Opinion

After three decades, it's last call for Babes

City's first sports bar had storied history

Lynn Haker knew what he had to do.

It was Oct. 29, 1993, and Haker was readying the new Schroeder Road location of Babes Grill & Bar for opening.

Except he wasn't ready.

"An hour before we were open," Haker recalled, "it looked like we were a week away."

There were things to hang on the walls and many other details that needed attending to. Haker figured he'd postpone it. At 4:30 — they were to open at 5 — he walked out to the parking lot.

"It was three-quarters full," he said. "People were waiting. We opened on a Friday, which was really stupid on my part."

How do you tell several dozen thirsty sports fans you're not ready? You don't.

Haker threw open the doors.

"The next day we played Michigan in football," Haker said, "and it just kind of took off from there."

The University of Wisconsin–Madison beat Michigan on a day that included an infamous Camp Randall Stadium post-game crowd stampede.

That was serious — people were hurt — but later there was another stampede out to Babes; fans flocking to what may have been Madison's first true sports bar.

Throughout that fall, Badgers fans packed Babes to watch as Barry Alvarez led Wisconsin to its first Rose Bowl in 30 years. The clincher was in early December against Michigan State. Babes was jammed but it was past bar time — the game was in Japan. It dawned on Haker that he'd gone from not being able to keep people out on opening night to not being able to get them out six weeks later.

The Babes owner was recalling those frenzied early days last week because less than two weeks from now, on Nov. 16, Babes will close for good.

"All in all," Haker said, "it's been a good run."

He's closing to make way for a new, several-story, mixed-use development. It will include first-floor space for a smaller neighborhood pub that Haker hopes to open when the development is finished late next year.

"That's our plan at this point," he said.

Babes will be missed. Good food and drinks, friendly staff, unpretentious — like Haker himself. Former Madison radio personality Mitch Henck called it Madison's "Cheers." I was a regular when I lived in Orchard Ridge and have continued to drop in now and then. It's a second clubhouse for the Odana Hills golf crowd. For a time, framed blow-ups of Madison Magazine sports covers hung on the walls.

There's a semi-regular lunch group of sports media types that includes former sports editors Bill Brophy and Joe Hart, the columnist Tom Oates and former TV sports guy Van Stoutt. Former UW–Madison men's hockey coach Jeff Sauer was part of it until his death in 2017, a loss Haker still feels keenly.

"One of the best human beings I've ever met," he said.

The bar business gives you a crash course in human nature. Haker has been at it a long time now. Originally from Rhinelander, he came to Madison as a UW student. After his first career choice — ski bum in Colorado — did not prove sufficiently remunerative, Haker returned to Madison and got a manager's job at the Nino's steakhouse in Nakoma Plaza. He'd been told he had a good personality for the business.

There were other stops — a Nino's in Illinois, a Fridays and Ciatti's in Madison — until 1988, when Haker and a partner opened Babes in what had been an old dance bar called Shooters at the corner of Odana Road and Whitney Way.

Babes was named for Babe Ruth, and the original logo had a baseball bat and an apostrophe after the "e." When the Ruth estate took exception, the bat and apostrophe went away.

Still, it was a sports bar. Haker thinks it was perhaps the city's first. It had five TVs and bleachers around the perimeter. One memorable night came in February 1992 when the UW basketball team upset Michigan's "Fab Five" right after Steve Yoder had announced he would be leaving as the Badgers' coach at the end of the season. Seemingly everyone came to Babes that night: Yoder, Alvarez, all the writers and broadcasters, even the Michigan sports information director. Matt Lepay, sportscaster and voice of the Badgers football team, recalled it in his autobiography: "A long but very fun night."

The move to Schroeder Road — which gave Haker more space and parking, and ownership of the building — came the following year.

Now, last call. Haker said there will be a band — The Cartunes — on Nov. 16, and with it one last chance to have fun and reminisce.

Is the closing of a sports bar notable? For some of us, yes. I remember the late George Vukelich writing about the last night of a now forgotten bar downtown. George and his great pal, Steady Eddy Teela, were there, saddened by how nobody seemed to think the shuttering was a big deal. "

But let them close one school," Steady Eddy said, "and everybody goes crazy."  

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.        


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