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‘Play ball’

September 13, 2019 by Abigail Bostwick

It’s the last game night of the Snowhawks 2019 snowshoe baseball season and from his longtime perch above the field behind home base, announcer Jimmy Soyck, 83, Lake Tomahawk, pronounces there’s “ducks on the pond,” just as a batter swings and strikes a softball into the night air, bringing several basemen home. “Yeah, baby!” he calls out his signature phrase and the crowd breaks into cheers — even in the late summer rain that’s drizzling.

Co-announcer Adam Lau laughs along, and soon everyone joins in on singing “Take me out to the Ballgame” with them. 

It’s over for 2019, but Lake Tomahawk’s snowshoe baseball hits the diamond each Monday evening June to August — all players are on snowshoes playing a form of softball over wood chips. Players don’t run so much as shuffle base to base and to catch a fly ball in old-fashioned “bear paw” snowshoes, fastened with rawhide. 

“It’s tough running in snowshoes if you don’t know the technique,” Soyck said. “You gotta get that down.” 

It’s a sport that is more than just a sport. It’s in within the very fabric that is Lake Tom, loved and rooted for by many. For decades, kids have grown up watching it with their parents, now those same kids are grown and some don a Snowhawks jersey themselves each season, their own families in the stands.

For Soyck, snowshoe baseball is part of what makes Lake Tom home.

He grew up in Waukesha, but visited the Horsehead Lake area as a child with his parents to see his grandparents.

“We were always welcome here,” he said of the small, no stoplight town. 

As a young man, Soyck worked in insurance and a marine shop — positions which always went well for him, but at heart, he’d always wanted to own his own business.

Lake Tomahawk was exactly the place to do that, he thought. 

Soyck moved to the area officially in 1977 when he was in his early 40s, opening and bartending Jimmy’s Happy Daze downtown. He still does just that, four decades later. 

“There’s always sports on,” he laughed in his second-story platform shortly before the start of the Snowhawks game. “No soap operas.” 

And when he hasn’t been at Happy Daze with patrons and friends and the sports playing, he’s continuing to fulfill his lifetime love of athletics — calling out jokes, commentary, encouragement and every play at snowshoe baseball all summer long. 

“I used to be it myself,” he said, looking out from the announcer box as the Snowhawks warmed up on the ballpark. “I was always an athlete, I enjoy sports myself.”

Soyck has coached and managed on the field, besides being a player, and now he’s content to call out the plays along with Lau. He started such in the late 1970s.

“It’s advanced so much,” Soyck said of snowshoe baseball itself. “From wintertime to summer. The amount of people who come. It’s a big thing for the tourists here, it’s well-known. Everybody wants to watch snowshoe baseball — even those who say, ‘What’s that?’ It’s really good for this town, it’s one of the best things that’s happened for it.”

The decades Soyck has spent announcing for the Snowhawks isn’t something he plans to give up anytime soon, nor does he aim to retire from his tavern and bartending in downtown Lake Tom. 

“Being connected with the sports and the players,” Soyck said of the most rewarding part of being involved for so long. “It’s just been a fun ride. I’ll continue on for a few years.”

Lake Tom will always be home for Soyck.

“It’s a fine community. Low key, no snobs,” he observed. “It’s one big family up here. Everybody takes care of everybody.”

“It’s been a pleasure working with Jimmy. He’s always talking about different subjects,” current Snowhawks manager and player Jeff Smith observed.” Every year, we look forward to him.”

Smith has worked alongside Soyck for just under 20 years. 

“It’ll be a sad day when the Bob Uecker of snowshoe baseball retires,” Lau added. 

About snowshoe baseball

Snowshoe baseball began in a slightly more traditional fashion in the 1950s. It was played in the winter on ice, with a red ball to be seen over the snow. There were some 40 sponsored teams from resorts and bars, but with retirements and less tolerance for the cold came along, lost involvement.

In 1961, town chairman Ray Sloan had a vision for it to go on, however: Replicate snow with sawdust so it could still be played — this time in summer along the main drag of Lake Tom. He was right. 

By late 1998, the stands were upgraded to the two-story concrete structure with aluminum benches as well as fencing and lighting, plus pavilion and restrooms. Over the past 15 years, fans have nearly tripled.

Lake Tomahawk’s snowshoe baseball hits the diamond each Monday evening at 7:30 p.m. June to August. There’s no admission charge, though spectators can donate into the butterfly net taken around the stands by volunteers at each game. Proceeds benefit Snowshoe Baseball expenses such as lights and maintenance as well as various local organizations. 

There’s also a few special caveats to watch out for at a game, some who consider them rites of passage at the weekly event:

The concession stand offers a couple-dollar piece of homemade pie — dozens of dozens of choices most nights — as well as other more typical baseball fare like hotdogs, hamburgers, popcorn and water and soda. The pie is infamous and ranges from traditional flavors such as apple and blueberry to the more unique, like banana split and Oreo. The stand is sponsored by Lions, Lioness, Legion and Legion Auxiliary, Circle of Women, Sno-fleas Snowmobile Club, Lake Tomahawk Bible Church and the Lake Tomahawk Volunteer Fire Department.

During the 7th inning, one batter will get thrown a painted and disguised cantaloupe — which explodes over the field in the orange pieces. On some occasions, players have been known to munch on a piece or two. 

For more information, visit www.laketomahawkwi.org/area-info/activities/snowshoe-baseball.

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