This post was updated Feb. 14, 2020, based on information obtained from Stanley Sawa’s son.
One of the first stories I heard about the Donora smog of 1948 concerned the football game between the Donora Dragons and the Monongahela Wildcats on Saturday October 31. Donora lost the game 27–7, a disheartening loss to be sure. As I heard it, one of Donora’s star players, left end Stanley Sawa, was called off the field by a loudspeaker announcement and told to return home immediately.
According to the story, which also appears in numerous published accounts later, Sawa ran down the hill to his home at 601 5th Street, rushed in, and asked the neighbor who greeted him, “What’s going on? Why did you make me leave the game?”
“It’s your dad,” the neighbor replied. “He’s in there with the doctor. It doesn’t look good.”
The story ends with Stanley being too late, his father having already died. A truly sad tale if it were true. Unfortunately, it isn’t.
According to a contemporaneous account in the November 1 Daily Republican, most likely written by Allen Kline, Stanley Sawa scored a touchdown late in the fourth quarter, after Monongahela had replaced many of its starters with second-string players.
Nowhere does the account mention any player being pulled from the game, though in a well-known article in Collier’s the following year, author Bill Davidson, who would go on to become one of the most recognized Hollywood writers of the late 1900s, announcements were in fact made. “During the game several spectators collapsed and were carried away,” Davidson wrote, “but the cases were too scattered to attract much attention. The public-address system kept announcing the names of persons who were wanted at home ‘because of an emergency.'”
A search in The Daily Republican and the Pittsburgh Press shows no mention of any Sawa in any smog-related story from 1948 to 1960. Information that has just come to light proves that Sawa, in fact, did not get called home and indeed played the entire game that Saturday, aside from times he might have been pulled out to rest.
Stanley’s son James read this post recently and told me, “I discovered another family whose son was called home during the middle of that game and whose father had passed away, but it was definitely NOT my grandfather.” Stanley’s father, Joseph Sawa, had actually died the previous year, succumbing to a heart attack on Oct. 11, 1947.
However, Joseph had suffered a stroke about a year before he died. Jamie told me that his dad, Stanley, had been called home at that time, in 1947, from a football game he was playing in. Jamie told me that one day he and his dad were driving by the old high school. “I remember that my dad said, ‘I got a call in the middle of a game, that I had to go home because my dad had come home or he’d had a stroke.’ And we were driving as he was narrating this story. He’s like, ‘I’m running up these streets in my cleats, in my football uniform, to get home.'”
And so the mystery is basically solved. The curious case of Stanley Sawa seems to have been a real-life example of the children’s game Whisper Down the Lane. People concatenated two separate incidents — Joseph Sawa’s stroke in 1947 and his son having been called home from the 1948 “Donora-Monongahela Smog Bowl” to tend to his ailing father — into one story that was far more exciting but also utterly inaccurate.
But wait, we’re not finished. Was someone playing on the Donora Dragons football team that day in 1948 actually called home for a death? Although no first-string players seem to have been called home, might a second-stringer been called home and newspapers either didn’t pick it up or attributed it later to Stanley Sawa?
If you have information that would shed light on this question, please contact me.
Stanley Sawa, by the way, joined the Air Force after high school and served in Korea. He attended California State Teachers College, now California University of Pennsylvania, and earned a bachelor’s in education. He earned a master’s degree from Duquesne University and a principal’s certificate from UPitt. He went on to became principal of the Butler Area Junior High School, where he remained until passing away from kidney failure at age 54 on Feb. 6, 1985.