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Called into Question

One Man, One Ball, and the Future of an Industry

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Today I’ve got a great story that you probably know nothing about, and that’s the best kind, right? This story is about the man who had the chance to end the thirty-year prohibition of pinball in new york city with one machine, one ball, and one amazing shot. Did he make it? Well, before we get to that, let’s set the way-back machine for the 1930s and see how we got to this moment.

 

The first commercially produced, coin operated pinball machine in the U.S. came on the scene in 1931 and caused an immediate stir for two reasons. One, people really loved pinball. And, two, people really hated pinball. Of course, when I say people, I’m talking about the usual suspects…churches, civic groups, alarmist educators, “concerned parents”, etc. The same people who thought electricity, the novel, and waltzing would cause the end of moral society. Those people. Their ire toward pinball had mainly to do with the fact that they thought it was a form of gambling, and in the early days, they weren’t far wrong.

 

You see, until 1947, pinball machines didn’t have any flippers…and so the player was very much at the mercy of the machine in regards to the outcome of a game. The only control at all that you had over these early machines was either through finesse with your shot of the ball or by physically moving and shaking the machine. Of course the latter problem was quickly dealt with when the “tilt” mechanism was invented in 1934, preventing players from picking up, shaking, or moving the machines.  So, as you can see, with no flippers or other means of control, early pinball machines really did resemble games of chance rather than skill and, in most states, games of chance were illegal.

 

Fast forward to January 21, 1942. Mayor (and notorious buzzkill) Fiorello LaGuardia of New York City makes a case to the city council that pinball is a scourge that is stealing money from the “pockets of school children in the form of nickels and dimes given to them as lunch money.” and that these “insidious nickel stealers” should be banned. So, the city council agrees and passes a city-wide ban on pinball machines in public spaces and starts to conduct prohibition-style raids on businesses who do not comply…smashing machines with sledgehammers for photo-ops with the press, or simply confiscating them when the cameras weren’t around.

 

Milwaukee, Chicago, New Orleans and Los Angeles soon follow suit with bans of their own and pinball’s reputation as a low brow, dirty, criminal activity is cemented in history. Or is it?

 

Three decades pass, during which time pinball’s reputation remains suspect, and even after the advent of flippers which gave the player much more control over the game, the ban in New York stays in place. That is, of course, until one morning in 1976 when the city council crowded into a courtroom in Manhattan to watch a writer-turned pinball wizard demonstrate his skill at the game. The wizard’s name…was Roger Sharpe.

 

Roger Sharpe developed his love for pinball at University of Wisconsin when he and his friends would kill time by playing the game in spots like The Pub or The Kollege Klub. After college, Sharpe moved to New York, taking an editor position at GQ magazine. His desire to play pinball, which had been banned, as we know, led him to pursue a feature story that eventually evolved into a book, Pinball!, establishing him as the expert who could save the game.

 

So, in 1976, the Amusement and Music Operators Association came calling and recruited Sharpe to be their, uh, sharp-shooter in order to demonstrate to the city council that pinball was a game of skill, not chance, and that the ban should be overturned. When the day came, several machines were delivered to the courtroom, the city council filed in, and Roger Sharpe, with all the pressure in the world on his shoulders, walked up to the pinball machine, and like some latter-day Babe Ruth, called his shot. He tells the city council that based on his skill, he will pull back the plunger and shoot the ball into the middle lane at the top of the playing field, and what happens next absolutely secures Roger Sharpe’s reputation as one of the most important men in pinball.. With palms dripping sweat, Sharpe pulls back the plunger and lets the ball fly. It bounces of one bumper, then another, and after teetering in between lanes, it tips into the center lane, just as he had claimed it would. And Roger Sharpe becomes the unlikely hero at the end of a thirty-four year battle.

 

Moments later, the councilmen said they had seen enough. Sharpe’s legendary shot had changed their minds and the ban on pinball in NYC was soon overturned. Shortly after NYC repealed its ban, other cities followed suit and pinball was again legal in all 50 states.

 

And that is how one man, with literal balls of steel, saved the game of pinball.

 

Epilogue

 

Since his feat, Sharpe has remained involved in the pinball scene as a writer, speaker, collector, and player. His is currently ranked as the 277th best player in the world. His sons, Zach and Josh are #5 and #19 respectively. They are often referred to as the first family of pinball.

 

Today, only a handful of manufacturers of pinball machines remain. The game, however, has seen a resurgence in recent years. According to the International Flipper Pinball Association, which operates the World Pinball Player Ranking, there are more than 1,800 pinball tournaments a year across the country that offer more than $1 million in cash and prizes—a payout that would, no doubt, piss off Fiorello LaGuardia to no end.

 

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