History of Gay and Lesbian Life in Wisconsin - People - Bios

Richard Allen Kowal


October 4, 1929
April 28, 2020
Primary Involvements:

Bar owner (Ballgame)





Richard Allen Kowal is best known by members of the LGBT community in Milwaukee as the owner of the 'Ballgame' bar for over 30 years.

Local LGBT historian Michail Takach had the following comment on owner Rick Kowal's death in 2020: "Ball Game still holds the second-place record (38 years!) for the longest running gay bar at the same address. Rick’s 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.

Michail Takach wrote the following summary of Rick's career as a bar owner for LGBTQ History Month in October, 2022:

    "I was working for Boston Store. They wanted me to transfer out ot Philadelphia and run another store in the Federated family. I wasn't done yet with Milwaukee. Along came Gene O'Brien, and he said, hey, let's go into business together. And then the old Castaways became available. And so, we did." - Rick Kowal, Wisconsin Light interview, March 1999.

    Rick Kowal (1929-2020) had no idea that he was creating a legacy that would last nearly 40 years. He remembered being "nervous, but optimistic" about buying the building at 196 S 2nd St. in 1973 and opening The Ball Game on St. Patrick's Day, 1974.

    "This is an old, old building, built in 1868, going back to the earliest days of the Fifth Ward," said Rick in 2010. "It was a family saloon for years, and it was apparently pretty rough in here! When the widow died, the family sold to Stan (of Nite Beat fame.) There are tunnels in the basement that led to god knows where. I've been told they were used for ice delivery, rum runners, even the Chicago Mob. There was a rooming house upstairs for nearly 100 years. You wouldn't believe the things we found up there, when we first moved in. Horse saddles. Passports. German Bibles. Framed family photos. A lot of residents died up there. A little spooky, right?"

    On one hand, Gene and Rick were joining a rapidly growing village of gay bars -- on the other hand, the most popular bars (River Queen, Factory, Wreck Room) were now in the Third Ward.

    They were really taking a gamble. A gamble, it seems, they nearly lost right away.

    "We were only open a month -- not even a month -- before the big fire happened across the street," said Rick. "Three gay bars gone in one night! So much for that village. All of a sudden, it was real quiet down here. Some nights we'd wait all night for someone 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 performers of the 70s, including Tiger Rose, Mama Rae, Ronnie Marx and Jamie Gays. "The kids needed a place to put on shows, and we had a lot of space," said Rick. "We let them have it, and boy, did they let US have it." Although the Factory later became a popular drag destination, Ball Game continued to run full stage productions and pageants into the late 1980s.

    Ball Game was also one of the first Milwaukee gay bars to have TVs. "Some people thought I was wrong, because they didn't want to be reminded of the outside world," said Rick, "but other people wanted to watch the game! So we let them cheer for their favorite teams at the bar. So we became the first gay sports bar, at a time when there weren't really straight sports bars."

    Gene O'Brien died one day after St. Patrick's Day 1984, living to see the bar's 10th anniversary. There was talk that Rick might close Ball Game and move out of town after all. He said it was a tough decision, but he chose to stick it out.

    Ball Game was always known as a place people could go -- when they had nowhere else to go -- for holidays. Over the years, they served up hundreds of thousands of pounds of corned beef on St. Patricks days, hundreds of Thanksgiving turkeys, hundreds of Easter hams. Rick would put out a full buffet of food, offer drink specials, and welcome anyone who had no family of their own to join his.

    "I had been lucky to have a mother who was supportive of my lifestyle," he said in 2011. "I knew most men did not have that. It broke my heart to think of anyone being alone, sad, and unable to enjoy a holiday. So I always tried to make them a big, big deal, so people would remember they always had each other. They always had community. We could be that family."

    Rick also allowed customers to rent out his backroom for free, so they could host neighborhood, community or family celebrations of their own. His only ask was that they treat their bartenders well and tip heavily.

    By 2012, Ball Game was the second oldest gay bar in Wisconsin after 38 years in business. But everyone knew it was approaching its end. Drink prices were frozen in the 1970s, with "pull tab nights" twice a week offering drinks as cheap as 25 cents. Its customers were aging, and many old-timers were only able to make it to cocktail hour, if they could make it at all. Rick himself battled declining health, but was still involved in the day-to-day bar operation.

    But it was impossible to notice the changes outside. All of the other gay bars in the "village" were gone by 2008. The older, rougher, abandoned Fifth Ward was long gone, replaced by soicalites and even young families exploring artisanal ice cream and chocolate shops, cocktail lounges, and restaurants. People lived in the neighborhood again -- for the first time in over 100 years. What was Milwaukee's "Skid Row" of the 1950s and the "concrete canyon" of the 1970s was now Milwaukee's hottest neighborhood.

    Rick Kowal knew it was time to go. In August 2012, he announced his retirement and the bar closing. But the bon voyage never happened. Bar memorabilia was apparently "looted" by customers who wanted their piece of his 38-year collection. Vintage LGBTQ posters, advertisements, etc. long-ago promised to friends and family were outright stolen. And, along with those items, the thieves stole Rick's heart.

    Deeply depressed about this betrayal, Rick cancelled the retirement party and closed the bar immediately. From that day forward, he wanted nothing to do with the LGBTQ community. He refused to take interviews from the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project for the next eight years. He said it was too painful to think about all he had done for others, only to be robbed in the end.

    It was a sad end to a long Milwaukee legacy. There are so many questions we have for Rick that will never be answered. There are so many things we could learn from Rick that will never be known.

    Even worse, when Rick died in April 2020 at age 90, it was the height of the COVID pandemic. Even his closest friends and family were denied the chance to pay their respects at a funeral, memorial or celebration. He was just gone -- like his bar -- instantly.

    Today (in 2022), a bridal shop operates out of the Ball Game space. And there are windows for the first time since the 1960s! The building was beautifully rehabilitated into the Mabbett & Breed complex, which includes modern apartments in those former upstairs rooming house spaces.

    Today, family rejection is less of an issue as it was in the 1970s and 1980s, but it still impacts LGBTQ people, with trans people disproportionately affected. With the holidays approaching, we wonder where those people unwelcome at Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners will find their chosen families, because Rick Kowal isn't serving dinner anymore.

Richard's obituary read as follows:

    Milwaukee - Born to Eternal Life on April 28, 2020 at the age of 90. He was a very close longtime friend and companion of Dan Bartelt. Good friend of Bob Bartelt and Lynn Vogt. Richard is preceded in death by his parents Alois and Nettie Kowalewski. He will be loved, remembered, and missed by all who knew him.

    Richard proudly served in the United States Army. He owned and operated the Ball Game Tavern.

    Due to the Covid-19 virus Richard will be laid to rest privately at St. Adalbert Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, memorials appreciated to St. Anne's Salvatorian Campus.

    A special thank you goes out to all the tremendously capable and wonderfully caring warm hearted employees of St. Anne's. Richard was appreciative of the staff and the many loving residents for their friendship and care.

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!

    (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. (The Ballgame) 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!"
                                    - Gregg Fitzpatrick (Aug. 2012)

Recollections: In the days after his death, numerous people came forward with recollections and tirbutes to Richard. Some of these are as follows:

    "This makes me so, so, so sad. Ball Game still holds the second-place record (38 years!) for the longest running gay bar at the same address. Rick's 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.
    And now, he has left and taken his story with him."
                                    - Michail Takach (2020)

    "When I was 23yo, I helped open the first Applebees is Wisconsin at Southridge. Rick would always bring in his mother and they would always request me. They were awesome and tipped me very well. I did AIDS fundraising shows there. He was a great guy!!! I got to meet him through playing softball many years ago. As a young gay man, they would tell me the Ballgame was a "wrinkle room", where older men hung out. I didn't care, because it was a fun place to go. I meet some great people there and from their softball team!!"
                                    - 'Packer Chad' Bowman (2020)

    "So sad to hear of Rick"s passing. I bartended there for quite a few years on weekends, I had a great time and met a lot of wonderful people. Rick would bring his mother Neddie in and we would play dice, she was a very sweet lady. I have many good Ballgame memories. Rick was very good to his employees.
                                    - Ron Schmidt (2020)

    "Rick was one of those bar owners who made EVERYONE feel special. He never let me leave without buying me at least one drink. He went "all out" during the holidays, so people had a warm, friendly place to be."
                                    - Jamie Taylor (2020)

Rick (on right) with winner of
Turkey & Things Giveaway at Ballgame
November 1984 (In Step vol. 1 issue 14)
Rick (second from left) at
12th Anniversary celebration at Ballgame
March 1986 (In Step vol. 3 issue 6)
Rick (seated at right) with long-time bar manager Ken Wentzel and
winner at BallGame annual turkey give-away
November 1986 (In Step vol. 3 issue 22)

Top: Rick (right) with long-time bar manager Kenny Wentzel;
Photos from 14th Anniversary
March 1988 (In Step vol. 5 issue 4)

Rick included in photo page from traditional
combination St. Patricks Day/ Anniversary party
March 1989 (In Step vol. 6 issue 6)

Rick included in photo page from
St. Pats/ 17th anniversary party
March 1991 (In Step vol. 8 issue 6)


Rick (unknown date)

Rick with mother Nettie
(unknown date)

Photos from 19th Anniversary party
(not their 20th as the caption states)
March 1993 (In Step vol. 10 issue 6)

Article about Rick, 2009
Oct-Nov 2009 (Quest vol. 16 issue 18)

Credits: Historical biography of Rick by Michail Takach.
Color photos of Rick and recollections gathered by Jamie Taylor
from 'History of Gay Wisconsin' Facebook group.
Collection of other images and Ballgame articles etc. by Don Schwamb.
Web site creation, concept and design by Don Schwamb.
Last updated: October-2022.

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