The Hill Gang cooking out and enjoying the Salukis baseball game April 29th, 2023 at the Itchy Jones Stadium in Carbondale, Ill.
The Hill Gang cooking out and enjoying the Salukis baseball game April 29th, 2023 at the Itchy Jones Stadium in Carbondale, Ill.

The “Hill Gang” provides more than a spark for Saluki baseball and its fans

May 3, 2023

While Itchy Jones Stadium has bleachers, the far more popular place to be is just beyond the concourse.

Simply known as “the hill,” it has been a part of SIU baseball lore since the early 1960s, when Abe Martin Field was the home of the SIU baseball team. It remains, even after the 2014 construction of the current Itchy Jones Stadium, a big aspect of the gameday atmosphere.

Saluki fans, both university students and community members, descend upon the hill for every SIU baseball game, where they are able to grill, play bags and enjoy a few beverages while taking in the game.


Saluki baseball head coach Lance Rhodes reflects on the rarity of the hill.

“The whole hillside area is kind of a unique, kind of a uniqueness to it. You know, as far as you get the grills going, you get the smoke rolling running across the field, you kind of have that ballpark smell to it when you walk in,” he said.

While many fans enjoy the hill, not many are as frequent residents or enthusiastic supporters of Saluki baseball as the members of the infamous “Hill Gang.”

According to Jeff Hayes, an employee at SIU’s aviation school and one of the founding members of the “Hill Gang,” the group officially formed in the early 2010s, though the fans who are a part of it had been around in an unofficial capacity for years, cooking and enjoying the games.

Eventually, people started asking if they were able to get a burger or a hot dog and offering to pay for it. After a very short time in which they were trying to divy up the money, Hayes, Jeff Wright and Danny Abbott decided to just donate the money to the team.

“We don’t ask anybody to give us money at all,” Wright said. “Even now, we don’t ask for a donation, we just put a box up there.”

Hayes said, “We let the people know that if they do donate, it goes straight to the team… we never take any of that money.”


This is also how the moniker of “The Hill Gang” came about. The core members, Hayes, Wright, Dennis “Denny” Rathjen and Danny “Red Dog” Abbott, decided that they didn’t want any one person’s name attached to the money they donated.

Hayes said, “Instead of being recognized individually, just call us the Hill Gang.”

According to Wright, they initially “didn’t know what to call ourselves.” But, as Hayes pointed out, it comes pretty natural from being “the gang of us up on the hill.”

The fundraising impact of the Hill Gang has steadily grown. Hayes estimates the gang donates about $1,600 per year; though, some years they’re able to contribute even more. Wright says, after this season, the gang will have donated “right around $16,000 over 10 years.”

Of course, this isn’t without the help of other people on the hill.

Wright said, “We’ve all contributed. Whether it’s us, or however many unnamed people, whether they bring food or make donations.”

The Hill Gang’s reputation has even expanded outside of SIU. Wright recalls an interaction with a fan from a visiting school.

“Some guy wearing a Kentucky sweatshirt came up there and said, ‘I’ve heard what you guys do.’ And gave me a $20 bill,” said Wright.

The number of people who populate the hill has ultimately grown, even if the faces change. Over time, many of the regulars have been able to form relationships with community members as well as parents of players.

Wright said, “There’s some people that will be up there almost every time for a season, but then the next year, they’ve either moved or away or done something else. But we get to know a lot of people that way.”

Hayes says that growth is another big thing that the Hill Gang focuses on.

“We want to promote the baseball team itself and how fun it is,” Hayes said.

Wright adds, “The more people we have out there, the more fun it is.”

As the group has grown, they are able to do more things at games beyond selling food. One of the more unique ones is ringing the bell after the Salukis score runs. The bell was donated by the son of a merchant marine, who found the former ship bell sitting among his father’s belongings. It sits on a custom stand made by Hill Gang members.

“He [the marine’s son] got a hold of Danny and said, ‘Danny, this will be perfect on the hill, whenever we score runs,’” Hayes said.

Another sound that frequently rings out from the hill is the horn of Brian R. Powell, a popular radio personality, DJ and tenured member of the Hill Gang.

The gang goes beyond sound effects. They also engage in heckling, though according to Wright, they’ve been better behaved this season.

Wright said, “We’re, for the most part, pretty good sports… we’re baseball fans.”

Hayes said with a laugh, “It’s all in fun.”

Rhodes thinks these antics have a big impact on the game.

He said, “It’s definitely a home field advantage to have them on our side. And we love everything that they bring to every single game.”

Members of the Hill Gang are fond of what seems like “our own section.”

“We usually meet new people every weekend… it’s like the camaraderie up there is such that we’re able to, you can sit and talk to anybody that wants to sit and talk baseball,” Wright said.

Getting to experience a pregame atmosphere during the game also adds enjoyment.

Hayes said, “We get to tailgate and watch the game while the game is going on, so that’s always fun.”

The Hill Gang’s dedication to the Salukis and the game won’t stop either.

Wright said, “Thick or thin. We’re up there in the rain, and it’s always windy up on the hill. And sometimes it can be pleasant down in the grandstand, we’ll be freezing up on the hill. And sometimes the stadium flag is blowing in one direction, and our flag is going the other direction.”

And while they’re obviously baseball fans, and friends as well, members of the gang also appreciate the togetherness the hill provides.

Wright said, “We have a good time… maybe it’s a selfish thing, but we also enjoy being there, watching the game, discussing the game, cutting it up with our friends.”

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Sports Reporter Ryan Grieser can be reached at [email protected]


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