Back In The Day, Pinball Was The Most Dangerous Game In America
The 1930s were a rough time for America. Hobo camps spread across the nation and the only remaining industry was clinging to a 9th-floor gargoyle on Wall Street, trying to mug investors on the way down. Every bank in the midwest got robbed at least three times by guys with insane names like Fancy Lad Donahue and Babydick Johnson. In New York, the Mafia was doing so well that it formed a board of directors, farmed murders out to a subsidiary, and generally seemed about a week away from incorporating on the actual stock exchange. Society was crumbling everywhere people looked. Naturally, honest Americans knew exactly who to blame for this disastrous state of affairs: gamers!
These days, video games get blamed for everything from mass shootings to unemployment to this article not being funny enough (look, those mines weren't going to sweep themselves). But video games weren't around at the time since everyone was too busy living in a real apocalyptic nightmare to invent The Last of Us. Fortunately, there was a new gaming craze sweeping the nation: pinball. It didn't take long for civic leaders to declare pinball machines "a tool from the devil" responsible for luring America's youth into lives of delinquency and degradation. America would remain at war with the "insidious nickel stealers" until 1976, when the nation's greatest pinball player was summoned to the halls of power for a high-stakes challenge: Make a single shot so impressive it instantly made pinball legal again.
Ironically, the war on pinball was originally enabled by another dramatic pinball showdown. Back in 1935, a New York candy store owner named Jacob Mirowsky was arrested over his pinball machine, which offered small prizes for high scores. The cops said that pinball was a game of chance, making this illegal gambling. Mirowsky countered that pinball was a game of skill, no different from golf or topless cribbage. To prove it, he offered to scour the city to assemble a crack team of New York's greatest pinball players, who would demonstrate their skill before the court. The judge, who could recognize some incredibly cool shit when he heard it, agreed.
Sadly, we have almost no information about the team of three Mirowsky assembled, aside from the New York Times report that they were all youths "considered successful shooters of the little ball." So we're forced to completely make it up. From Hell's Kitchen came Kid Parabola, who could put a pinball between a man's eyes from 100 yards, and sometimes did. From Queens came Cyrus "Two Hands" McTiltawhurl, who won 50,000 francs from the King of Egypt in a high-stakes pinball shootout, then lost it all gambling on albatross races on the zeppelin home. And from The Bronx came Kid "The Kid" Kiddington, who was born on a trash barge in the East River, and died there too.
Whatever their real names, the three pinball sharpshooters assembled in the courtroom that summer -- and lost in the most humiliating circumstances imaginable. Seriously, they ate shit. None of them even managed to break the lowest winning score possible. To make matters worse, a cop then strolled up to the table and casually matched their scores, all while professing himself a complete amateur. The court was duly unimpressed and ruled against Mirowsky. And admittedly it's not a good look when all your expert players slip on banana peels and get stuck upside down in molasses barrels while Officer Sausagefingers runs rings around them on the table.
The verdict was music to the ears of the city government, which had been looking for a suitable precedent to ban the game for years. Over the next decade, the city went to war on pinball. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia himself led raids on warehouses and was pictured on the front pages gleefully smashing up pinball machines with a big sledgehammer. Around 2,000 confiscated machines were towed into Long Island Sound and sunk to the bottom of the ocean, where they presumably still lie today, catering to a clientele of teenage octopuses. The cops did first pry off the wooden table legs and had them fashioned into billy clubs, which were then used to violently beat the next generation of underground pinball players. Talk about adding insult to injury.
So how did we get to "pinball is destroying young minds" hysteria? Well, pinball was pioneered at the Chateau de Bagatelle, luxurious suburban sex palace of the Comte d'Artois, brother of the king of France. The whole place had been built at massive expense virtually overnight in order to win a bet with Marie Antoinette. To really rub it in, the Comte invited the royal couple over to have a look at his brand-new games room, including a game simply known as "bagatelle." This was essentially pinball, but with no mechanical elements. Instead aristocrats would shoot the ball up a tilted table using a small pool cue. The game was a massive hit, but was soon replaced by an even more popular game where an enraged mob of peasants competed to use your severed head as a football.
France collapsed into revolutionary war and the Comte was forced to hide out in Scotland until the heat died down, where he mournfully swore a vow of chastity, although it was presumably hard to resist all the raw erotic power of Edinburgh in mid-November. But pinball's reign of terror wouldn't end there. In 1871, a guy in Cincinnati named Montague Redgrave took a break from what we're assuming was his job as a gentleman detective to invent a pinball game with a spring-powered ball launcher. The game was essentially modern pinball, but without flippers (which were added in the '40s). Instead, it operated as a game of chance, like roulette. Although players quickly started tilting the table to control the ball, which tends to be frowned on in most casinos.
Pinball really took off during the 1930s, when Americans were dealing with depression by getting really into gaming. Pinball was affordable, colorful, and most games offered the chance to win a free play or a selection of cheap prizes. Pinball tables spread across the land, as out-of-work youths flocked to the old-timey equivalent of Dave & Buster's (probably a stab-happy basement speakeasy called something like "Machine-Gun Joe's Cockfightin' Palace"). Seriously, next time you see a movie set in the Great Depression remember that there should be pinball games everywhere.
And that's where the problems started. America has traditionally maintained a zero-tolerance policy on the poors enjoying themselves, and moral guardians were outraged at the sight of unemployed people spending a few cents gaming rather than sobbing into a handkerchief or wandering around with a big "will work for Bible verses" sign. To make matters worse, many of the new pinball machines started offering small cash payouts for high scores, meaning that people were spending their valuable pocket change gambling instead of starting a small business crawling down abandoned coal mines looking for delicious dead canaries or whatever.
By 1935, there were over 500,000 pinball machines nation-wide. In Chicago alone, 150 companies worked day and night to keep up with the demand for new machines. It was one of the nation's few growth industries, along with tommy guns and bindles. But for every pinball machine sold there were like two newspaper columns declaring them the work of the devil, leading children into lives of crime and degeneracy. Can you imagine going for a quick game of pinball and three weeks later you're driving a stolen Model T through the woods at 70 miles per hour while your girlfriend tries to fight the opium shakes long enough to aim a shotgun at a pursuing police biplane? Well every columnist for about a decade could, and they wanted the game gone.
The situation was particularly acute in New York, where pinball arcades were accused of lowering prices from a nickel to a penny during school hours, to lure kids into truancy. This caught the attention of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who had just won his war against mafia artichokes (1930s VeggieTales was hardcore). Since mobster Ciro "The Artichoke King" Terranova controlled the supply, La Guardia simply banned the allegedly tasty vegetable from sale, declaring that artichokes constituted a "serious and threatening emergency to the city" and leaving the Artichoke King steaming. The mayor's brave move won him widespread admiration, as all America vowed never to eat a vegetable again in solidarity.
With the mob's healthiest racket broken, La Guardia needed a new target. He found it in pinball, which he declared a hotbed of criminal activity, run by "slimy crews of tinhorns, well dressed and living in luxury on penny thievery" who sought to steal lunch money "from the pockets of school children in the form of nickels and dimes." Pinball was even linked to the Mafia's notorious Murder Inc. gang of hit men, which is kind of like if the secret assassin society from John Wick was funded entirely through bags of pennies skimmed from bowling alley claw machines. Speaking of claw machines, La Guardia banned them too, with an official declaring them "dishonest and corrupt." Finally, a policy we can all support!
Although the 1935 courtroom showdown provided the legal precedent, the war on pinball really stepped up a notch with the outbreak of World War II. La Guardia demanded that the "evil contraptions" be melted down and "manufactured into arms and bullets which can be used to destroy our foreign enemies." Basically, imagine if Dick Cheney had kicked down the door of a Nintendo factory and demanded to know why all the GameCubes weren't being packed full of C-4 and dropped on Tora Bora. La Guardia later claimed to have confiscated enough metal pinballs to build 2,000 bombs. Presumably the bomber pilots were very surprised to release their cargo and see it ricochet off three anti-aircraft towers before a giant Nazi flipper shot it right back up at the plane.
In 1942, all forms of pinball were officially banned in New York City. Other major cities quickly followed suit. Even Chicago cracked down on them! Seriously, the air in Chicago was so thick with gangster bullets that when a brief truce was called several buildings collapsed from the sudden lack of architectural support -- and the city government was still like "we've got to do something about these arcade games." At this point we're honestly surprised they didn't ditch the whole tax evasion thing and just nab Al Capone on charges of having a suspiciously good bumper shot.
Ironically, the 1940s saw both the rise of pinball bans and the very thing that made them pointless: flippers were first added to pinball machines that same decade, transforming them categorically into games of skill. But nobody has ever accused the law of being quick on the uptake and pinball remained underground, the province of bikers and cool kids, until the courts finally struck down Los Angeles's pinball ban in the 1970s. But New York stubbornly held out, refusing to lift the pinball ban, even though kids had long since moved on to dressing like third-tier Village People and hunting each other for sport through the streets.
Finally, in 1976, New York City Council gathered to consider the pinball issue. Was it skill, or luck? They knew there was only one option: To recreate the 1935 challenge and see if modern players could make a trick shot so impressive that nobody could deny that pinball was a legit game after all. But they had also learned their lesson (that all kids who claim to be pinball hustlers are filthy goddamn liars), so they turned to an adult. That took the form of Roger Sharpe, a pinball historian and super-fan who was possibly the best player in the country at the time.
Any other player might have choked under the pressure -- remember, Sharpe loved pinball more than anyone alive, and it was up to him to save it. But the guy rolled into the hallowed halls of the City Council rocking a sweet mustache and what appear to be transition lenses, looking like a Doobie Brothers roadie at a custody hearing he's trying to lose. And he just started making shots. As the council members clustered around the machine, he called a few flipper shots, then decided to go for the grand finale. He announced that he'd call a single shot with the plunger only. As Sharpe himself described it to the Chicago Reader: I told them, if I do this shot just right, it's going to go right down the center. And so I pull back the plunger, let it go, and the ball went up..."
The entire room held its breath as the ball curved back down. If Sharpe was right, the ball would go straight through a single narrow channel. It was especially amazing because everyone assumed Sharpe was there to show off how the flippers had changed the game, but here he was, risking it all on the exact kind of shot the kids had missed back in 1935. Was he crazy? Maybe.
But he made it.
The ball landed exactly where Sharpe had predicted it would. The stunned council members had never seen anything like it -- they weren't pinball experts, so it must have been like seeing one of those YouTube videos where someone casually breaks the laws of physics in a sport you've never heard of. The council rapidly voted to legalize pinball. The rest of the country quickly followed suit. Pinball was back, baby, and it would never go away again.
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