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.


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