How Pearl Harbor Led to a War on Pinball

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Getty Images

On April 2, 1976, 28-year-old magazine editor Roger Sharpe stood before a pinball machine inside the New York City Council chambers, holding the future of the game in his hands. Pointing to a spot on the machine, he announced, “If I pull this plunger back just right, the ball will go down this center lane.” Pinball’s Babe Ruth was calling his shot. Sharpe pulled back the plunger and let the ball fly.

Back in 1933, by Prohibition’s end, temperance types had found a new target: pinball. One of the game’s biggest opponents was New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who swept into office that year on an anti-gangster platform. Promising to “drive the bums out of town,” LaGuardia started by cracking down on mafia-run slot machines. When mobsters replaced slots with pinball machines, he waged a years-long campaign to ban those too.

To pinball novices, the game looked like a crapshoot, completely impervious to a player’s skill. The fact that some machines offered up to $2 payouts to winners only amplified the gambling confusion. In LaGuardia’s view, pinball picked the “pockets of schoolchildren in the form of nickels and dimes given them as lunch money."

LaGuardia’s crusade got a boost when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. With America at war, LaGuardia argued that pinball machines weren’t just a corrupting influence; they were artillery in camouflage, a waste of metal.

On January 21, LaGuardia got his wish. A Bronx court declared pinball to be gambling even when no money was at stake. Police rounded up 3,000 machines over three weeks of Prohibition-style raids.

War Machines

In newsreel-ready stunts LaGuardia smashed machines with a sledgehammer before the pieces were dumped into the city’s waterways. The New York Times headline read "Pinball Machines to Help Win War." The contribution was real. The military received 10,000 pounds of scrap metal courtesy of pinball machines, enough to make four 2,000-pound bombs. As for the machines’ legs, thousands were turned into billy clubs and distributed to police.

Within the span of a few years, pinball had been banished from communities across the country, including Los Angeles and Chicago, the heart of pinball culture. But just like the prohibition of alcohol, instead of stopping the game, the ban drove pinball underground into seedy places like sex shops. Hollywood even adopted pinball as a standard prop, using the machines to give street cred to rebellious characters.

It wasn’t until the late 1960s that pinball mounted a slow comeback. In 1974, Los Angeles overturned its ban. In 1975, the film adaptation of The Who’s Tommy, the story of a “pinball wizard” with “crazy flipper fingers,” renewed interest in the game. If kids couldn’t play Bally’s Tommy-themed pinball game in their hometown, they could at least see the movie.

When the New York City Council finally held a hearing to reconsider the decades-old pinball ban in April 1976, the game’s advocates asked Sharpe, an expert player, to prove that the game relied on skill and not chance. The GQ editor had learned to play in college and had honed his skills on contraband machines in New York. He would go on to literally write the book on the game, 1977’s effusively titled Pinball!

After he called his shot, with an entire courtroom watching, Sharpe sent the ball exactly where he’d pointed. It was a true skill shot: The council’s committee voted unanimously in pinball’s favor.

This article originally appeared last year in mental_floss magazine.

Remains of World War II Soldier From Texas Finally Identified Nearly 75 Years After His Death

Lexey Swall/Getty Images
Lexey Swall/Getty Images

More than 400,000 American service members died in World War II, and decades after the war's end in 1945, more than 72,000 of them remain unaccounted for. As the Associated Press reports, the remains of one World War II soldier who died in battle 74 years ago were recently identified in a Belgian American cemetery.

Private first class army member John W. Hayes, originally from Estelline, Texas, was fighting for the Allied Powers in Belgium in early 1945. According to witnesses, he was killed by an 88mm gun on a German tank on January 4. The military recorded no evidence of his remains being recovered.

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, a government organization responsible for recovering missing soldiers, suspected that an unidentified body found near the site of Hayes's death and buried in 1948 might be Hayes. In 2018, the agency exhumed the body from a Belgian American military cemetery and analyzed the DNA. Tests confirmed that the grave had indeed been that of John W. Hayes. Now that Hayes has been identified, his body will be transported to Memphis, Texas, and reinterred there on June 19.

Thanks to advances in genetic technology, the government has successfully identified the dozens of World War II military members decades after their deaths. Recently, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency used DNA analysis to identify 186 of the sailors and marines who perished at Pearl Harbor.


5 Fast Facts about Madam C.J. Walker

 Madam C.J. Walker items at The Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
Madam C.J. Walker items at The Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

During a time when Jim Crow laws were actively being passed by state legislatures and segregation was total, one self-made businesswoman managed to stand out and serve as an inspiration for female entrepreneurs and people of color in America. Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867—the sixth child in her family but the first not born into slavery—the future Madam C.J. Walker developed a line of hair products and cosmetics and became likely the first female millionaire in the country. Here are a few quick facts about her historic success story.

1. Madam C.J. Walker first worked as a laundress.

In 1888, the woman who would become Madam C.J. Walker was Sarah McWilliams, a 20-year-old widow with a toddler. After her husband's death, she moved from Mississippi to St. Louis, Missouri, where her elder brothers were working as barbers. To support herself and her daughter, Lelia, she took a job as a washerwoman. She earned roughly $1.50 a day, but managed to save up in order to provide for her daughter's education.

2. Madam C.J. Walker's hair products were made especially for black women.

At the turn of the century, many African Americans suffered from issues of hair loss and dandruff, possibly due to the harsh irritants in the lye soap used by launderers and some combination of poor hygiene conditions, low-protein diets, and damaging hair treatments. Walker herself had a chronic hair-loss problem. According to the biography On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker by Walker's great-great-granddaughter A'Lelia Bundles, "if Sarah used the widely distributed patent medicines that were heavily laced with alcohol and other harsh chemicals, [she would only make] the malady worse by stripping her hair of its natural oils."

In 1904, Sarah joined African-American businesswoman Annie Turbo Malone's team of agents after using Malone's "Great Wonderful Hair Grower" product to treat her own ailments. She began investing in creating her own product, and in 1906 she married her third husband, a Mr. Charles Joseph Walker. Walker launched her own "Madam Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower" line of ointments and other products and began selling them door-to-door.

3. Madam C.J. Walker created a beauty culture empire.

Once Walker's business was nation-wide and incorporated, she expanded internationally to the Caribbean and Central America in 1913. Within the next few years, she acquired over 25,000 sales agents; she had a beauty school called the Lelia College of Beauty Culture in Pittsburg that trained her "hair culturists." By the time she died on May 25, 1919 at age 51, her business profits had skyrocketed to over $500,000 in sales annually. In fact, products inspired by Walker's can still be purchased today.

4. Madam C.J. Walker's Irvington, New York mansion will soon host more female entrepreneurs.

By the end of her life, Walker had amassed sizable wealth—she's widely considered to be the first self-made female millionaire, though specific numbers are vague. (Her New York Times obituary noted that "Estimates of Mrs. Walker's fortune had run up to $1,000,000 … She spent $10,000 every year for the education of young negro men and women in Southern colleges and sent six youths to Tuskegee Institute every year.") She also had ventures in real estate, and in 1918 her 20,000-square-foot mansion, called Villa Lewaro, was completed in Irvington, New York, about 20 miles north of her famed Walker townhouse in Harlem. In 2018, the estate was purchased by the New Voices Foundation, a group that has invested $100 million into a fund focused on providing support and leadership initiatives to women of color seeking their own entrepreneurial endeavors. Even 100 years after her death, Walker's legacy remains strong.

5. Octavia Spencer is set to play Madam C.J. Walker in an upcoming TV series.

As first reported by Deadline in 2018, Netflix has ordered an eight-episode series about Walker's life and legacy. Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer is set to star in and produce the series, and LeBron James will serve as an executive producer. While there isn't a firm release date set, the series is certain to be an eye-opening one for those unfamiliar with Walker's incredible story. The show will be based on the 2001 biography by Bundles.