If you were at school during the 1970s, you might have heard of other students playing truant to play pinball or may have indulged in a delicious little rebellion yourself. You may wonder why such a harmless game was under a moral cloud.
Pinball was banned because before the flipper control, later incorporated into its design, it was much more a game of chance rather than skill and fell afoul of gambling laws. The game was also blamed for leading youth astray, encouraging school truancy, and being unpatriotic during wartime.
Looking back, banning pinball seems a little quaint and odd. Online gaming takes up far more time, and its often-violent nature makes pinball look very clean and innocent. How did this comparatively harmless game get such a bad rap? To better understand, you must put yourself into the shoes of an American living in the moral climate of the Great Depression and WWII.
1. Pinball Was A Useful Political Scapegoat
Fiorello La Guardia was voted into office as mayor of New York in 1934 due to his promise to clean up the city’s government of corruption and make it more honest. Under the previous mayor, Jimmy Walker, New York had a bad reputation of being a city of vice and low morals. Walker as mayor from 1926 to 1932,’; was also known for not enforcing the prohibition laws and allowing speakeasies to operate.
The Cardinal Archbishop of New York denounced Walker as a man of low public and personal morals for allowing ‘girlie magazines and casinos. In this climate, La Guardia promised a moral crusade against activities associated with the low morals of the casino. Before turning his attention to pinball, he first seized thousands of slot machines and dumped them into the Hudson River.
His police raids on pinball machine establishments and breaking machines with sled hammers allowed good ‘photo opportunities.’ La Guardia often posed for photos, showing him smashing and tipping over pinball machines making him look like a proactive moral crusader in the eyes of the public.
2. Pinball Was Said To Have Links With Organized Crime
During the Great Depression, playing slot machines became a popular form of gambling for the masses who could only afford to play with nickels and dimes. Due to this widespread popularity, it became a lucrative racket for organized crime. However, since slot machines violated the anti-gambling laws enforced by many states in the US, slot machines attracted much police attention.
To avoid conflict with the police, the mob diversified into pinball. At first, pinball was regarded as a game for amusement and not associated with gambling, safe from police raids. The first coin-operated pinball machines produced in 1931 did not violate the law so long as winning payouts were only in extra free games and sundries.
In 1933, a New York pinball vendor, Herman Seiden, connected a payout slot to his machines. The machine dispensed money if the ball dropped into designated scoring holes; this made it easier for the mob to incorporate them into their gambling rackets.
Law enforcement became suspicious when the Bally company used Seiden’s invention to produce Rocket, the first purpose-made gambling pinball machine. Furthermore, the fact that pinball machines were manufactured in Chicago, the epicenter of Mafia violence in the US, raised further suspicion.
3. Pinball violated US Anti-Gambling Laws.
Gambling involves games of chance rather than skill. Before 1947, flippers were not part of pinball machine design, which meant that players had very little control over the ball (only by tilting the machine). After being shot from the spring-loaded plunger, it was a matter of luck, into which scoring holes the ball dropped.
This game’s chance character, coupled with Seiden’s Payout slot modification, made it easy to argue that pinball was nothing more than gambling and just a slot machine in disguise. Pinball developed such a bad reputation, despite flippers being introduced, that authorities kept the game banned; this injected skill into the game.
In 1976, Roger Sharpe, a pinball designer and ranked player, testified in a New York court hearing on behalf of the Amusement and Music Operators Association that pinball was a game of skill rather than chance. In attendance were officials from the Manhattan City Council and the press. They witnessed Sharpe play a demonstration game and place the ball where he predicted it would go.
The city council members were suitably impressed with Sharpe’s demonstration and unanimously voted to unban pinball.
4. Pinball Was Seen As A Gateway To More Serious Gambling.
Authorities were alarmed by the number of children and youth attracted to the game. They were concerned that once youth got used to betting nickels and dimes on pinball, they would find it easier, as adults, to bet larger sums on more socially devastating gambling activities.
5. Schoolchildren Lost Their Precious Lunch Money To Pinball
Mayor La Guardia argued that each time school children played pinball, unscrupulous pinball operators were acutely stealing their lunch money and allowing them to go hungry.
6. Pinball Encouraged Youth To Steal
Since it was easy for youth to get addicted to pinball, churches and schools were afraid that it was morally corrupt by tempting youth to steal coins to feed the machines.
7. Pinball Was Regarded As A Pointless Waste Of Time
During the Great Depression, thrift and hard work were prized as social virtue. Pinball was seen as the way to demoralization and lack of drive and the pastime of useless layabouts.
8. Kids Were Skipping School To Play Pinball
Schools were concerned that too many children were skipping school to play pinball. Many cities throughout the US banned children from playing the game during school hours.
9. Pinball Got Associated With Rebelliousness
Since pinball was driven underground by the authorities, the game became associated with the rebel youth culture of smoking, leather jackets, and Greaser hairstyles. The glamourization of this lifestyle in Hollywood with movies such as Rebel Without A Cause may have further reinforced this culture.
10. During The War, Pinball Was Seen As Unpatriotic
Following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and the US’s entry into WWII, copper, aluminum, and nickel in pinball machines became a waste of materials better utilized for the war.
Mayor La Guardia thought it was his patriotic duty to ban and confiscate pinball machines so that the metals used in their production could be more usefully diverted into making bullets and bombs for the war effort. After the city council approved La Guardia’s ban on the machine in public spaces in 1942, police raided candy stores, bars, and bowling alleys and confiscated 2000 machines.
La Guardia and his police chiefs assembled the press to photograph them smashing pinball machines with sledgehammers. The wreckage was dumped into garbage barges and then thrown into Long Island Sound. The pinball metal contained enough metal to produce 4 X 2000-pound aerial bombs in all the confiscated pinballs.
Pinball was a casualty of the moral and political climate of the Depression and WWII era. It was banned in major cities throughout the US from 1942 to 1976. Pinball was linked to danger in the public mind, and the youth were drawn to it as the ‘cool’ and ‘gutsy’ thing to do.