Pinball is enjoying something of a return in this day and age. By that it is meant that a growing number of people are tacking up playing pinball, after a something of a hiatus for the past 10 years or so.

What most people do not remember, or do now know at all, is that pinball was actually banned in major US cities from the 1940s until the 1970s. Cities where pinball was banned included New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. The ban was most aggressively enforced in New York City. This is the inside story about the three decades long pinball ban in many parts of the United States.

The Reason Behind the Pinball Ban
The primary reason pinball was made illegal in the trio of cities just mentioned, and in others, was because it was considered gambling, a game of chance. City leaders also considered pinball to be enjoyed by people of questionable ethics.

In fact, at the time these bans were put into effect, the standard pinball machine lacked flippers. The ball was shot across the machine, and really did essentially just roll back and then off the board. The debate centered on what skill was involved in this type of activity.

Background Leading Up to the Prohibition
Coin operated pinball machines started to appear in public settings beginning in about 1931, during the depression. Flippers were installed on pinball machines beginning in 1947, and this alteration to the design meant that they did require at least some skill. Despite this alteration, the prohibition remained in effect across the country for about 30 more years.

New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and the Pinball Prohibition
Perhaps the person in the United States most committed to the pinball prohibition was New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. One of the contentions put forth by LaGuardia was that pinball was stealing money from the children. He contended that kids were spending their lunch money on the machines.

LaGuardia also contended that pinball was a mob racket. In fact, the so-called mafia was involved in arcade style games beginning during the Great Depression and heading forward into the 1980s and 1990s.

In response to the New York City pinball prohibition, LaGuardia had the police department conduct raids on suspected locations where pinball was being played. These raids had the look and feel of the types of police interdiction that occurred during the prohibition of alcohol in the country some years earlier. Indeed, LaGuardia ordered the police to round up pinball machines across the city and arrest their owners. As an aside, LaGuardia began his pinball raids shortly after Pearl Harbor was attacked.

Thousands of pinball machines were seized in raids. Hundreds of pinball machine owners ended up arrested, some serving time in jail. The machines that were seized ended up smashed with sledgehammers, what remained being dumped into one or another of the rivers in the greater New York City area.

Pinball Goes Underground
With the advent of the pinball bans in different cities, pinball went underground. In New York, pinball machines ended up moving to venues like porn shops in places like Harlem and the East Village. These venues really did become something of pinball speakeasies.

Although people like the New York City Mayor considered pinball an evil, it really wasn’t until the games ended up in porn shops and similar venues that the game started to take on an air of immorality or vice. This reputation would persist well into the 1970s. Indeed, from time to time even today there are hints that at least some people still find pinball a somewhat disreputable activity.

The End of Pinball Prohibition
The end of the prohibition on pinball occurred in New York in 1976. The ban in New York came about when a magazine editor named Roger Sharpe played the game in front of governmental officials to prove it was a game of skill and not chance. At the beginning of his effort, things did not go well for him.

Ultimately, he was able to take a shot and accurately project its trajectory. This worked to convince New York City officials that pinball could be considered a game of skill. This was the final factor in the city government making pinball legal again.

Throughout the 1970s, other cities lifted their bans on pinball. There probably are still some cities that have these ordinances on their books. However, no city appears to enforce them any longer.


Jessica Kane is a writer for The Pinball Company, the best online source for new, used, and refurbished pinball machines, arcade cabinets, and more!