Musial From STASH to STAN THE MAN
By James N. Giglio
University of Missouri Press Copyright © 2001 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All right reserved. ISBN: 0826213367
Chapter One Growing Up Poor in the "Home of Champions"
In surveying downtown Pittsburgh from one of its southside hills, one witnesses the confluence of two great rivers-the Allegheny and the Monongahela-to form the majestic Ohio. Today near the point where the rivers meet one can see Three Rivers Stadium, the home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The view is breathtaking, especially when the ballpark is illuminated at dusk. By following the Monongahela eastward from its westerly sweep into Pittsburgh, one can discern a meandering course to the south, knifing deeply through rugged terrain. This is the Mon Valley, and it includes McKeesport, Clairton, Monongahela, Webster, Donora, Monessen, Charleroi, California, and numerous other towns toward the river's headwaters in the mountains of West Virginia. Numerous bridges traverse the river to accommodate the highway traffic that runs along its two sides. Stanley Frank Musial was born in the borough of Donora about twenty-eight miles south of Pittsburgh on November 21, 1920.
In 1920, Pittsburgh, the nation's leading steel center, represented the hub of the industrial activity of western Pennsylvania. Around Pittsburgh existed more than 30 steel mills, 60 glass factories,and 350 coal mines. Clouds of smoke spewed from the local factories, scattering soot over the houses throughout the metropolis. Industrial noises-the clanging of metal on metal, the loud horns or whistles that designated shift changes, the chugging of steam locomotives, and the distinct sounds of river traffic-beat a constant refrain. More bulk tonnage-coal, steel, and gravel-traversed Pittsburgh's three rivers than passed through the Suez and Panama Canals combined.
By 1920, Donora of Washington County had emerged as an industrial hotbed-one of Pittsburgh's little sisters. The source of Donora's industrial might was the American Steel and Wire Company, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel. The Donora operation had emerged at the turn of the century along the high west bank of the Monongahela River, which undertakes a huge horseshoe course around the town. The blast and the open hearth furnaces were located on the south side. Further northward along the barge-laden river were the rod mills and wire plant, and finally, five years before Stan's birth, came the Donora Zinc Works company in the north part of town. Rods and wire were manufactured from steel billets, and then after an acid bath to enable the zinc to adhere, the wire underwent galvanization at the zinc works plant. The zinc works soon became the largest and most efficient producer of zinc and sulfuric acid in the world; some seventy thousand tons of zinc came from there annually. Altogether, the American Steel and Wire Company's holdings encompassed a two-mile area along the river. Its chief products included barbed wire (Donora probably produced the most tonnage in the world), cable for suspension bridges, screws, nails, wire rope, electrical and music spring wire, and woven wire fences.
Such industry exacted a price. The residue from the smoke stacks created a perpetual cloud, dumping heavy metal dusts, along with carbon monoxide gas and sulfurous fumes, over the entire area. Since the wind usually blew eastward across the river, Donorans saw barren hills in the near eastern horizon; the only foliage to survive in Webster, a village to the east, was the milkweed plant. Donoran houses, meanwhile, turned a dingy gray. Youngsters rolling in the brown grass of South Donora found themselves covered with black soot, while northsiders exposed their skins to a yellowish residue. One former resident remembered the yellow-colored snow in winter. An acrid odor prevailed, another constant reminder of the mills.
The air pollution would finally reach crisis proportions in late October 1948 when weather conditions prevented the air from rising above the hills and cliffs around Donora. A heavy fog covered the landscape. By November 1, twenty had died and six hundred needed medical attention; thousands more were ill. For this Donorans received unwanted national exposure. Before and after the death-dealing smog, air pollution remained a health problem. A mill nurse remembered complaints of "zinc works jitters," including nausea and shakiness, from workers who resigned themselves to the fact "that smoke puts bread on our tables."
Nearly all Donoran men labored in the mills. In 1920 more than 30 percent of the community's fourteen thousand residents were foreign-born. Most of the immigrant men walked down the steep hills with lunch pails to one of the factories. Donora's immigrant population was incredibly diverse, but most came from Eastern and Central Europe. Slovaks generally lived on the south side, attended St. Dominic's, one of six Roman Catholic churches, and found employment in the steel and wire factories. Italians usually occupied the central part of Donora around Third Street, belonged to St. Phillip parish, and worked alongside Slovaks and other ethnics. Most of the Poles were scattered along the north side, worshiped at St. Mary's Catholic Church, and also gravitated to the mills. "Spanishtown," in north Donora, was occupied by Spanish descendants and immigrants who had worked with zinc in Spain. They, of course, worked in the zinc works. Many other nationalities found a home in Donora, including Scots who were skilled lead burners. Around seventy-five Jewish families also resided in Donora during the 1920s. Many of them were merchants. They lived in every section of the community and worshiped in a small synagogue built in 1911. Unlike some of the other industrial communities, blue-collar workers, regardless of race and ethnicity, managed to get along inside and outside the factories of Donora.
In 1920 blacks represented 6 percent of the town's population. Like the immigrants, they were encouraged to migrate to Donora during World War I. Most of them had come from the South. They lived in the low-income areas: in the alleys near the center of town, on the north side, near the high school on Second Street, and in "Little Africa" on Waddell Avenue. Two churches-First Baptist Church and St. Paul Baptist Church-accommodated the black population. Blacks were employed in the mills out of a belief that they could handle the heat better.
Even though some blacks lived in white neighborhoods and their children attended Donora's only junior high and high school, they, like blacks in other northern communities, often felt the sting of racism. An active Ku Klux Klan burned crosses across the river. Blacks quickly determined that while some Donoran establishments welcomed their business, others did not. They were relegated to the balconies of local movie theaters, and they were not accepted at some of the downtown restaurants and other businesses. One of Musial's classmates, who worked in a drugstore, remembered serving a soft drink to a black friend. After he left the proprietor smashed the glass in the sink, warning that if it happened again, the employee could "get the hell out." Less racism existed in the school system, however. Some of Musial's classmates developed close relationships with the five blacks in the 1939 high school graduating class. Stan and other white athletes competed with blacks from junior high school onward.
Further up the social strata were the mills' foremen and middle managers. They came from some of Donora's oldest families, many of whom were generations removed from their European roots. A number of them lived in Cement City, so called because the houses were concrete. Built in 1917 by the American Steel and Wire Company high on a hill in the southwestern part of town and varying in design, the one hundred homes presented an attractively planned development that included carefully positioned terraces, shrubbery, and shade trees, which lined the yellow-brick streets. Cement City offered a stark contrast to the drab, often dingy housing of the mill workers below. The industrial elite, meanwhile, lived in the Terrace area near the zinc works; Fischer Heights, about three miles outside of town; or in one of the neighboring communities. Almost always nonethnics and Masons, most of them transferred into Donora from other American Steel and Wire plants.
Stan Musial's father, Lukasz, first appeared in Donora in early 1910 following his emigration to the United States. Little is known about him as a young man other than what he provided in his naturalization papers. He was nineteen years old at the time of his arrival, 5 feet 7 inches tall and 150 pounds in weight, with blond hair and gray eyes. His estimation of height and weight are probably an exaggeration, since those who remember him insist that he was wiry and barely five feet tall. A Pole, he came from the village of Mojstava in the province of Galicia, at that time part of Austria-Hungary. Departing from Hamburg, Germany, on January 24 on the President Grant, he arrived at Ellis Island six days later. From New York he went immediately to Donora. Like so many Poles at the turn of the century, he came from a peasant background and probably intended to return with savings from industrial jobs. Lukasz was one of about 1.5 million Poles arriving in the United States between 1899 and 1913, the vast majority of whom were male, single, and Catholic.
Like nearly 90 percent of his Polish counterparts, Lukasz settled in an industrial area, seeking an unskilled laboring job. A cousin directed him to Donora; it may well have been Aggie Musial, who lived two doors down from Lukasz in 1920. According to the contemporary record, Lukasz held several different jobs during his first ten years in Donora-including "machine helper" and porter at the Public Hotel. Soon after his arrival he met Mary Lancos, the fourteen-year-old daughter of immigrants from Austria-Hungary. One of nine brothers and sisters, Mary, who was born in New York City, had first toiled as an eight-year-old housekeeper. She was big-boned, nearly six feet tall, and had untapped athletic ability. According to Stan Musial's recollection, she and Lukasz had met at a dance. At the time Lukasz knew no English, but Mary had learned enough Polish from working with Polish girls in the wire mill to communicate with him.
They married on April 14, 1913, in Donora; he was nearly twenty-three years old, while she was sixteen. The marriage certificate listed her as twenty-one, an indication that she might not have obtained her parents' permission, a state requirement for anyone less than twenty-one years of age. Four daughters-Ida, Victoria, Helen, and Rose-followed over the next six years before the first son appeared on November 21, 1920. Lukasz, who had longed for a son, named him Stanislaus and called him by the Polish nickname of Stashu. That was soon shortened to Stash, and it has remained Stan's nickname among longtime friends. Pronounced with a soft "a," it sounded like "Stush." After he entered public school, teachers and adults in general addressed him as Stanley (or Stan), as did his mother. The family and locals pronounced the surname Mu-shill, not Mu-si-al. Two years after Stan came the birth of a brother, Ed, nicknamed "Honey" by a neighbor supposedly because he laughed a lot. Ed lacked the emerging confidence of his older brother. "I had an inferiority complex; I was shy," he later said. This trait may have kept him from being a ballplayer of Stan's caliber, despite his considerable ability.
The two brothers were baptized at St. Mary's on Second Street, about eleven blocks from their home. Despite the Polish family practice of sending their children to Catholic schools, the Musial children attended Castner Elementary School in their neighborhood because St. Mary's lacked a parochial school. At Castner teachers insisted that Stash write with his right hand, which possibly contributed to his stammer when excited. At least for a while, Lukasz insisted that the children attend special Polish language classes, which St. Mary's probably sponsored. Although Lukasz became a naturalized citizen by 1920, he spoke broken English and read and wrote only in Polish. According to Ed Musial, he read a Polish-language newspaper.
In recalling his youth, much of it during the Depression years of the 1930s, Stan Musial idyllically remembers a father who never earned more than four dollars a day and who usually took home eleven dollars every two weeks. He worked in the wire mill's shipping department, loading wire bales onto freight cars. Stan occasionally walked down the hill to greet him when he heard the five o'clock whistle. Invariably, "Pop," as he called him, held back an apple or a cookie from his lunch pail for Stash. To supplement the family's meager income, the mother and sisters did domestic work as well as tending to most of the chores at home. Stash assisted them and in high school pumped gas at night at a local Spur Gas filling station.
By the time he was seven years old his parents had moved the family from rental housing on Seventh Street in the central part of town to the maternal grandparents' home on 1139 Marelda Avenue near Thirteenth Street on the upper north side. The gray-colored, imitation brick shingle house was in an undeveloped area in the poorer part of Donora. It sat on a bed of coal, which the family mined for heating purposes. The gravel street fronting the house contained the distinct odor of raw sewage because of some deficiency in the sewer system. The box-like, two-story dwelling contained only two bedrooms, which Stan's parents, at least one grandparent, and six siblings somehow shared.
With greater affection, Stan Musial recalls his mother's influence on his early life. She "manufactured" his first baseballs from assorted material sown together. She also stretched their meager earnings by purchasing potatoes, flour, sugar, and coffee in bulk. Following her directive, the children picked blackberries and elderberries for preserves. In an outdoor oven she baked ten loaves of bread at a time. "There was always something to eat," Musial later joked with only slight exaggeration, "cabbage soup, cabbage salad, steamed cabbage, and every other kind of cabbage. No more cabbage for me. I can't even look at it." Mary Musial was obviously an enormously energetic woman. William Bottonari remembered that she had "a spring in her step" as she walked by his family home on the Saturday preceding Palm Sunday with a basket of baked goods to be blessed at the church. She showed affection for her children, taught them to respect their elders, and sought to instill in them a strong work ethic and devotion to the church. If anyone did otherwise they were soundly disciplined. Everyone who knew the family has insisted that she was Stash's greatest influence at home.
Life in Donora during the Great Depression was worse than Musial portrayed it. In fact by 1933 the Depression had cost Pennsylvania more than 5,000 manufacturing establishments; only New York suffered more. The state had lost some 270,000 manufacturing jobs and ranked next to New York in unemployment. No state had more people on relief. In Donora the unemployment percentage surely exceeded that of the state. One contemporary national account reported that in March 1932 only 277 workers out of a population of 13,900 still had their regular jobs.
Sometime in early 1932 the American Steel and Wire operation had virtually shut down. This event somehow escaped the Donora Herald-American, a conservative Republican organ that parroted Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon's contention that the Depression was a godsend to purge the American economy of its excesses. Donora's sole newspaper repeatedly blamed the Depression on high taxes and excessive government spending in its clarion call for a balanced budget. At the same time it insensitively featured on its front pages a lavish fete for mill foremen at the zinc works, including "fat, luscious" oysters from the Rappahannock River in Virginia. One rare instance of its reporting local production came in August 1932 when the newspaper described the "red flames, showering sparks, and smoke" that emanated from five open-hearth furnaces, signifying that the mill had resumed part-time operation. Never did company-town control seem more in evidence. Indeed, the Herald-American's copublisher, William Hamilton Watson, served as the chief burgess of Donora and did the bidding of the American Steel and Wire Company.
Excerpted from Musial by James N. Giglio Copyright © 2001 by The Curators of the University of Missouri
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.