When Pinball Was Deemed Immoral & Outlawed in Major American Cities

I remember the early days of the video arcade, where my friends and I went to have fun and spent our parents’ cash on Galaga, Robotron 2084, or--if you were a really big spender--Dragon’s Lair. Then, when we’d get home, and we would see scare pieces on the national news about the evils of the very arcades we had just visited, dens of drugs and depravity! Where were *those* arcades, we wondered.

Nothing has changed, it seems. Let’s go back nearly 80 years to another moral panic: pinball.
As these two mini docs show, in the 1930s and ‘40s pinball was banned in cities like New York (by mayor and future airport Fiorello LaGuardia) and Chicago because of its association with organized crime, but also the appeal it had to the children of the working class.

They kind of had a point: early pinball machine were purely games of chance, which put it very close to gambling. (A modern pachinko machine is closer to these early versions.) Like a carny game, you paid your money, and you watched as the ball careened down the table, out of your control.




But with the invention of user-controlled flippers that sent the ball back in play, these games of chance became games of skill. But that didn’t stop some moral crusaders.

And, as several pinball fans have found out--like the gentleman in the VICE doc below who wanted to open a pinball museum--antiquated laws remained on the books from those early years and had never been changed for modern times.

Roger Sharpe, known as “The Man Who Saved Pinball,” even went to a Chicago court in 1976 to prove that pinball was a game of skill. In a scene that sounds perfect for a final act in a movie, Sharpe, with his barbershop quartet mustache and groovy outfit, played pinball in front of legislators. Calling shots like a pool player might, he soon convinced the court that skill was everything. Sharpe would go on to become a star witness in similar hearings in Ohio, West Virginia, and Texas over their pinball laws.

Ironically, while video games replaced pinball in most arcades, home systems and computers replaced the need for arcades. It’s now a perfect time for these purely analog and tactile machines to make a comeback. Hell, a rock band might even make a musical about it one day.

Related Content:

Orson Welles Teaches Baccarat, Craps, Blackjack, Roulette, and Keno at Caesars Palace (1978)

Sad 7-Foot Tall Clown Sings “Pinball Wizard” in the Style of Johnny Cash, and Other Hits by Roy Orbison, Cheap Trick & More

Play a Collection of Classic Handheld Video Games at the Internet Archive: Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Tron and MC Hammer

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.


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  • Nelson says:

    Hard to believe that pinball was illegal back in the 1930’s and 40’s. But the game being associated with organized crime. Makes it somewhat understandable that they would want to ban the classic arcade game. Thanks for the brief history lesson.

    Nelson
    theweeklydeals.com/newsfeed

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