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Other Prohibitions: America's War On Pinball

When you hear the word "prohibition," alcohol and marijuana likely come to mind. But America has banned a number of other vices and recreations over the years - including, of all things, pinball.

The modern, coin-operated version of pinball was invented in Chicago in the 1920s, where it was seen as another game of chance that people could bet on at speakeasies and other nefarious joints during alcohol prohibition. As a result, it quickly became associated with gangsters and the rest of the city's criminal underworld.

The criminal association quickly led to pinball being seen as a gateway for harder vices (sound familiar?).

"Pinball machines are a harmful influence because of their strong tendency to instil desire for gambling in immature young people," said Lewis Valentine, who was New York City's police commissioner from 1934-1945.

"Children and minors who play these machines and frequent the establishments where the machines are located sometimes commit petty larcenies in order to obtain funds, form bad associations and are often led into juvenile delinquency and eventually into serious crime."

New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia agreed. In the early 1940s, he launched a moral crusade against pinball, which he called an "evil" that robbed the public through the "pockets of schoolchildren in the form of nickels and dimes given them as lunch money." The campaign resulted in New York becoming the first major American city to ban the game in 1942.

Other cities, including Los Angeles, Philadelphia and even Chicago, followed suit. But few enforced the ban with as much fervor as New York under Mayor LaGuardia, who orchestrated prohibition-style raids involving police smashing thousands of pinball machines with sledgehammers and axes before dumping them in the city's rivers.

Saved by the flipper

Like so many rounds of pinball, the machine itself was saved by the flipper. The iconic piece of today's game wasn't invented until 1947. Before then, players had to to shake and tilt the table to maneuver the ball, making pinball a game of chance like gambling on slot machines. But the flipper allowed the game's backers to argue that pinball was actually based on skill.

That's the case they made in 1976, when pinball had its day in court. In April of that year, Roger Sharpe - a writer for the New York Times and GQ, who also happened to be a savvy pinballer - was called as a star witness of New York's Music and Amusement Association (MAA). Sharpe was asked to play rounds of pinball in a Manhattan courtroom to demonstrate that pinball was a game of skill, not chance. Sharpe did just that when he amazed legislators by calling his shot like a billiard player.

Thus New York overturned pinball prohibition, other cities soon followed and Sharpe became known as the Babe Ruth of pinball.

This article is the first in a series looking at other, lesser known prohibitions in the history of moral crusades against vices and recreational activities.

h/t Chicago Reader, Popular Mechanics, Gizmodo


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