The Rise, Fall, and Resurgence of Pinball: America’s Battle Over a Ball and a Plunger

Once upon a time, America had a surprising aversion to pinball, leading to its outright ban in major cities. This prohibition was fueled by concerns about the game’s supposed links to crime, juvenile delinquency, and moral degradation.

The crackdown on pinball reached a peak on March 6, 1948, when an undercover patrolman in New York City arrested a cigar store owner for the “unlawful possession of a gambling machine.” Pinball had been viewed as a societal menace since the Great Depression, and before flippers were introduced in 1947, players had little control over the ball’s movements. With gambling connections and the belief that it corrupted children’s morals, pinball faced opposition from law enforcement, civic groups, churches, and school boards.

Adding to its negative image, many pinball machines were manufactured in Chicago, known for its association with organized crime during the Depression. New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia spearheaded the campaign against pinball, claiming it took away millions of dollars from school children. He also argued that the materials used to make pinball machines, such as copper, aluminum, and nickel, would be better utilized in the war effort.

Between the 1940s and the 1970s pinball used to illegal in parts of the United States.

As a result, several cities, including Milwaukee, Chicago, New Orleans, and Los Angeles, followed New York’s lead and banned pinball. Efforts to link pinball to criminal activities persisted even after the introduction of flippers, which transformed the game into a test of reflexes. For example, during the 1960 presidential election, Republicans attempted to smear Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy by associating him with a pinball operation.

However, in the 1970s, pinball’s reputation began to change. The California Supreme Court ruled in 1974 that pinball was a game of skill rather than chance, leading to the overturning of its prohibition in Los Angeles. New York City also considered lifting the ban to alleviate a financial crisis, and the game was ultimately deemed acceptable. One of the top players, Roger Sharpe, demonstrated the skill involved in pinball, and the city council overturned the ban.

Despite gaining acceptance, pinball faced new challenges in the video game era, as video games required fewer repairs and less space, making them more appealing to operators. Pinball’s popularity declined, leaving only one manufacturer remaining. However, in recent years, pinball has experienced a revival, with numerous tournaments offering substantial cash prizes, a development that would have likely surprised and disapproved of Mayor LaGuardia.

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