Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About America's Pinball Prohibition

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About America's Pinball Prohibition
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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About America's Pinball Prohibition
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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About America's Pinball Prohibition
Published on
March 4, 2024
Updated on
March 4, 2024
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Why Was Pinball Once Illegal in America?

Picture a holding cell in New York City, 1950. One man turns to another and asks, “what are you in for?” “I stabbed a guy. You?” “Stole a car.” A gruff laugh comes from the corner. The man looks and sees the silhouette of a person sitting in darkness, cigarette smoke wafting out from the shadows. “That’s child’s play,” the figure whispers. “Oh, yeah?” the man asks. “What are you in for?” The man takes a long drag of his smoke and after a beat responds, “I played pinball.” RECORD SCRATCH

Okay, while this interaction is dramatized for effect, the underlying fact remains that once upon a time, pinball was illegal for a lot of places in the United States! While most fans of pinball are familiar with this slice of history, new people are getting into the hobby all the time, so here’s a simple breakdown of when pinball was illegal, or, America’s Pinball Prohibition.

The Dirty ‘30s

The 1930s was an exciting decade for the pinball industry, with 1931 being the year the first coin-operated pinball machine was released. Bally Hoo was made by Raymond Maloney, who later named his company Bally after the success of the game.

ballyhoo pinball machine

Only a couple of years into The Great Depression at the time, surely such a fun distraction would be welcomed with open arms, right? Wrong! ‘Merica! Notice something missing from the machine above? If you said flippers, you’re right. If you didn’t, that’s okay, too. A pinball machine without flippers made for a very different game, one that made the movement of the ball completely random. “Random” equated to seeing pinball as a “game of chance” rather than the "game of skill" we know of today. This complemented nicely the concept known as “gambling,” and, shockingly, authorities were not into this. While some crowds would actually gamble on where the ball would land, other establishments would give out free games or prizes (like gum, jewelry, and sometimes even cash) depending on the ball’s movement.

On March 17, 1937, Illinois’ Attorney General John E. Cassidy outlawed pinball machines as gambling devices. Two years later, on December 10, 1939, roughly 161,000 people voted yes in a Los Angeles election in favor of Proposition 3 to ban pinball (against 113,000 nos). Here’s a bunch of people in LA who clearly had too much free time to go discuss pinball in a City Council meeting (Oct 23, 1939).

los angeles pinball ban

Thus began the start of cities across America banning the game of pinball.

Satan’s Lunch Money

Pinball player after league night

While adults gambling on the game was one reason for the ban, there was equally an emphasis placed on keeping the youth of the country safe from the immorality and the life of crime to which pinball machines are gateways. Yes, really. Schools and churches worried that this game was bastardizing kids and their sense of right and wrong. Pinball machines needed coins to play, so surely they were stealing some or, worse, using their money meant for food on this silly entertainment (not gonna lie, kind of a valid concern coming off of The Great Depression…). Fiorello LaGuardia, mayor of New York City, claimed the money inserted in pinball machines came from “pockets of school children in the form of nickels and dimes given them as lunch money.” He straight-up believed the game of pinball churned out criminals. It didn’t help that most of the machines manufactured came from Chicago, which was quite the crime-ridden city during The Great Depression. On top of the manufacturing side of things, many believed the pinball machine, itself, was a waste of materials, which was also a scarcity mindset reflective of the time.

The Mob Takes A Turn

The idea that a kid playing pinball would instantly transform into a criminal was a bit of a leap, but the concerns of pinball being tied to mobsters had some validity. During a hearing about the ban - we’ll get to that part shortly - Miles F. McDonald, district attorney of Kings County, CA, testified that a gang was tied to pinball. McDonald claimed the gang Murders, Inc. “would assign certain territories to those whom they owed favors, such as stealing an automobile, and that these people would operate a protection racket. It was more or less a shakedown racket.” The mafia found pinball appealing because money put into machines did not deliver a quantifiable product, making the total amount earned untrackable. A NYC councilman, Leon Katz, asserted during a protest, “Mobsters and racketeers will use the profits of these machines to launder dirty money from prostitution, drugs, and gambling.”

The 1940s: Other Cities Follow Suit

With the states of Illinois, California, and Wisconsin acting as trendsetters in the late ‘30s, the ‘40s was the decade that other cities enacted their own laws around banning pinball. The city that received much attention for the ban was New York City, likely because of the passion mayor Fiorella LaGuardia had toward ridding the community of these supposedly toxic machines. On January 21, 1942, as soon as the ban was approved by city council, LaGuardia ordered straight-up raids of bowling alleys, bars, arcades, and anywhere else that might house a pinball machine. They confiscated thousands of machines (nearly 2,000, to be precise), which was believed to be close to a quarter of the amount of games in operation in the city. $3,000 was taken from the machines and added to the police pension fund. They took sledgehammers to the machines like the big strong men they were. The pinball machines didn’t stand a chance against this muscle!

laguardia pinball illegal nyc

LaGuardia even went so far as to gift batons made from the legs of the confiscated and destroyed pinball machines. Talk about obsessed! Here’s NYC Police Commissioner Willam P. O’Brien putting a pinball machine in its place in 1945:

Willam P. O’Brien pinball prohibition

Other major cities that took up a pinball ban were Boston, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Salt Lake City. Washington D.C. didn’t fully ban the machines, but rather prohibited kids from playing them during school hours. While a lot of these bans carried through the ‘40s, some cities didn’t get involved until the 1950s. Columbus, OH, didn’t rule until 1956 that prizes made pinball machines illegal gambling devices. Governor Frank Lausche said, "[pinball machines] have been used hiddenly as gambling devices. People who play them become addicts just as those who previously in Ohio played slot machines." A year later, the Ohio Supreme Court upheld the ordinances. Pro-pinballers wanted to bring the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the justices would not take the case.

The Flipper Changes the Game

Throughout the time of the ban, the argument remained strong that having no control over the ball made this a complete game of chance. That all changed in 1947 when Gottlieb introduced their Humpty Dumpty machine. It had all the usual fixings - bumpers, a plunger, etc. - but included three pairs of flippers ascending the playfield to help send the ball around and give the player more control.

Genco also used flippers in their machine, “Triple Action,” but had them facing outward instead of inward. 1950 saw Gottlieb release “Spot Bowler,” and that’s one of the earlier examples of a pinball machine with more modern-looking flippers, though they were much smaller than what’s used today. Why were flippers such a game changer? Because now there was active player control involved and it could be argued that the game was less about chance and more about the skill of keeping the ball in play.

The 1970s: Loose Change and a Sharpe Shooter

The bans lasted for the next 20+ years. Despite the bans, pinball machines were very much still being actively produced and played. While there’s not much firsthand documentation of the struggles to play pinball during the bans, it’s possible that with time some cities found them to be overreactions. Some establishments were not worried as much about putting out new machines.

June 22, 1974 brought about exciting news for the city of Los Angeles. The California Supreme Court overturned the ban and ruled that pinball was legal, hallelujah! While that legal drama unfolded rather undramatically, two years later, there was a rather nail-biting pinball hearing in New York City. Roger Sharpe was a writer for GQ Magazine who fell in love with playing pinball, and only later found out that he was playing in adult book stores because machines were illegal in NYC and that was a good hiding spot for them. He even managed to put a machine in his apartment so he could write about pinball. The Music and Amusement Association of New York took note of his articles and it was in 1976 that they enlisted Sharpe to help challenge the ban. They did this by having Sharpe literally play pinball in front of the New York City Council to demonstrate that, due to upgrades such as flippers, pinball was now a game of skill and not chance. During the hearing, Sharpe would even go so far as to call one of his shots, much as Babe Ruth's famous home run in the 1932 World Series.

roger sharpe the man the myth the legend

One month later, pinball was legalized in New York City. Sharpe’s David vs. Goliath story was even turned into a movie recently (check out our review here!).

Between Then and Now

It was clear pinball machines weren’t what they once were anymore. Instead of winning cash or prizes, players could win a free extra ball or a free game. Between advancements in the machines and the news of Los Angeles and New York, other cities changed their tune over the coming years. Chicago eased up and overturned their ban in 1977. Columbus also flipped, but Grove City, OH, a city outside Columbus, still has a 1974 ordinance in place that outlaws pinball. The city doesn’t take it seriously, but I will not be taking chances there. I’ve been burned before. Nashville didn’t overturn theirs until 2004 and Oakland didn’t amend their ordinance until 2014. Better late than never (cough cough, Grove City, cough cough). Cities like Ocean City, New Jersey, march to the beat of their own drum with the legal/illegal activity around pinball. Players can enjoy pinball any day of the week there… EXCEPT SUNDAY. It’s likely a lot of cities focused less on pinball once the release of arcade games and video games mercilessly targeted the youth of America.

Thus concludes the history of pinball’s prohibition. The next time a game feels a little too easy, just imagine playing it during that tumultuous era, concentration bouncing between the playfield and the front door, waiting for a cop to bust in whose paddy wagon is hungry for pinball criminals! Once again, this has been dramatized for effect. Go enjoy pinball and all the rights to do so!