Pinball Was Illegal

Pinball was illegal, it was banned from the 1940s to the mid-1970s in most of America’s big cities, including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, where the game was born and where virtually all of its manufacturers have historically been located. The stated reason for the bans: Pinball was a game of chance, not skill, and so it was a form of gambling. To be fair, pinball really did involve a lot less skill in the early years of the game, largely because the flipper wasn’t invented until 1947, five years after most of the bans were implemented. Up until then, players would bump and tilt the machines in order to sway the ball’s gravity. A lot of lawmakers also believed pinball to be a mafia-run racket and a time- and dime-waster for impressionable youth. (The machines robbed the “pockets of schoolchildren in the form of nickels and dimes given them as lunch money,” New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia wrote in a Supreme Court affidavit.)

Pinball was illegal for so long, it became a symbol of youth and rebellion. If you watch a movie or TV show that was either produced or takes place during this period, virtually any time pinball makes an appearance, it is for the purpose of portraying to the audience that a particular character is a rebel. For example, the Fonz is regularly seen playing pinball in “Happy Days” episodes. And when “Tommy,” The Who’s pinball-wizard-themed rock opera album came out in 1972, pinball was still banned in much of the country. The album’s use of pinball is largely misunderstood by today’s audiences, who may view the deaf, dumb and blind pinball wizard as quirky. In all likelihood, The Who was using the game to portray the titular character as anti-authoritarian. Filmmaker Richard Linklater makes use of this symbol in a significant number of his movies, with rebellious or outcast characters seen playing or talking about pinball in virtually every one. And in The Simpsons, Sideshow Bob once proclaimed, “Television has ruined more young minds than pinball and syphilis combined.”

In 1976, the New York City pinball ban was overturned. The coin-operated amusement lobby (which represented the pinball industry) eventually succeeded in earning a City Council hearing to re-examine the long-standing ban. Their strategy: prove that pinball was a game of skill, not chance, and thus should be legal. To do this, they decided to call in the best player they could find in order to demonstrate his pinball wizardry — a 26-year-old magazine editor named Roger Sharpe. Fearful that this hearing might be their only shot at overturning the ban, the industry brought in two machines, one to serve as a backup in case any problems arose with the primary machine. Suspicious that the pinballers had rigged the primary machine, one particularly antagonistic councilman told them that he wanted them to use the backup. This presented a problem: While Sharpe was intimately familiar with the first-choice game, he had never played the backup. As he played the game, surrounded by a huddle of journalists, cameras and councilmen, he did little to impress City Council’s anti-pinball coalition. So he made a final Hail Mary move that, to this day, he compares to Babe Ruth’s famous called shot in center field. He pulled back the plunger to launch a new ball, pointed at the middle lane at the top of the playing field, and boldly stated that, based only on his skill, he would get the ball to land through that middle lane. He let go of the plunger and it did what he said. Almost on the spot, the City Council voted to overturn the ban. SOURCE

May 15, 1940: Urban F. Emme, chief clerk of City Marshal’s office, welds sledge hammer on confiscated pinball and other marble machines ordered destroyed by Municipal Court judges. This photo was published in the May 16, 1940 Los Angeles Times.

 

 

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