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Baseball, Fatherhood, and My Life in the Big Red Machine
By Ken Griffey, Phil Pepe
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2014 Ken Griffey and Phil Pepe
All rights reserved.
I strongly disagree when people tell me I was born too soon, that if I had come along a few years later I would have reaped untold riches when the prices changed and Major League Baseball players were signing long-term free-agent contracts for millions of dollars.
For the record, I first saw the light of day in Donora, Pennsylvania, on April 10, 1950, which, as it turned out, was none too soon. Had I come along two years earlier, I might not be here to tell you about a career that enabled me to earn a comfortable living and support a wonderful family by playing the game I love so much.
Let me explain. And to do that, I must first tell you something about my hometown of Donora, a borough in Pennsylvania's Washington County on the Monongahela River about 23 miles south of Pittsburgh. It's in an area known by locals as "the Valley" that is composed of Donora and nearby towns Monongahela, Monessen, and Charleroi.
At the time of my birth, Donora had about 14,000 residents, most of whom worked in the steel mills and zinc plants. It's important to know that the steel mills burned coal to fire coke ovens, melt iron ore in blast furnaces, and produce finished steel in open hearths, and that the zinc plants burned coal to smelt ore and produce zinc used for creating strong steel alloys.
The mills ran constantly, 24 hours a day, belching out foul-smelling emissions of smoke that killed the grass and turned painted homes and fences black, all of which was tolerated and accepted as part of daily living in Donora because the town's economy ran on coal. Thousands of Donora men relied on the mills for employment and to feed their families, and the mills relied on the coal for power. The coal also powered the trains that crawled through town and heated the homes to which the hardworking, physically exhausted mill hands returned from their day's labors on bitter-cold Pennsylvania winter nights.
On Tuesday, October 26, 1948, some 17 months before I was born, Donora was hit with a devastating tragedy that would forever be known as "the Deadly Smog."
Normally, the emissions from the mills dispersed into the atmosphere and caused no immediate discernible problems — although they undoubtedly resulted in long-term health problems. This time a rare atmospheric inversion caused thick, yellowish, acrid smog composed of sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, fluorine, and other poisonous gases to hover over the town for days.
Nevertheless, despite the blight, Donorans went about their normal routine, and life continued as usual. The annual Halloween parade went on as scheduled on Friday evening, October 29. The next day, the stands at Legion Field were filled as the Donora High School Dragons clashed with their archrivals the Monongahela Wildcats on a football field that was so clouded with polluted air that the fans had difficulty following the action and the players had a hard time seeing the ball.
Meanwhile back in town a local doctor was urging residents to leave the area and the town's firemen were providing whiffs of oxygen to those who couldn't, or wouldn't, leave their homes. As one fireman said, "If you could chew the air hard enough, you could swallow it."
"There never was such a fog," said another fireman. "You couldn't see your hand in front of your face, day or night. Even inside the fire station, the air was blue. I drove on the left side of the street with my head out the window, steering by scraping the curb."
All the while, the mills kept running until they finally were shut down on Sunday, October 31, Halloween. By then the local hospitals were filled with residents suffering from shortness of breath, headaches, and vomiting; a local mortuary had run out of coffins; and the streets were littered with the carcasses of pets and farm animals.
Finally, on Monday, November 1, a cool rain fell and the smog began to lift. But the damage had been done. Twenty residents of Donora had died and more than a third of its 14,000 residents were suffering from some illness. The death toll from the smog eventually reached 50, including one Lukasz Musial, the father of Donora's favorite son, the great St. Louis Cardinals seven-time National League batting champion, Stan Musial. Hardly a family in Donora was spared some hardship as a result of the smog, mine included. A year after the disaster, an elderly cousin on my father's side passed away from respiratory problems he incurred because of the smog.
Twenty-two years after the disaster, Congress passed the Clean Air Act and President Nixon signed it into law.
The Griffey clan had its roots in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, from where they migrated up to Donora, where my dad was born and raised. My father's name was Robert Joseph Griffey, but his friends called him Buddy.
My mom was named Naomi Bailey, but for some reason — I never knew why — she went by the name Ruth or by her nickname, Ninky.
My dad was an outstanding athlete at Donora High School and went to Kentucky State University in Frankfort on a football scholarship, and that's where he met my mother. She was born in Frankfort, the youngest of 11 children. She was the starting center on the women's basketball team at an all-black high school. Her family lived across from the campus of Kentucky State, and that's how she and my dad got together.
Because my dad's home was in Donora, that's where my mom and dad settled, and then the kids started to come. Jim was the oldest — his nickname was Squeeze — and he kind of took care of us younger siblings. Ron was next. He was three years younger than Squeeze. Then came Bill, Ruby (the only girl), me, and Freddy, each about a year younger than the one before.
My brother Bill had cataracts at the age of six, and they didn't know much about cataracts in those days. My mother had to take him back and forth from Donora to a hospital in Pittsburgh, 30 miles away, for treatment. Eventually he had his eye removed and a glass eye installed. My mom would have to take out the glass eye every day and clean it. We kids would watch in horror as she took Bill's glass eye out, and we'd sit there and cry.
I was born in our house on Wise Street. The name on my birth certificate is George Kenneth Griffey. I was named after my paternal grandfather. Everybody called me George, including all the kids in school. Only my brothers and sister called me Ken, because they didn't like the name George. As I got older and my friends began calling each other by nicknames, as kids like to do, they decided that my nickname should be my middle name, and the name Ken stuck.
As a boy I never knew my father. I grew up without him. When he returned to Donora after college, my dad worked in the steel mill, and when I was about two years old the mill closed and he was out of a job with a wife and six kids to feed. He decided to send us back to Kentucky to my maternal grandmother's home. His plan was to leave us in Kentucky and look for a job and then send for us after he found work. So he took us to Pittsburgh, dropped us off at the bus station, and left. We were supposed to take the bus to Kentucky, but my dad didn't give my mom enough money. So we headed back to Donora, 30 miles away, to get some more money for the bus.
When we got back to Donora, my dad was getting ready to leave. He never even told my mother he was planning to take off. She said, "You go do whatever you have to do. Don't worry about us if you feel that's the right thing to do." I didn't see him again until 14 years later, when he showed up at our door one day. I didn't even know who he was. I didn't know what he looked like. After all, I was only two when he left.
With my dad gone, my mom was left to raise six kids on the meager salary she earned at a local funeral home dressing the hair of the deceased. Needless to say, without a father and with so little money coming in, times were rough. My mom did the best she could. Between her small pay from the funeral home and collecting welfare checks, there was always enough to put food on the table and clothes on our backs, but very little for luxuries. There was not even money for Christmas presents, but one year my mom gave my brother and me an electric football game. She bought it on layaway and finally paid it off two weeks before Christmas. She hid it under her bed, but my brother and I discovered her hiding place, and when she went to work we'd take the game out from under her bed and play with it for those two weeks before Christmas. When December 25 came and Mom put the game under the tree, we had to pretend that we were surprised to get such a wonderful gift.
My mom was the rock of our family ... the backbone, the stabilizer. She had to be mother and father, disciplinarian and counsel, breadwinner and caregiver. She was very influential in my career as well as my life. She kept me on the straight and narrow and was always there for me, for all of her kids. Because she never had the customary nine-to-five kind of job, she was able to adjust her work schedule, and as a result, when my brothers and I began playing sports, she went to every track meet, every football, basketball, and baseball game that we competed in. She never missed a game. There was this older man in town named Johnny Johnson — we called him "Grand Johnny" — and she paid him a dollar or two for gas or to buy himself a sandwich to drive her to our games.
My mom was strong because she had to be strong. She had it rough as a single parent of six kids, and to make matters worse, she was looked on as an outcast because she wasn't from Donora. My dad was a native and a high school sports star and was so popular and so well liked in town that when he left, the perception was that my mom was responsible for pushing Buddy Griffey — a native son and a Hall of Fame child of Donora — out of town.
I didn't resent that my father had left my mother and siblings and me when he did, and that was because of my mom. She raised us not to hold a grudge. The only thing I heard her say was, "That's your dad." From the time I started to understand this stuff, when I was 10 or 11, I never heard my mom say anything derogatory about him. She never influenced my siblings or me to think ill of my dad. My younger brother Freddie never even saw our father. I have very little knowledge of my roots, on either my dad's side or my mom's side, because my mom never talked about either of their ancestors.
Because of my mom's pleasant nature, I grew up with no resentment against my dad. Besides, I had no idea what was going on in his life when he left, and I figured he must have had his reasons.
Just about everything I know about my dad, especially his athletic prowess, I learned from Stan Musial. If it wasn't for Stan, I wouldn't have known much about my father.
After I had been with the Cincinnati Reds for a while and we went to St. Louis for games against the Cardinals, Stan Musial, who was retired by then, would come to the ballpark and seek me out. He'd sit with me and tell me things about my father. He and my dad were very close. They were teammates at Donora High and on some sandlot teams. Musial told me my dad was an outstanding athlete in three sports.
One story I heard around town (not from Musial) is that Stan and my dad were teammates on the Donora High basketball team and they made the state tournament in Pittsburgh. In his day, Musial was a top-notch basketball player, good enough to be offered a scholarship to play basketball at the University of Pittsburgh, an opportunity, perish the thought, that might have short-circuited his baseball career.
Having qualified for the state tournament, the Donora High basketball team traveled to Pittsburgh and went en masse to a hotel for their pregame meal. The Donora group consisted of a coach, a trainer, and 10 players — eight white kids and two blacks, one of whom was my dad. Presumably because of the black players, the hotel put up a screen between the players and the hotel's other diners. In protest of this overt act of discrimination, the entire Donora team, led by Musial, got up and walked out of the hotel.
I learned from talking to Musial that my dad was something of a local celebrity as a star athlete at Donora High School. In high school Musial was a highly regarded pitcher and my dad was a left-handed third baseman. Stan told me that the major league scouts would come to see him pitch, and that's when they spotted my dad, but they could not offer him a contract because he was black. Who knows if he might have become a major leaguer if he ever got the opportunity? But that was some 10 years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, so my father never got the chance to sign a professional baseball contract.
All that was open to him as a baseball player was the Negro Leagues, but I never heard of him having any offers from those teams, even though Donora was only about eight miles away from Homestead, the site of the famous Homestead Grays, a powerhouse of the Negro National League with such stars as Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, Judy Johnson, and Willie Wells. I regret I never got to see the Grays play. They were disbanded in 1950, the year I was born. But I heard stories about those Negro League players from the older fellows in the projects.
One negative thing about the otherwise wonderful and historic signing of Jackie Robinson by the Brooklyn Dodgers was that it led to the demise of the Negro Leagues and cost many outstanding African American baseball players their livelihood, possibly my father included.
It's fair to say that growing up without a father was a hardship, yet I have my dad to thank for passing along the genes that gave me my athletic ability.
I saw my father again just briefly in 1975, when I was with the Cincinnati Reds and we were getting ready to play the Red Sox in the World Series. He eventually came into my life long-term years later when I was nearing the end of my career. He had moved to Cleveland, where he worked in the same building for more than 40 years as a custodian for Case Western Reserve, and he reached out to me when I was on a road trip to Cleveland with the Yankees. We maintained a relationship and would get together from time to time when I was in Cleveland in the five years I played for the Yankees.
Soon after my dad left, my mom moved us to the Highland Terrace projects. It was there that I learned to play all sports, my brothers teaching me the fundamentals. The projects featured an oval driveway that became our track for a series of competitive races. We'd form relay teams and compete against each other.
Early on I played Wiffle ball, a variety of stickball that was played with a broomstick for a bat and a perforated rubber ball thrown with great force at the hitter. That helped me learn to use my hands to generate bat speed and to react quickly to a ball coming toward me at great speeds.
I was about 10 when my older brother Jimmy got me started playing baseball. Everything I knew about baseball at the time, I learned from him. The older guys in my neighborhood used to encourage me. "You're a pretty good little player," they kept telling me. Some even said they expected me to be a big-league ballplayer someday, which made me feel good and motivated me to continue playing. Later, when I went to high school, I competed in football, basketball, and track, in addition to baseball.
My older brother Jimmy, who was an outstanding basketball player, was instrumental in fostering my love of sports. He taught me all sports and helped me learn the value of competing.
At Donora High, I was the only kid in the school to letter in four sports for four years — baseball, football, basketball, and track. In track I ran the 100, 220, and I broad-jumped and high-jumped. In football I was a running back and wide receiver on offense and a safety, defensive end, and monster on defense. Football was my best sport. I made first-team all-state in my senior year. As a receiver I broke every school record except one, most passes caught in a season.
Baseball was my weakest sport. When there was a conflict with baseball games and track meets scheduled on the same day, I'd compete in the track meet wearing my baseball uniform. I'd broad-jump 22 to 24 feet, high-jump 6'2" or 6'3", and then I'd take off my baseball pants, run the 100-yard dash, and then put my baseball pants back on and go over to the baseball field and play the game.
I set records in football and track and field at Donora High that will never be broken, because the school no longer exists. My 1969 graduating class was Donora High's last. That year the school districts of Donora and Monongahela merged to form the Ringgold School District. Donora High School and Monongahela High School closed their doors, and thereafter students from Donora and Monongahela attended Ringgold High School.
There was a great deal of despair in Donora, the feeling that you were trapped there and could not get out, that you were destined to spend your life working in the mills with no reasonable expectation of escaping.
Excerpted from Big Red by Ken Griffey, Phil Pepe. Copyright © 2014 Ken Griffey and Phil Pepe. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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