How Pearl Harbor Led to a War on Pinball

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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.

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