Boomers: Don Hilgendorf goes to bat for snowshoe baseball
While Northwoods residents have finally hung up their snowshoes after a long winter, Don Hilgendorf is preparing a few dozen pairs for the upcoming 53rd season of Lake Tomahawk’s famous Snowshoe Baseball.
As team manager of the Snowhawks, Don has spent countless hours taking care of details and organizing schedules for the many players and volunteers who make this unique sport a highlight of summer in the small town located between Rhinelander and Woodruff. “It’s a lot of fun for everyone,” he says. “I guarantee that if you come watch one game, you’ll be back.”
Don has fun, too. It shows in his smile and his enthusiasm when he explains the sport. “We have the only snowshoe baseball field in the area,” he says. “It’s covered in a thick layer of sawchips and sawdust.
“Competing teams come in from regular baseball leagues and some haven’t played in snowshoes before. We show them how to put them on and teach them to move in them. You have to kind of shuffle your feet. If you try to run without being used to them, you’ll land right on your nose.”
While Don and his staff furnish snowshoes for the visiting team, most of his players have their own. “Some of my guys are really good,” he says. “They can run as fast with them on as without. The soft surface of sawchips makes it challenging, even without the snowshoes.”
Falling is part of the fun for the crowd, though, according to Don. “Guys aren’t afraid to make amazing diving catches, because they know they’ll just fall in the soft sawchips.”
Fans flocking to the regular Monday night games number in the thousands. “Teams love to come and play with us,” says Don. “Some say they’ve never played in front of such big and appreciative crowds before.”
Spectators fill the bleachers and line up lawn chairs along the edges of the small field located just west of Hwy. 47 in Lake Tomahawk. Under Don’s watch, new restrooms, a press box and a fully-equipped concession stand now grace the park.
“We have eight local non-profit organizations that take turns running concessions before and during the games,” he explains. “It’s a great fundraising opportunity for them. Besides the regular brats, burgers and hot dogs, we’ve got homemade pies, sometimes 60 varieties to choose from.”
The whole community supports the effort, proud to call Lake Tomahawk the “Home of Snowshoe Baseball.” The fun doesn’t end when the game is over, according to Don. “After each game, a local tavern sponsors what we call the After Glo, where we go to drink some beer with players and fans.”
Don comes by his love of baseball after decades of involvement, first as a high school player in Iowa and later in semi-pro ball and slow-pitch. He retired from a career with the Aluminum Company of America in 1993, and served as head coach of the Mount St. Clare College team until he and his wife, Sharon, moved to Wisconsin in 1998. “I’d been coming to the Lake Tomahawk area in the summers since 1961,” he says. “Our family always came to the games. I remember the Belles of St. Mary’s marching band playing and when they used to have a skydiver trying to land each week on second base.”
Don admits managing the team is a lot of work. “I plan to retire after this year to spend more time with my twin grandsons in Iowa,” he explains. “They’re just starting to play ball now.”
He planned to retire after last season, but an opportunity arose that kept him going. “We had a chance to host a game with the Wounded Warriors this summer, and I couldn’t pass that up,” he says.
A team made up of American war veterans who have lost one or more limbs in battle, the Wounded Warriors gather for games all around the country. “We are responsible for travel expenses, lodging and food for them while they’re here,” Don says. “We’ve figured we need to raise $60,000, and we’re more than halfway there already.”
Don arranged for the team to stay at the American Legion camp, a beautiful resort-like setting. “We’ve already had guides calling up and volunteering to take these guys out fishing. We think they’ll have a nice visit.”
The Wounded Warriors will be playing a special Friday night game on July 25. “We expect four to six thousand fans at that game and we’re preparing for the extra large crowd,” says Don. “I hope at least some of the Wounded Warriors players will put on the snowshoes.”
All games begin at 7:30 pm. with concessions starting at 5:15. Another Friday night game is set for July 4, followed by Lake Tomahawk’s annual fireworks display. Regular Monday night games are scheduled from June 23 through August 25.
“All the games are free,” says Don, “and we sure like to see a big crowd on hand to cheer on the players.” If nothing else, it’s worth coming to hear Don sing, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
For more information about snowshoe baseball in Lake Tomahawk, log on to laketomahawkwi.org and click on the “Snowshoe Baseball” tab.
Sue Schneider is a freelance writer who lives in Rhinelander. Her articles also appear in Northwoods Commerce and Living on the Lake magazines.