When stars collide: ‘No-Hit’ vs. Bukovich
HOUGHTON – When the late John “No-Hit” Wiitanen and Tony Bukovich met on the baseball diamond, it was one of the most anticipated pitching matchups in Copper Country sports history.
The meeting took place in the summer of 1946 when Wiitanen’s Hancock Merchants team clashed with Bukovich’s South Range Rangers.
Wiitanen is generally conceded to be one of the best lefthanded pitchers produced locally, earning his colorful nickname by hurling no less than seven no-hit games.
Bukovich – one of the top local hockey players ever – was a stellar righthander with a sizzling fastball.
The late Dick Loranger was working for the Daily Mining Gazette when the two pitching stars met.
“Back in those days, they were considered the pitching aces of a generation,” Loranger said in a 1984 interview. “They were strikeout pitchers … and while they had played a few years apart … it was a natural matchup.”
Wiitanen began his pitching career in the mid-1930s with the Houghton Tigers. He compiled a 32-6 record in the 1938 and 1939 campaigns, earning his first no-hit game.
But the colorful nickname came, ironically enough, in a 1940 game in which he actually allowed a few hits.
“I was pitching for South Range in the old Northern Wisconsin-Michigan League and we were in Crystal Falls for a game,” he said in a 1979 interview. “I struck out 22 batters in an extra-inning game that day.”
“The newspapers started using the “No-Hit’ name after that, probably because of the high number of strikeouts.”
Wiitanen posted a 9-1 record for South Range in 1940 and was the winning pitcher in the NWML all-star game. The first-place team played a group of all-stars from the other five teams in the league.
The only run off Wiitanen that day came from Nate Taylor of L’Anse, who hit “one of the longest homers I ever gave up” in his words.
“We won the game pretty easily,” Wiitanen said. “But I always remembered that homer by Taylor.”
World War II interrupted Wiitanen’s baseball career, although he would have great success pitching for the LaGarde (La.) General Hospital squad in 1941 and 1942.
Hurling against service teams that featured several former minor league players, the hard-throwing lefty compiled a 31-12 record. A good hitter, he batted .358 to rank second on the team.
Bukovich was considered a good enough pitching prospect to be signed to a minor league contract by the Brooklyn Dodgers. He posted a record of 17-6 in Class A ball in his first year in 1940.
“I had a good season that first year,” he recalled. “But I didn’t get that many chances to pitch in my second year. I decided to concentrate on hockey after that.”
He did, however, help the Detroit Auto Club win the state amateur title in 1942, and also hurled downstate St. Joseph to a U.S. Baseball Congress crown in 1948.
“He (Bukovich) and his two brothers, Joe and Mike, were outstanding athletes,” Loranger recalled. “Tony was also a power hitter.”
Of course, Bukovich is better known for his feats on the hockey rink – earning a trial with the Detroit Red Wings in 1946. He accounted for seven goals and three assists in just 17 games for the Wings over parts of two seasons.
But those were the days when there were only six teams in the National Hockey League. And Detroit was just breaking in a youngster by the name of Gordie Howe.
As for the meeting on the mound between the two stars, Hancock and Wiitanen gained the upper hand by a 5-1 score.
“Tony (Bukovich) was a real good pitcher, but I held my own that day,” said Wiitanen, who allowed just three hits and whiffed 13 batters.
A four-run sixth inning by Hancock broke up a 1-0 pitcher’s duel. Bukovich gave up ten hits and struck out six.
The records are unclear whether the two ever matched up again on the mound.
Wiitanen would go to work for the Houghton County Sheriff’s Department and later serve as sheriff for many years.
Bukovich operated the Red Wing Lounge in Houghton for many years before retiring.
But on one magic summer day, they stood together front and center on the local sporting scene.