In the course of some research for an article on Milwaukee, I stumbled across some information on Lake Tomahawk, Wis., which bills itself as the Snowshoe Baseball Capital of the World.
This, I had to check out.
The town's rendition of the national pastime turned out even stranger than the game played at the St. Paul Winter Carnival. Lake Tomahawk is home to the only place in the country where snowshoe baseball is played in the summer.
Frank Christianson, the league coordinator, admitted that summertime snowshoe baseball makes a strong first impression. "When I first saw a picture of this, I thought 'How in the hell can these guys play baseball with these snowshoes on?' " Christianson, 64, said over the phone. "But some of these guys are really good."
They spread sawdust 6 to 8 inches thick through the infield. On Monday nights from June through August the Lake Tomahawk team takes on challengers from nearby towns.Several hundred fans turn out for the games.
I had to see it in person.
I pulled into Lake Tomahawk after the 250-mile drive on a sunny Monday afternoon. There's not much to pull into. Lake T's a four-tavern town, pop. 948. Main Street's a quick strip of small businesses along Hwy. 47.
I checked in at the Lake Tomahawk Motel. The town's so small that its only lodging (five rooms, two cottages) is outside the town.
Christianson had recommended reservations. Monday nights during snowshoe season, the motel's always full, mostly with regulars from neighboring states. Hotels in Minocqua, 5 miles up the road and Rhinelander, 20 miles south, handle the overflow.
In a town so small that the weekly Lakeland Times reports toilet paper theft from Bosacki's Boathouse restaurant, entertainment options are limited. The town's too small for its own movie theater, supermarket or high school.
No matter. Come Monday night in summer, Snowshoe Baseball Park becomes the town's entertainment mecca. The game's put the town on the map.
More than two hours before the 7:30 game time, people started gathering at the park pavilion for beer and $2 brats. Each week, a different civic group -- the Lions, Lionesses, Snowfleas Club, St. John Vianney Church Guild, Legion & Auxiliary -- runs the concessions stand as a fund-raiser, taking in as much as $700 a night. The pavilion doesn't have running water, but a long stretch of garden hose from a nearby house solves that problem..
I found Christianson munching on a pregame brat at a pavilion picnic table. Dressed in shorts and his striped umpire jersey, he wasn't hard to spot.
Some women who'd come for coffee and pie but weren't staying for the game razzed him about his eyesight. He laughed easily and bantered back.
Christianson, a retired city road worker, revived snowshoe baseball 20 years ago when the league was in danger of folding. He recruited new players to replace the retiring originals and resuscitated the town tradition.
He recalls the Chicago teams that used to charter buses up to Lake T with a keg on board.
"They couldn't hit their ass with either hand, then get out there and try to run on snowshoes -- no way." He shook his head and laughed. "We put on entertainment for the customers -- that's what snowshoe baseball is."
Christianson honors a request to draw a ticket for one of the pies donated by the town women and raffled off to raise money for the snowshoe fund.