Crowds Gather Each Week In Wisconsin To Watch Their Teams Play Ball — In Snowshoes

Jul 15, 2019
Originally published on July 15, 2019 6:45 pm

Most snowshoes in the United States are probably in storage right now, gathering dust and waiting for temperatures to drop. In the town of Lake Tomahawk in the Northwoods of Wisconsin though, they're getting a lot of use this summer.

Snowshoe baseball is exactly what it sounds like. It's a game of baseball played on snowshoes, though it more closely resembles a bizarre game of softball.

Every Monday night in the summer—and on the 4th of July—hundreds of tourists and residents gather to cheer on players who strap on snowshoes and hit a large softball around a field of wood chips. This has been going on since 1961, when then town chairman Ray Sloan came up with the idea to turn the game into a spectator sport capable of entertaining both summer tourists and town residents. An earlier version of the game was played on frozen lakes. Hence, the snowshoes.

Admission is free, but slices of homemade pie cost $2. The pie is a big deal here, too. On any given night you can find 40 different flavors.

Sheila Punches says that "they come for the pie and stay for the game." She's been coming to games since the 1970s and she says pie is one way she measures its popularity.

"There was a time when 30 pies was enough," she says. "Then it was 40, 50, 60, 70 ... 100 pies is not too many pies to have. I think somebody said they had 160 pies last week for the 4th of July."

Pie flavors range from the traditional — Raspberry Rhubarb or Apple — to the more unique: Banana Split, Margarita, and even Sawdust, featuring graham crackers and coconut flakes.

The game starts with a rendition of the national anthem by the local barbershop chorus. Then local commentators Adam Lau and Jimmy Soyck lead the way.

In a recent game, someone takes a swing, misses the ball, and switches bats.

"Oh, it's the bat," says Soyck into his microphone.

"It's always the bat's fault," agrees Lau.

Then when the player does hit the ball, he trips right after leaving home plate. The crowd audibly cheers, then sighs.

This hilarious scene is all too common, especially for newer players. Soyck says you can't run in snowshoes. It's all in the shuffle.

"You gotta shuffle your feet. You can't pick them up," he says. "If you pick them up, you're going over. No ifs, ands, or buts about it."

The game carries on this way until about the 7th inning, when one lucky batter gets a disguised cantaloupe thrown to him instead of a ball. When the batter makes contact, he immediately scatters the baseball field with pieces of melon.

"When that thing hits, it splatters everywhere," says Jeff Smith, who coaches the Snow Hawks, the home team. "It's painted to look pretty much like those balls out there, and the batter isn't supposed to know until he hits it."

It's easy to laugh at the idea of people playing softball on snowshoes in the middle of the summer, but fan Phil Hejtmanek says there are a lot of talented players here.

"The funny thing is these guys are really good," he says. "You figure 'oh, the outfielders aren't going to be able to make any plays,' but just you wait."

When you drive into the town of just more than 1,000 residents, a sign reads: "Welcome to Lake Tomahawk: Home of Snowshoe Baseball." The game is a part of this town's history, with generations of families coming together each summer to watch the games.
Mackenzie Martin / WXPR

Coach Jeff Smith says that it takes a lot of work from local volunteers to make each game run smoothly, but that he doesn't expect the game to ever fade out.

"There's too much passion amongst the townspeople around Snowshoe Baseball," he says. "People get pretty serious about their home team winning and playing and they just want to be a part of it."

Ultimately, this game is a part of this town's fabric. Residents like Macey Macintyre grew up watching it.

"The whole town comes together just to watch this and you know it's the whole town because you see everyone week in and week out," she says. "It makes our town unique and it makes me just love my town and the people in it a lot more."

So if you're in Wisconsin's Northwoods on a Monday night this summer and looking for some entertainment and good company, snowshoe baseball will be happening in Lake Tomahawk. The season ends in late August.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A heat wave is sweeping across a lot of the U.S. this week, from the central Plains to the East Coast. Swimsuits are more common than snowshoes in this weather, but you will find plenty of snowshoes in the Wisconsin town of Lake Tomahawk. Reporter Mackenzie Martin of member station WXPR explains why.

MACKENZIE MARTIN, BYLINE: When you drive into this town of just more than a thousand residents, a sign reads, welcome to Lake Tomahawk, home of snowshoe baseball. Yes, I'm talking about a game of baseball played on snowshoes, though in reality it more closely resembles a bizarre game of softball.

(CROSSTALK)

MARTIN: Every Monday night in the summer, and on the Fourth of July, hundreds of tourists and residents gather to cheer on players who strap on snowshoes and hit a large softball around a field of woodchips. This has been going on since 1961 when then town chairman Ray Sloan came up with the idea. An earlier version of the game was played on frozen lakes, hence the snowshoes.

Admission is free, but slices of homemade pie cost $2. And pie is a big deal here. On any given night, you can find 40 different flavors.

SHEILA PUNCHES: They say they come for the pie and stay for the game.

MARTIN: Sheila Punches has been coming to games since the 1970s, and she says pie is one way she measures its popularity.

PUNCHES: There was a time when 30 pies was enough. And then it was 40, 50, 60, 70. A hundred pies is not too many pies to have. I think somebody said they had 160 pies last week for the Fourth of July.

MARTIN: The game starts with a rendition of the national anthem by the local barbershop chorus.

UNIDENTIFIED BARBERSHOP CHORUS: (Singing) Oh, say, can you see, by the dawn's early light, what so proudly we...

MARTIN: Then two local commentators lead the way. In a recent game, someone takes a swing and misses the ball, then switches bats.

JIMMY SOYCK: Felt a little wind up here, Gunner (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF CLANG)

SOYCK: It's the bat. It's the bat.

ADAM LAU: Always the bat's fault.

MARTIN: Then, when he does hit the ball, he trips right after leaving home plate.

(CROSSTALK)

MARTIN: This hilarious scene is all too common, especially for newer players. Longtime commentator Jimmy Soyck says you can't run in snowshoes. It's all in the shuffle.

SOYCK: You got to shuffle your feet. You can't pick them up. You pick them up, and you're going over - no ifs, ands or buts about it.

MARTIN: The game carries on this way until about the seventh inning, when one lucky batter gets a disguised cantaloupe thrown to him instead of a ball.

(CHEERING)

MARTIN: He makes contact and immediately scatters the baseball field with pieces of melon.

JEFF SMITH: When that thing hits, it splatters everywhere.

MARTIN: Jeff Smith coaches the home team, the Snow Hawks.

SMITH: And it's painted to look just like - pretty much like these balls there. And the batter's not supposed to know until he hits it, so (laughter).

MARTIN: It's easy to laugh at the idea of people playing softball in snowshoes in the middle of the summer, but it's part of this town's fabric. Residents like Macey Macintyre grew up watching this game.

MACEY MACINTYRE: You know it's the whole town because you see everybody week in and week out. It makes me just kind of love my town and the people in it a lot more.

MARTIN: So if you're in Wisconsin's Northwoods on a Monday night this summer, you can come watch snowshoe baseball in Lake Tomahawk. The season ends in late August.

For NPR News, I'm Mackenzie Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.