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The Ball Game was opened in May 1974 in a building that had previously been home to several other gay bars: the original Nite Beat, Castaways South, and Jamies.
New owners Gene O'Brien and Rick Kowal completely redecorated the bar, and opened it saying "it's a whole new ball game", and using the motto "where you'll never strike out".
The August 1976 issue of the local "GLIB Guide" describes the bar as follows: "Comfortable cocktail bar social, established crowd. Potpourri decor."
It became a tradition to celebrate the bar's anniversary on St. Patrick's Day. Unfortunately, co-owner Gene O'Brien died the day after the bar celebrated its 11th anniversary, on March 18, 1985, from complications of a liver ailment.
For the first half of its lifetime, the BallGame hosted a variety of shows: in the early years, ECOM (Entertainers Club of Milwaukee) hosted performances of "Hello Dolly" and other takeoffs, as well as shows for occasions such as Valentine's Day, Easter, etc. There have also been many many drag shows, pageants (such as for Miss BallGame, etc.) and other stage shows. As as the bar's name would indicate, the BallGame has always hosted softball teams and other sport teams, as well as a variety of other community activities.
By the turn of the century, the area had changed significantly. It was no longer the center of gay bar activity, and within a few years the other major gay bars within the same block area were in trouble; soon both Club 219 and Cest La Vie closed. The number of patrons in the bar dwindled, and most nights a patron might find only 2 or 3 other customers. Through it all, Rick (one of the original owners) held out, and the bar retained much of the character from its early years. The bar was always lavishly but tastefully decorated for the season, whether that was the 4th of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving, or Christmas- with the annual St. Patricks Day anniversary still most lovingly observed.
LGBT historian Michael Takach recalls a March 1999 interview by 'Wisconsin Light' with the owner, Rick Kowal, and wrote the following summary in 2022. (Read more of that interview on the Richard Kowal biography page on this website.)
Owner Rick Kowal decided to open Ball Game after declining a promotion with Federated Dept Stores. "I was working for Boston Store. They wanted me to transfer out to Philadelphia and run another store in the chain. I didn't want to go. I wasn't done yet with Milwaukee. Along came Gene O'Brien, and he said, hey, let's go into business together. So we did," said Rick.
Rick and Gene bought the building from Jimmy Zingale in 1973, following the demise of Castaways in 1972 and New Jamie's in 1973. "We were only open a month before the fire happened across the street," said Rick. "Three gay bars gone in one night! All of a sudden, it was real quiet down here. Some nights we'd wait all night for anyone to show up. But they did, and they kept us in business during that tough first year."
Ball Game was proudly the first gay showbar in Milwaukee. They hosted some of the biggest names of the early 70s, including Tiger Rose, Jamie Gays, Mama Rae & Ronnie Marx. "The kids needed a place to put on shows," said Rick. "We had a lot of space, and so we let them have it, and then they let US have it." Although the Factory later became more well-known for drag shows, Ball Game continued to run full stage productions and pageants well into the 1980s.
Ball Game was also one of the first Milwaukee gay bars to have television sets. "Some people thought I was wrong," said Rick, "but people wanted to watch the game, and so we let them cheer for their favorite teams from the bar. So we became the first gay sportsbar, before there were even straight sportsbars."
Although O'Brien died one day after St. Patrick's Day 1984, Rick operated the bar solo for nearly three more decades. By 2012, Ball Game was the second-oldest gay bar in Wisconsin after 38 years in business. But everyone knew it wouldn't last much longer. All of the other nearby gay bars were gone, and the older, rougher Fifth Ward was already gentrified out of existence.
By mid-2011 however the rumors that the bar was closing were finally catching up. Patrons noticed that the stock of bottles behind the bar went down to just a few brands, with perhaps a total of 20 or 30 bottles in the entire stock; and a "For Sale" sign appeared on the building. The bar had a last gasp at its annual anniversary party on St. Patricks Day 2012. The bar continued on through most of the summer, but it had lost its energy.
On August 3, 2012 the Milwaukee Guerrilla Gay Bar (MGGB) had its "after-party" there, advertising it as a "last chance" to see the long-time gay bar. Over the next two weeks, keepsakes from over the years (statues, signs, etc.) began to disappear from the bar: some were apparently moved into the basement, and others just "walked away". Then on Sunday and Monday, August 19-20, there were a series of messages on the Ballgame's Facebook page:
Sunday 12:27am: "well it's been a good run. A special thank you to all who helped make it happen. We will officially close our doors on Tuesday 8-21-12. Come on out & say goodbye."
Monday 8:49am: "HEY IF YOU LOVE THE BALLGAME Come on out & help celebrate Ricks RETIREMENT! We'll be reminiscing & paying tribute to him with a farewell celebration this Tuesday 8/21/12. COCKTAIL SPECIALS FROM OPEN TILL CLOSE! (Call in sick for Wednesday It's gonna be a hell of a night!) WE'RE GONNA DRINK TILL ITS GONE! Rick we Love you! Thanks for years of great times & sweet memories! And we hope to see you all tomorrow!"
Monday 12:14pm: "Dear friends of Ballgame. I regret to inform you that Ricks retirement celebration has been canceled. After coming in to find the place that he loved and kept going for over forty-two years had been looted. People had taken keepsakes that he had collected over the years right from the walls Rick was heartbroken that after the amount of time he has spent making others happy that people would stoop so low.EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY THE BALLGAME IS CLOSED! We will NOT REOPEN. TO THOSE OF YOU WHO KNOW PEOPLE WITH KEEPSAKES FROM THE BAR THEY ARE THIEVES! RICK WANTS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE BAR AT ALL ANYMORE. THANKS FOR RUINING IT FOR RICK & THE PEOPLE WHO TRULY LOVED THE BALLGAME."
According to an employee who was there at closing on Sunday night, it would be an overstatement to say the bar was "looted". In any case, someone (either Rick the owner, or the manager) seemed to grow tired of the decline, and abruptly closed the bar. Would-be patrons found the bar locked and permanently closed on Monday, August 20, 2012. Milwaukee had lost one of the longest-lived gay bars it had ever had-- going out (as often happens) in a blaze of drama.
Local LGBT historian Michail Takach had the following comment on owner Rick Kowal's death in April 2020: "Ball Game still holds the second-place record (38 years!) for the longest running gay bar at the same address. Rickís decades of contributions to the community cannot be overstated. During my decade in the neighborhood, he was kind enough to let us host parties free of charge, as long as we tipped the bartenders well. So many people, passed and present, have so much gratitude for this man, this space and the memories he created." He recalls that Rick was so upset over the circumstances of the bar's closing that he declined several requests to interview him about the bar and his experiences. This is an unfortunate loss to attempts to document our history.
Recollections: The following are recollections of others who have been kind enough to submit their personal memories to the webmaster. You are welcome to do the same!
"The very 1st time I went to Ballgame was 1984 for some Thanksgiving celebration. Everyone I knew was doing family events and I had no money to travel north to my parentís house so I wound up at Ballgame. The place was packed with older gentlemen. I felt out of place at 1st but those old guys quickly made me feel welcome. There was some sort of raffle and I wound up winning an 11lb turkey. I asked them if I could leave it there for a couple of days (I had one of those tiny refrigerators) and they were fine with that. I have since gotten to know Rick the owner who always buys me a cocktail every time I see him. The bar has recently had some staff changes that have caused some long time patrons to abandon the bar. They are popping up all over the place now. With the neighborhood going through so many changes, it should be interesting to see what happens to the Ballgame."
(At hearing of Rick's retirement, Aug. 2012:) "So sorry to hear this, but hoping Rick has a wonderful retirement. God knows he deserves it. This was the first gay bar I was ever in. I think the year was either 1974 or 1975, had the pleasure of knowing Gene O'Brien, met my first love there, Dr. Bob Richter who has since passed on. Bob and I would meet at the Ball Game most every night after work, and enjoy Kenny Wenzel the bartender, aka Keniesha! Rick and his mom Nettie came out to my bar and restaurant in East Troy often to visit me and my Dad. Hard to wrap my head around that such a long running great place will be coming to an end. I used to drive into town and cash checks at the Ball Game just so Rick knew I was in Milwaukee and had not forgotten him! Tuesday will be a big one. Heartbreaking as well. Love you Rick Kowal!"
(and to owner Rick on his retirement:) "The important thing is that you are loved for having a wonderful bar. It is up to us to find a new home, and move on with our life in the bars. Nothing is the same these days, and the bar scene is changing. Be proud that you owned one of the best bars in the town, and you were a constant success! Proud of you."
Credits: Bulk of information by Don Schwamb,
Recollections collected and organized by Jamie Taylor.
Many photos from Facebook site hosted by Jamie Taylor.
Website concept, design and arrangement by Don Schwamb.
Last updated: March-2022.
This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.