Pinball. It’s a classic childhood pastime, the subject of a rock musical by The Who, and was illegal in NYC from 1942-1976. Pinball became increasingly popular in the United States during the Great Depression because the games were cheap, and people didn’t have a lot of money to spend. But the game was different back then, there were no flippers to manipulate the ball (they wouldn’t be invented until 1947). Because of this players would have to tilt and shake the machine to get the ball to go where it was supposed to go. Some wondered, “seems sort of random, this game. Doesn’t it seem like, gambling?”
Mayor Fiorello Laguardia, steward of the city during the Great Depression was convienced the game was a Mafia run racket stealing the lunch money of the city’s youth. He argued that the games sent the children of the city on a path of gambling and vice. Pinball was a menace and had to be removed. In 1942 the mayor got his way and pinball was made illegal. Machines were rounded up, publically smashed, and then dumped into the waterways of the city. Pinball was out, and the city was safe once again.
During the next thirty-four years, the game moved underground. Many were located in pornography shops and police would raid the illegal pinball dens of the city.
It was not until 1976 that things changed. Pinball manufacturers decided to make their case before the city council that the game was no longer a source of organized crime income, nor was it a game of chance. Their star witness was Roger Sharpe, a twenty-six year old magazine writer who was very knowledgeable about the subject and was an extraordinary player. Mr. Sharpe gave an eloquent defense of the game, explaining that it’s no longer connected to criminal activity and with the flipper it’s a game of skill.
To prove the game is that of skill he played a game of pinball before the
city council, displaying his incredible talent. Unfortunately, one city council member was not impressed. Concerned the machine was rigged, he wanted Mr. Sharpe to play on the backup machine that was brought in case the main one broke down. Sharpe had a problem. He practiced on the main machine extensively, but not the backup machine. He decided to go for broke. He exclaimed by pulling the plunger back alone, he could make the ball reach the middle of the 3 slots at the top of the machine. Amazingly he did just that, though later he said it was pure luck. Either way, it’s the move the saved pinball in NYC.
– Mark Gilman, Tour Guide