On a bright April afternoon in 1965, the Indiana State Police invited the local press to an intimate ceremony at the Dunes Police Post in Chesterton, Indiana, just on the shore of Lake Michigan.
When the onlookers arrived, they formed a half-circle around two pinball machines sitting in the patches of dune grass and sand near the parking lot. One of the officers asked for a volunteer from the press. The two men popped open a side panel on each machine, pulling out change boxes heavy with coins. The two men counted the money—entirely in dimes—and announced a total of $219.40. Today, that’s nearly two grand.
The two machines had been confiscated from a Starke County truck stop nearly three years earlier, so the state police announced the money would be given to Starke County charities. The onlookers gave a round of quick, polite applause.
Then the 15-pound sledgehammers came out.
Two ISP officers did the honors, swinging the sledge in a wide arc then driving it into the tender electric guts of each pinball machine. Machines that had cost $900 each. Their cameras snapped, and photographers from Porter County’s Vidette-Messenger captured the action (the photos above). That destruction, in 2021 dollars, cost about $15,000…or a slightly-used Ford Mustang V8 Coupe. These posed pictures were reminiscent of photos taken during Prohibition, when politicians and police would dramatically pour illegal booze into city sewers for the press…and more often than not take the rest home.
From World War II to the early 1970s, pinball condemnation swept through the United States. Taking sledgehammers to the pricey pinball machines became an event. Pinball parlors and arcades, which had exploded in the early 1900s, were now closed, the owners heavily fined.
Hoosier joined right in. Indiana politicians and law enforcement didn’t mince words when it came to denouncing pinball machines: “They corrupt the morals of the youth of the community” (Jeffersonville Sheriff Kenneth Groth, 1959); and “A law enforcement problem that requires constant vigilance (Hammond Police Chief John Mahoney, 1957); and “Their operation tends to promote official corruption and racketeering” (South Bend grand jury report to Circuit Court Judge Dan Pyle, 1938).
Pinball Haters Had Reasons
This pinball backlash wasn’t just another plague of American moral panic. It some ways, it was justified.
Pinball parlors/arcades had been around since the very beginning of the 20th century, but had been restricted to amusement parks and large-scale events (such as World Expositions). It took a heavy investment and deep payroll to keep them going.
That changed in 1931, when a game named Baffle Ball sported a new feature: coin operation. This allowed pinball parlors to sprout up in cities and towns across the country, and young Americans were more than happy to feed these machines their pennies.
Not only did this convince people into spending their hard-earned money on brief amusement, but it was entirely too close to another coin-operated pastime—slot machines, which exploded in popularity at the same time. Although it was New York City’s Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia that rallied against pinball machines first (in 1942 he famously called pinball machine companies “slimy crews of tinhorns, well-dressed and living in luxury on penny thievery“), it didn’t take long for the crusade to spread.
In the early 1940s, all across Indiana, county and state officials decreed that heavy fines or prison time would befall anyone possessing a pinball, slot, or bingo machine. In 1942, Johnson County’s Franklin Evening Star positioned that dire warning above FDR’s update on the European and Pacific War. Pinball panic erupted around the country, not only because of its “sinfulness,” but because these machines wasted the precious metals and electronics needed to drive the war effort. Hating pinball became patriotic. LaGuardia himself reached a fever pitch when he dumped 2,000 shattered pinball machines in the Long Island Sound.
Illusion of Control
It wasn’t just harmless entertainment. Like casino owners of today, many parlor owners encouraged gambling because players were convinced they were actually good at it. Flippers didn’t show up until 1947 (in Gottlieb & Company’s well-advertised Humpty Dumpty machine), and it would be years before these would become commonplace.
How did people play in the games before flippers? They really didn’t. Players were at the mercy of the pinball’s random bing, bang, and bong, but believed their actions affected the outcome of the game; Actions like their frequency of play, the number of coins played, how they pulled a handle, or how they flicked the spring-powered plunger. This phenomenon of false reason is called the Illusion of Control. It’s a powerful weakness unique to humans.
*Casinos make billions every year exploiting the Illusion of Control (a worldwide $227 billion from 2019-2020). You cannot be “good” at slot machines. You cannot be “good” at throwing dice. You cannot be “good” at roulette. You can, however, be good at blackjack in the form of card-counting…but casinos look for that.
If you’re enjoying this story, find more like it in Hoosier Tales: Fifty Unknown Stories from Indiana now available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback.
Pinball Prize Price Gouging
In the years before flippers, and in randomized games like bingo, pinball arcade owners offered fine prizes to players, ranging from packs of chewing gum to gold jewelry. Like Chuck E. Cheese of today, the wholesale cost of the prizes averaged FAR below the amount of money. How much?
When Chuck E. Cheese’s parent company CEC Entertainment declared bankruptcy earlier this year, it moved to destroy 9 billion prize tickets. The company’s annual report valued those tickets at $9 million in arcade prizes. That gives each ticket a dollar value of $.001. One tenth of one penny.
As mind-numbing as that may be, it’s a business strategy that has lasted for centuries and there’s little difference in prize arcades of today and pinball parlors of yesteryear. Despite this rigged payout, the illegal but common arrangement between parlor and player kept everyone happy…for awhile.
Flippers changed everything. Suddenly players exerted actual control on the game, and the most skillful players could “break the bank.” While the randomized games continued, pinball became a game of skill instead. Players battled for high scores, prestige, and, most coveted of all, FREE PLAYS. Sometimes these bonus games could be won by an in-game achievement. Most common of all was a random run of solenoids and gears at the end of the game (modern machines still emulate this primitive number ritual). Sometimes you won a free game…but most of the time you didn’t.
Tinkering with the Odds
Pinball machines were a serious investment and owners shied away from handing out too many free plays. Instead, they quietly added another feature to their machines, one few players knew about: recording devices that allowed owners to fix a machine’s profitability by adjusting “random” free plays. Using information provided by owners, these primitive computing devices could fix the randomized free plays, increasing their revenue.
If an owner felt a machine was handing out too many free plays, a simple twist of the dial would throttle them back. These recording devices became so attuned to the needs of pinball that operators could select each machine’s profit margin. For example, Machine X would stack free and paid games so it made $100 a week. Machine Y, $150. Machine Z, meh, only $50.
That’s as rigged as rigged can get, folks.
In Indiana, a famous 1957 case established this fixing as an illegal gambling practice: Tinder v. Music Operating Inc., spawned Indiana Statute 10-2330.
Burns Ind. Stat. Ann. § 10-2330 — “Recording Device.” — A meter, indicator or counter displaying the number of free games won or the number of games credited from the deposit of a coin on a pinball machine is a recording device within the meaning of Burns Ind. Stat. Ann. § 10-2330.
Although the law technically applied only to machines utilizing recording devices, in practice it fell upon any and all pinball machines across the state. Thousands of pinball machines were sold, destroyed, impounded, hidden or repurposed, although only a fraction of them actually violated the statute. It would take 11 years for Indiana’s attorney general to make the distinction official (1968’s OAG Official Opinion No. 32: Pinball Machines as Gambling Devices).
The Kids Are All Right
It wasn’t just gambling or rigged machines that worried moral Americans. Pinball forever became associated with another invasive cultural phenomenon: rock n’ roll. Crooners like Frank Sinatra enjoyed pinball, but it was the images of pinball-playing American and British rockers that young Americans most wanted to emulate. Elvis with his shining, jet-black hair and gold lame suit, immersed in a game before a show. Jerry Lee Lewis and his drooping bangs. Jim Morrison throwing his weight on the machine for a TILT. Michael Jackson loved the game. Joey Ramone played pinball machine with his trademark ferocity. Even the Boss, Bruce Springsteen, brought a pinball machine on a tour.
And, of course, there’s the Who’s Tommy, which is entirely about a “Pinball Wizard.”
How did pinball return to the mainstream? While cities, towns, counties, and states repealed pinball bans at their leisure, it took a real-life Pinball Wizard and a group of lobbyists to rescue that piece of gaming Americana.
By 1976, demand for new pinball machines reached hysteric levels, but the largest markets were still off-limits. Gaming lobbyists, furious at the archaic laws that still banned pinball machines, got tired of waiting for legislators to come around on their own. One way or another, the city council would have to come around.
These lobbyists hired pinball historian and master player Roger Sharpe to join them in New York City at a special council meeting. NYC’s council members believed pinball machines sold an “illusion of control” only to suck players’ wallets empty. If these council members could be convinced the game wasn’t random and actually required skill, they would repeal the ban. But convincing them wasn’t easy.
Today, Roger Sharpe’s performance at the council meeting is something of a legend. He demonstrated the gameplay for a few minutes, but his flipper action failed to convince the stern-faced council. Sharpe and the gaming lobbyists grew nervous.
Then inspiration struck.
The young historian/gamer stood at the machine and before he even pulled the plunger back to launch the ball, he announced he would send it rocketing up a narrow lane as soon as it hit his flipper. Sharpe called his shot. He let go of the plunger, the stainless steel ball blurred around the board’s edge, then rolled down to Sharpe. With a firm flick of his flipper, Sharpe sent the ball flying exactly where he called it. Informally, it became known as the “Babe Ruth Shot.“
Minutes later, the council voted, and ended the 34-year-ban on pinball machines. Their perception of the game changed so dramatically that it’s hard for Americans today to remember when pinball was considered a “sinful vice.” Instead, in Indiana and across the country, it’s a noisy, colorful, and almost hypnotic American pastime.
Interesting Indiana fact: Kokomo finally got around to making pinball machines legal only FIVE years ago. The 61-year-old law had sat forgotten in the musty corners of the city’s legislation until Kokomo decided clean up its codes and regulations. Read more in the 2016 Washington Post article “Pinball — once a source of ‘vice and immorality’ — now legal in Kokomo, Ind., after 61-year ban” by Ben Guarino.