The Time the US Banned Pinball

The Retro Bliss

The origins of pinball come from a French table game called Bagatelle with the first-ever pinball machine being patented in 1871. However this machine was not like the ones we think of today with the little flippers. There’s a number of ways you can make a pinball game more elaborate with targets that you hit and little ways to sync the ball and double balls and all that stuff to blow up your score. In this early version, it was more like what we think of today as maybe Pachinko where you’re shooting the ball, and then it just jumping around on the little pins. Hence, pinball I guess, and then it just falls into whatever hole sort of like ski ball or something, but it goes up to the top, and then it bounces down. That’s still very much a thing with Pachinko.

Not sure if they’re exactly one and the same, but they’re very similar. In 1947, people started to see the advent of the modern pinball machine where you had those flippers that I was talking about. So, you could actually kind of control where the ball went when it rolled back down that hill. If it didn’t go right down the middle, which is the bane of any pinball player’s existence, you have the opportunity to keep the ball in play and flip it around.

While we consider the modern pinball game, it was still very different from what you would see in your average retro arcade today. You could try to tip or tilt the machine in your favor, but you were very much at the mercy of the random movements or bounce of the ball. And because of that element of chance, people started gambling on pinball games. Of course, anybody who’s been to Vegas, Macau, or somewhere akin to those cities can assure you that some people will gamble on virtually anything. But gambling on pinball was a cool thing to do, and soon, this affected the reputation of pinball. What we think of is like a fun, neat arcade game was seen as a machine built for iniquity, that catered to sleaze bags and lowlifes.

In Chicago in particular, pinball machines started to be associated with organized crime. This happened because Chicago, as we know, was a massive hub of mob and gangster activity, and these machines were cash-based, it became kind of like a way to make a quick buck by criminals.

A fantastic article from the Portland Mercury quotes a gentleman by the name of Phil Stanford, who wrote a book called Portland Confidential: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Rose City. This book discussed how Portland gained this reputation of being this shining liberal Bastion on a hill when it actually has been a place rife with corruption for a very long time. Stanford specifically talks about an interview he did with the Portland Mercury about how pinball machines were seen as a gateway to more heavy gambling the way that nowadays marijuana is seen as the gateway towards harder drugs. He stated, “the people who wanted to get rid of slot machines went after pinball machines too much in the same way that law enforcement goes after marijuana.” So, it was kind of perceived as being a gateway into more heavy vices and types of gambling.

Atlas Obscura published a great article about this war on pinball in which they categorize these folks, these anti-fun types, as crusading do-gooders. They needed something else to spoil people’s good times and this was what it was. So, it did lead to pinball being banned in a lot of cities, especially New York, and that’s specifically because New York of the city’s Mayor, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. He was a massive anti-pinball guy; he hated the game. In 1933, he came into office with this anti-crime anti-mob kind of platform.
New York City Police Commissioner William P. O’Brien smashes illegal pinball machines in a warehouse in the Greenpoint section of

He got rid of the illegal slot machines and got quite a few of them dumped into the Hudson River in 1935 just after he was elected, to let the public and the mafia know that he meant business. Mobsters replaced the slot machines with pinball machines. Mayor LaGuardia wasn’t standing for it. He had his sights set on these sort of de facto gambling machines.

Mayor LaGuardia and his team also started rolling out anti-pinball statements. When the Japanese military at the time bombed Pearl Harbor 1941 December 7, Mayor LaGuardia went patriotic with it. Not only was pinball morally terrible and the cause of starving children and criminals but it was also a waste of America’s valuable resources. They were wasting copper, aluminum, and nickel making these devil ball machines, when they could be sending that to the boys on the front lines to make guns and bullets and weapons of war.

So, LaGuardia had the city council on his side, he also had public opinion on his side because he’d done such a good job at making the case for this and tying it to the country’s precious resources. And as we know, during this time, it was important to be able to fund the war effort. His task was was easy because pitch patriotism was rampant after an event like the bombing of Pearl Harbor, an attack on American soil. He got the city council to approve a ban on pinball machines in public places, even ones that didn’t use the payout system or any kind of gambling. They were developing this idea of criminality, that pinball was a gateway into more serious gambling and a waste of materials.

LaGuardia and various police chiefs got together with the press and smashed pinball machines with sledgehammers. The New York Times got ahold of this headline, and noted that cutting down pinball manufacturing at least was making a meaningful contribution to the war effort. The military got 10,000 pounds of scrap metal courtesy of pinball machines, which was enough, if you did the math, to make 2000-pound bombs.

Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Chicago followed New York’s lead, banning pinball as much as possible, and some other cities started to heavily regulate it. If you were a kid, and you’re supposed to be in school, you couldn’t be found playing pinball during school hours. That’s why all of a sudden, the counter-culture embraced pinball, the rebels without a cause, you know, they got the leather jackets, cigarettes rolled up in their short sleeve t-shirts, and they’ve got the pinball fever.

It’s always interesting to hear how Washington DC, throughout history has maintained sort of like a pretty progressive approach, with being one of the first places to legalize marijuana, when you think of it as being like the seat of government. It has always been super progressive. Washington, DC was one of the places that didn’t outright ban pinball playing but they limited it and made sure kids couldn’t be found playing.

It seems like all the restrictions that they put into place in cities across the US played a big role in at least temporarily turning pinball into exactly what they were afraid it would be. Now that the game was moving increasingly off of Main Street, it started to pop up in seedy places, and would even find it in sex shops. Hollywood picked this up, and it put it in the Zeitgeist of mass media. If you saw a rebellious character in a film from the 40s or 50s or something, the quick way to establish them as a seedy untrustworthy person was to just have a scene in there where they’re hanging out around a pinball machine.

This reputation continued for decades through the 50s and the 60s. They created a self-fulfilling prophecy and turned pinball into the thing they feared it to be. So, the flipper comes out. The flipper comes out and now the game is no longer just a pull the plunger game of chance. Now it is a test of reflexes, and if you practice, you can become better. So, pinball becomes a skill.

People grew a little less hot-headed about the connection to gambling in the 1950s, with a lot of that having to do with the flipper turning pinball into a game of skill nationwide.

This sort of like made it harder to gamble with because it then became more of a game of skill. With the gambling part removed, it was a little more accepted, legally, but it still had kind of a bad rep.

There were a lot of arguments, especially more sensationalistic ones against pinball, and against children playing pinball. In fact, this became part of a political strategy used against John. F. Kennedy himself during the 1960 presidential election. Kennedy was a Democrat and his opponents leaked a group photograph of Kennedy and some friends. In the photograph, he was at an event with someone who was the silent partner in the Indiana pinball business.

This was used as controversy against him as though they had a sex tape. There was a guy named Jim Garrison, who was the district attorney of Orleans Parish. He was indicted in 1971; suspected and convicted of accepting bribes to protect illegal pinball gaming in New Orleans, but he was found not guilty.

In 1974 the Supreme Court in California apparently was having a slow day. They ruled that pinball was officially more a game of skill than chance and therefore it did not qualify as a gambling device. So, this overturned the prohibition of pinball in Los Angeles.

New York, was in the midst of a bankruptcy crisis yet again in 1976. Because of this, the city council considered getting rid of the pinball ban. This was because movie theaters, bars, and hotels could all be making some serious coin. But not everybody was on board. There was one Councilman from Queens, who agreed that pinball was innocent, but pressed that it would bring rapid vices and gambling back to the city. So, they had to try to prove to everyone that this was definitely a real game of skill.

There was a kid named Roger Sharpe who had learned to play pinball very skillfully while he was in college on black market pinball machines in New York, you know, because they were against the law. He had to hone his skills in these secret backrooms pinball parlors. There’s actually a book from 1977 that he wrote called Pinball Excavation and he was a magazine editor by day and a pinball wizard by night.

On April 2 of 1976, he stood in front of a pinball machine In the New York City Council Chambers and essentially demonstrated his skill on the machine. Additionally, he talked about some of his little tactics.

The fact that Roger was able to predict where the ball would go based on his actions was huge in persuading people that he wasn’t just rolling the dice. When Roger managed to accurately predict each shot he took, the council was persuaded. They got rid of that three-decade-long pinball ban and were going to issue a $50 licensing fee on every pinball machine in the city, which would bring them an estimated $1.5 million dollars. So, it also goes a long way to help their bankruptcy crisis.

The wave oof pinball love started creating a demand for arcades. And with that, this kind of gussied up versions of the old school pinball machines that now had TV and movie tie-ins like the ones we see today.

There’s a great documentary on Netflix about the early days of these arcade games. I believe it’s called High Score. Pinball was gaining legitimacy. It was running up against these electronic games, these digital games, and so you would go into an arcade and you would see this analog pinball setup but then you would also see video games. Audiences loved both by the way. But people who owned the arcades liked to roll out the electronic stuff because there were fewer repairs and they didn’t take up as much floor space. That’s why in the 21st century, pinball is becoming increasingly rare.

There are almost 2000 pinball tournaments every year across the US, and they offer more than $1 million in cash and prizes. As noted by this great article in History, Mayor LaGuardia would be incensed about that.


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I tell conversational style stories of some of the most ridiculous events that have occurred in the past.

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