New York City’s War On Pinball

“Games lubricate the body and the mind.” —Benjamin Franklin

In A Nutshell

Just a few weeks after the US entered World War II, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia made an important announcement. Concerned about the fate of his city, LaGuardia declared that pinball machines were no longer welcome in the Big Apple. This bizarre ban lasted from 1942 until 1976 and was only repealed thanks to the pinball prowess of a guy named Roger Sharpe.

The Whole Bushel

Everybody loves playing games—well, almost everybody. There are always those folks who feel it’s their duty to ban every new game that shows up on the shelves. These conscientious critics have gone after everything from RPGs to video games, but perhaps the craziest case of censorship is the time when New York City declared war on pinball machines.

Back in the 1940s, pinball machines were all the rage, much to the alarm of the prude patrol. Quite a few parents worried the game was corrupting America’s youth. By squaring up to a pinball machine, children weren’t just wasting their valuable time, they were being exposed to gambling. The moral militia claimed pinball was purely a game of chance, akin to roulette wheels or craps, and was completely inappropriate for children. (To be fair, pinball flippers weren’t invented until 1947 so kids had to rock the table back and forth.)

Of course, the real nail in the proverbial coffin came when New York City Mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, claimed pinball machines were run by the mob. Gangsters were using these games to rob children of their precious nickels, and these hoodlums had to be stopped! True, while a few games were owned by the Mafia, most belonged to your average, everyday store owner. Regardless, on January 21, 1942, Mayor LaGuardia declared pinball machines were illegal in New York City.

Taking a page out of the Eliot Ness playbook, LaGuardia ordered raids on any business operating a pinball machine. Armed with sledgehammers, police officers broke into shops and amusement parks and bashed the games to bits. Adding insult to injury, the machines were then hauled off and tossed into rivers. What’s even crazier is this pinball paranoia spread across the nation, and soon cities like Chicago and Los Angeles were also telling pinball players to get lost. One of the only holdouts was that bastion of liberty and hippie spirit, San Francisco.

Shockingly, New York’s pinball ban lasted until 1976 when the Amusement and Music Operations Association finally challenged the law. The Association asked magazine editor and pinball aficionado Roger Sharpe to present their case before the City Council. His testimony didn’t make much of an impact . . . not until he took a crazy chance. Hearkening back to the time Babe Ruth famously called a home run, Sharpe claimed he could fire a ball into the middle lane at the top of the machine, all due to his incredible skill. Wanting to make things difficult, the Council demanded Sharpe achieve his feat on a machine he wasn’t used to. The editor took their challenge, pulled the plunger, and made the shot. Duly impressed, the City Council reversed the ban, much to the joy of deaf, dumb, and blind kids everywhere.

Show Me The Proof

The Atlantic: The Mayor Who Took a Sledgehammer to NYC’s Pinball Machines
Gothamist: Did You Know Pinball Was Illegal In NYC For Over 30 Years?
Popular Mechanics: 11 Things You Didn’t Know About Pinball History

  • Lisa 39

    Pinball rocks! I can’t believe it was ever banned, what a crime. Great article Nolan!

  • Clyde Barrow

    How ironic. The politicians of NYC banned pinball because of the supposed potential to expose kids to gambling. So in order for the ban to be overturned, they literally bet (gambling) a guy that he couldn’t make a pinball shot.

    That’s 20th century American politics in a nutshell.

  • ReynaldDaub

    It was common game of Pinball in the Newyork city .
    http://regularx-usa.tumblr.com

  • “…much to the joy of deaf, dumb, and blind kids…”

    Roger Sharpe, Roger Daltrey . . . seems the Rogers have it. Love a great rock n’ roll reference. 🙂