be a pro, it would be as a wide receiver in football because he could really catch."

Senior says baseball was his fourth sport behind football, basketball and track -- he would rush off the baseball field and race up the hill to compete in a track event between at-bats -- but late in his senior year of high school in 1969 he learned his girlfriend, Birdie Littleton, was pregnant. That made his career decision simple. Drafted by the Reds, he accepted their contract offer and married Birdie. Four months after Musial was inducted into the Hall of Fame, Ken Griffey Jr. was born.

The old high school ball field where Senior played is now Ken Griffey Field, with the outfield sign displaying his name and that of his late, good friend: Joe Perrotta -- Colby's father -- who was heavily involved in youth baseball here.

Told about the crumbling Musial sign, Griffey Sr. responds: "They need to put his name on the sign with me and Joe. That would be great. Stan Musial, Ken Griffey Sr. and Joe Perrotta.

"And Junior."

Perhaps they well. In the meantime, a bill has been approved to name a street after Senior and Junior.

The Kid

Colby Perrotta is wearing a blue and yellow Griffey T-shirt with 24EVER across the chest. He's standing in his home in front of a framed and autographed Mariners jersey that Junior brought to him after his rookie season in 1989.

"I call this 'The Summer of Griffey' for me," says Colby, who will attend Junior's induction in Cooperstown. "Wherever I go, I wear a Griffey T-shirt. My wife said the other day when she saw me wearing another one, 'Geez, how many do you have?' I don't know. Seven or eight."

Colby still lives in the home where he grew up, located just down the hill from where Junior's mother, Birdie, grew up. Colby's mother, Terry, points to the house and says she and Birdie used to sled down the hill in the winter.

Perrotta's father, Joe, became friends with Griffey Sr. when they were in the Army Reserve and Senior needed a ride to the meetings out of town. He tried hitchhiking and Perrotta picked him up, repeatedly driving him to and from the meetings. They remained such close friends that Joe and Terry would travel to see Griffey play in the minors all the way up in Three Rivers, Canada -- Senior is still impressed by that -- and in the majors in Cincinnati and New York. When they visited, the Griffeys would have them stay in their home.

"My dad never had an allegiance to a team. It was just whoever Griffey was playing for," Colby says. "Whoever Ken was playing for, that was who we watched, that was who we rooted for."

Terry was good friends with Birdie, and she recalls going to the mall one day and buying a pair of sneakers for Junior and his brother, Craig. "I bought him sneakers way back when," she says of the player who has his own shoe line now.

When Junior was 3 years old, the Griffeys moved away, but Senior returns to Donora fairly often. One of those visits was for Joe Perrotta's funeral. He died of lung cancer despite never having smoked.

"I was distraught," Colby says of the funeral. "Ken put his hand on my shoulder and I remember as clear as day, he said, 'I'm not going to let the people of Donora forget about your dad and everything he did. I want to start a golf outing.'

"Without Ken we would never have come up with the idea of a golf outing to remember my dad. It's very meaningful to me and just chokes me up every time I think about it."

The annual Joseph L. Perrotta Memorial Golf Outing is held every July, with Senior usually in attendance. Because Perrotta was so involved in local baseball, the tournament has been used to raise money for the Donora Baseball Association, including the construction of a $35,000 concession stand at Ken Griffey Field.

"I wouldn't accept it unless they put Joe's name on it," Senior says of the field. "Joe was the biggest reason there is a Griffey Field."

The Perrotta charity also provides a $500 scholarship fund and the family started holding a baseball tournament for youngsters last year as well.

Junior doesn't visit Donora often, and some residents criticize him for that. Colby doesn't think that's fair because Junior lived only the earliest years of his life here. His connection to the town isn't as strong as his father's or Musial's.

"I'm sure part of him wishes good things for here," Colby says. "Even Ken Sr. probably feels that way to an extent, but he still has a reason to come back, for family and what not.

"I'm sure they all want the best. You can only do so much for a dying town. It's going to take more than Ken Jr. coming to a golf outing and raising money to turn this place around."

The Man

With nearby Griffey Field in sight, I join 84-year-old Ken Barbao on his back patio as he tells me how his father, Joe Barbao, played a key role in Musial's baseball career.

"We lived down on Taylor Avenue, and Stan lived on Marelda, about a half block away," Barbao says. "My dad worked at the Zinc Works, and whenever Dad came home from Zinc Works, Stan would be there with his glove ready to play catch."

Barbao's father managed the Zinc Works company baseball team, for which Stan was a bat boy. "One day Dad put him in to pitch because they were getting beat pretty bad," Barbao says. "He did real well, so Dad started to pitch him pretty regularly. They wanted to fire my Dad because of that.

"'Stan's not even working in the Zinc Works!' Dad said, 'No, but this kid has potential, and I want to keep him going.'

"And then Stan got into pro ball."

Musial did OK in pro ball, hitting .331 with seven batting titles, 475 home runs and 3,630 hits. It's just another example of Donora connections. Joe Barbao taught Musial to play. Barbao's son, Ken, pitched in the Pittsburgh Pirates system during the early '50s, occasionally receiving letters of encouragement from Musial. Joe's grandson, also named Joe Barbao, pitched in the Phillies system in the mid-1990s. His great-grandson, 11-year-old Braden, is developing in the game as well, with Ken teaching him how to catch, throw and hit.

Musial's in-laws used to own a grocery store in Donora where he would occasionally work. Musial would go on to live in St. Louis, but Donora always remained special to him. He owned a restaurant in St. Louis where The Man provided free meals to Donora residents -- as long as they could provide a valid ID. In Payne's first year as Brewers CEO, Milwaukee played the season opener in St. Louis, and Musial invited him to lunch before the game.

"I was just amazed to meet this man," Payne says. "Here I am, at 48 years old, meeting Stan 'The Man' Musial. We sat and talked and ate before the game. We talked about Junior. We talked about Senior. And what Donora was all about.

"By the time I got back to Milwaukee a week later, he sent me a bat signed by him. I still have it. It's very meaningful to me."

Donora is just as meaningful for Musial's fans.

"Donora is the center of the universe for Stan Musial people," says Mark Pawelec, a member of the Donora historical society. "They want to come to where Stan Musial was born. For them, it's a spiritual experience. It's incredible. Stan Musial hasn't played since 1963. If you're under 40 and live in Donora, and aren't really a baseball fan, do you really even know who Stan Musial is? But when you get these people from the Midwest and St. Louis, they come to the mecca of Stan Musial.

"For them it's like the greatest place on earth."

The Future?

Can Donora return to life? Pawelec says the town is trying to reinvent itself. A plastics company is about to open, with promises to employ 80 people or more. There is also a chance to have the Community College of Allegheny County open a new branch in town.

Meanwhile, the Perrottas are trying to boost baseball -- and Donora -- through their annual tournament.

"It's about my dad still making a difference somehow," Colby says. "That's why I do it. I came up this afternoon because the field needed to be weed-whacked. This is a situation where we're going to get an influx of people who have to come to Donora for a reason. So I want this to be nice. I don't want them to go back to say things they are probably already saying about Donora."

After a busy day of exploring Donora -- the Stan Musial Bridge, the "Home of Champions" welcome sign, the "Cement City" neighborhood where all the homes are concrete, the old high school field where Griffey Sr. and Montana played football, a good lunch at Marty's Pizza -- and meeting welcoming resident after welcoming resident, I am at back at Ken Griffey Field with Colby and his cousin, Rick Rodriguez. There, a dozen or so kids 7 to 10 years old, white and black, boys and at least one girl, are shouting and laughing, swinging bats and fielding grounders, catching (and dropping) fly balls, and enjoying baseball.

In addition to watching the kids on the main field, we are looking beyond the outfield to the adjoining secondary field. There, 10-year-old Daryl Tolliver is chasing fly balls from his father, Daryl Toliver Sr. The younger Tolliver is wearing a speed parachute attached to a harness around the waist, creating drag and forcing him to work that much harder.

Impressed as they watch Tolliver practice, Perrotta and Rodriguez talk about how good a player he appears to be at his age and speculate that maybe he could become Donora's next big leaguer.

I walk over to the field. After he finishes hitting balls to his son, Tolliver Sr. talks about the Donora legacy, about Musial and especially Junior.

"I think he's one of the best players ever, if not the best," Tolliver says. "Especially coming through that steroid era, when he was scot-free of that. That says a lot about his game in that era."

As he speaks, the young Tolliver walks up and interrupts. "Dad, I'm going to run the bases."

And then he sprints off to the base paths, racing around it with the parachute dragging behind, forcing him to run that much harder, to try that much more. As Junior says about "The Home of Champions": "It's just the mentality of going out there and doing your best, day in and day out, and working hard."

Junior will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this weekend. Sometime in the years to come, perhaps someone else from Donora will join him and Musial.