The surprising history behind a beloved American pastime.
By Seth Porges Sept 2009
- Pinball Was Illegal
Pinball was banned from the early 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. Many 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.)
- NYPD Held Prohibition-Style Raids on Pinball
In New York, the pinball ban was executed in a particularly dramatic fashion. Just weeks after Pearl Harbor was attacked, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia issued an ultimatum to the city’s police force stating that their top priority would be to round up pinball machines and arrest their owners. La Guardia proceeded to spearhead massive Prohibition-style raids in which thousands of machines were
- Pinball Went Into Hiding
Although pinball was illegal in New York, it did not disappear entirely — it just moved behind curtains to seedy pornography shops, in places like Harlem and Greenwich Village. And the police were still raiding illegal pinball operators through the 1970s.
- Pinball Production Changed During the War
During World War II, much of America’s manufacturing infrastructure switched over to the war effort. The pinball industry, which was a major user of copper wiring, was no exception. During the war, few new games were made. Instead, pinball suppliers began selling so-called conversion kits, which would allow pinball operators to transform a machine’s artwork to a fresh theme. These conversion themes often took the form of wartime motifs, such as the patriotic “Victory in the Pacific.”
- Pinball Is a Symbol of Rebellion in Hollywood
Because 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.”
- It Took a Babe Ruth-Like Move to Legalize Pinball in NYC
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.
I recently asked Sharpe what he thought would have happened if he had missed the shot. After thinking about it for a few hours, he got back to me: “I’m not sure pinball would be legal today.”
- Pinball Has a Surprise Best-Seller
The best-selling pinball machine of all time is still “The Addams Family,” which came out in 1991.
- Pinball Is Still Illegal in Some Places
Just a few years ago, Nashville, Tenn. overturned its ban on children under 18 playing, or even standing within 10 feet of a pinball machine. And, to this day, it is illegal to play pinball on Sundays in Ocean City, N.J.
- Hugh Hefner Is a Huge Pinball Fanatic
He collects pinball machines and has cooperated with pinball companies for at least three Playboy-themed pinball machines over the years. A former editor at Playboy told me that the magazine’s editorial offices had a Fireball pinball machine in the ’70s.
- There Was a Pinball-Video Game Hybrid
In 1999, Williams Pinball was the largest pinball company in the world. But it was also part of a larger, publicly traded company that demanded higher profits than the games were producing. And so the bosses gave the pinball division one last chance to save the company — and its jobs. It was to create a new game that would bridge the gap between pinball and video games. The result was Pinball 2000, and it was a strange hybrid of the two types of games. Instead of relying on physical targets, the system projected holographic characters on the screen that would interact with the flying ball. The new game was considered a modest success, and two Pinball 2000 games were produced. But it wasn’t enough for Williams’ parent company, which nonetheless pulled the plug on the entire pinball division.
- Just One Company Still Makes Pinball Machines
And it does it in the U.S. Every new pinball machine comes from a single Stern Pinball factory in the Chicago suburbs, where factory workers assemble several thousand parts, largely by hand.
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