Baseball during the Fourth
HOUGHTON – There was a time when the Fourth of July and baseball were synonymous during a Copper Country summer.
The late Jack “Zeke” Hornick of Baraga recalled the anticipation people awaited the summer holiday.
“It really was a big deal,” Hornick said in a 1999 interview. “You had a baseball game in just about every small town, the parades and then the fireworks show at night.”
Virtually every small town in the four-county area fielded its own team. The teams ranged from Aura and Pequaming in Baraga County; Topaz and Bergland in Ontonagon County; Fulton and Ahmeek in Keweenaw County; to Beacon Hill and Elo in Houghton County. And there were many others.
“Every small town had a team,” Don Kolehmainen of Stanton said. “They could be found everywhere. And I’m talking about places like Redridge, Painesdale, Tapiola and Alston. It was a good brand of ball.”
There were also towns that featured entries in the strong Northern Wisconsin-U.P. League. South Range and L’Anse usually had teams and they were a notch or two above the town teams.
The late John Wiiitanen of Houghton hurled for South Range, L’Anse and Iron River in the 1940s.
Known as John “No-Hit” Wiitanen (he recorded seven no-hitters in his career) he said Fourth of July was a special time.
“Everyone in town put on their best clothes that day,” he commented in a 1995 interview. “There was usually a dance that night and of course, you had the fireworks.”
Wiitanen, who once struck out 21 batters in an extra inning game, was one of many strong pitchers of the era. Others included Rusty Hiltunen, Ikka Hahka and Tony Bukovich.
The late Wally Savela of Tapiola said even the Great Depression couldn’t damper the enthusiasm on the Fourth.
“There was the ballgame, which was the highlight of the day,” said Savela, who pitched for anumber of teams in his day. “In the evening, most people would head for the Otter River Dance Hall; the bootleggers would come over from South Range to sell some liquid refreshments.”
As small town baseball began to die out in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Fourth of July gradually became just another holiday.
During the slow-pitch softball boom of the 1970s, several tournaments were held on July 4th.
But they never recaptured the flavor of the good old days when baseball ruled the biggest summer holiday.
Today, the memory of those bygone days is just that …. a memory.