For Amusement Only

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I am Roman Mars.

Oakland City Council President:
“Item four is actions on special orders of the day that typically proceeds with the council member announcements.”

Roman Mars:
What you’re hearing is an Oakland, California City Council meeting that took place in July of 2014. There’s a whole bunch of different issues on the agenda, everything from allegations of funds being misused…

Council Member:
“We know that there was a lot of manipulation of funds. Okay? And there’s been a big rip-off with those funds.”

Roman Mars:
… to announcements of neighborhood parties.

Council Member:
“Basketball pickup games, field games, face painting, Zumba dancing.”

Roman Mars:
And Producer Mickey Capper sat them the entire meeting like a good reporter does.

Mickey Capper:
To hear them say this-

Larry Reid:
“Move the item, Madam President.”

Oakland City Council President:
“Move by Vice Mayor Reid.”

Lynette Gibson McElhaney:
“Second.”

President:
“Seconded by Miss. McElhaney and by consensus, we’ll adopt the items in the consent count.”

Mickey Capper:
So they never actually say it directly, but by adopting the items of the consent calendar, what happened there is that the City of Oakland finally legalized, for the first time since the 1930s, pinball machines.

Michael Schiess:
I’m Michael Schiess. I’m the founder and executive director of the Pacific Pinball Museum.

Roman Mars:
The Pacific Pinball Museum, which is a collection of really cool, mostly older machines that you can still play, is in Oakland’s neighboring city, Alameda. Until recently, coin-operated pinball machines were also illegal in Alameda.

Michael Schiess:
And it’s the reason that we started out as an admission-based establishment and everything was on free play.

Roman Mars:
Most of the museum’s pinball machines look a lot like the ones you’ve seen before in your local bar, but there are a few really old ones that look completely different. And pinball’s design history can help explain why it was illegal for so long and why, after nearly 80 years of being a slightly sketchy leather jacket-wearing ne’er-do-well, pinball can now go legit and claim its place with Pac-Man as good, clean family fun.

Mickey Capper:
Pinball evolved out of a game that was also played in a tilted cabinet. It was a bit more like billiards. You’d shoot the ball under the field with a pool stick.

Roman Mars:
In the 1860s the pool cue turned into a spring-loaded plunger that you’d pull and release to launch the ball. They were simple wooden boards with glass tops, no electricity, no flashy art or colors, and the game was made small to fit on top of a counter at a bar or a drugstore.

Mickey Capper:
The mechanics of the game were simpler too. You basically did one action: pull the plunger.

Roman Mars:
The ball would shoot up the right side of the board and onto the playfield where there were…

Michael Schiess:
Little pockets that would catch the ball and then they were usually stamped with a point value.

Roman Mars:
And there were pins which looked like tiny nails that obstructed your way into the pockets.

Michael Schiess:
That’s where pinball came from – the nails or the pins that were driven into the board.

Roman Mars:
And the first games weren’t coin-operated. Bars would buy one.

Michael Schiess:
And they would rent it out to people that were wanted to play it and gamble with it. It was kind of like renting out the card table.

Mickey Capper:
By the 1930s pinball games were coin-operated and you’d find these little countertop games all over the place, in bars and drug stores.

Roman Mars:
You know, you’d buy an egg cream to drink and some horrible tasting elixir at the local drug store and you’d use your change to play some pinball and maybe you’d win a pack of gum or a cigar and you’d have fun doing it.

Michael Schiess:
Then it moved to just straight-up gambling.

Roman Mars:
Where instead of being awarded a prize, you were given cash.

Mickey Capper:
And it’s around this point that pinball became electric lights and buzzers started showing up along with other stuff like bumpers that you could bounce off of to get more points.

Roman Mars:
Points that needed to be tallied up on a scoreboard, which led to what is now referred to as the back glass. That’s the part of the pinball machine that faces you as you play.

Mickey Capper:
And the art on the back glass became one of the most iconic things about the pinball machine.

Roman Mars:
On the newer games, a lot of the art is licensed from movies like the 1991 hit blockbuster, the Adams Family. But if you go into the pinball museum in Alameda, almost all the old games from the thirties and forties were done by one of two artists.

Michael Schiess:
George Millington and Roy Parker.

Mickey Capper:
The art was meant to appeal to men and boys. So a lot of it features pictures of pretty ladies.

Roman Mars:
The back glass of a game called ‘Marble Queen’ depicts a group of women in swimsuits and high heels gathered around in a circle playing marbles. They’re surrounded by a big tall fence, almost like they’re in a clubhouse.

Michael Schiess:
And you see the guys that are peeking through the fence and it’s pretty funny.

Roman Mars:
The ultimate fantasy of a boy from the 1930s was women in their bathing suits playing marbles.

Mickey Capper:
The lights and buzzers and women in bathing suits just made you want to put more and more money into the machines. Sometimes people were just playing to win a free game. Other times there was a bigger payout, but it all added up.

Michael Schiess:
These things made a ton of money. I can’t emphasize enough of that because the mafia got involved. It was all cash.

Mickey Capper:
With so much money disappearing into pinball machines, the authorities started cracking down.

Michael Schiess:
It really got heated in the forties. More and more laws were being enacted to make pinball gambling harder.

Roman Mars:
Manufacturers would try to get around this by labeling the machines.

Michael Schiess:
It says right here: ‘For amusement only. No prizes, no wagering.’ I mean, they put that right on the machine and everybody knew that, well, that’s exactly what it was for it.

Roman Mars:
By the end of the 1940s, pinball was banned in most major cities, including Chicago and Los Angeles.

Mickey Capper:
But perhaps nowhere was the pinball crackdown so extreme as in New York City, wherein 1942 Mayor LaGuardia ordered the NYPD to round up all of the machines. Then, in a press event, the mayor personally shattered some of the machines with a sledgehammer and had them dumped into the Hudson River.

Roman Mars:
LaGuardia later reported that 2,000 new police billy clubs would be made from the wooden legs of old pinball machines. Perfect for knocking the heads of pinball-playing hooligans.

Mickey Capper:
Mayor LaGuardia did not succeed in running the world at pinball entirely, though. It was still legal in some cities, and even in New York, it didn’t totally disappear. It just moved into seedy underground establishments.

Roman Mars:
Meanwhile, the game designers were still developing new features. The most important of which were the flippers that first appeared in 1947 that allowed you to swap the ball around the playfield by pressing two buttons on either side of the machine. In other words, the flippers gave you some control over the outcome of the game.

Mickey Capper:
Remember, when pinball machines were first banned, the games were considered a game of chance. You’d basically put your quarter in, pull back the plunger and hope for the best.

Roman Mars:
When the flipper was added to the pinball machine, it should have changed the game’s legal status. It wasn’t a game of chance anymore. You could finally control the ball. If only they could find some way to prove it.

Mickey Capper:
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Roger Sharpe.

Michael Schiess:
I guess at one point I was considered to be, if not the best player in the world, one of the best players in the world.

Roman Mars:
Nearly 40 years after the introduction of the flipper, in April of 1976, Roger Sharpe was called upon to prove that pinball was a game of skill before a meeting of the New York City Council.

Mickey Capper:
On the day of the hearing, tensions were high.

Michael Schiess:
It was packed. A lot of camera crews.

Mickey Capper:
The New York State Coin-Operated Amusement Game Association had arranged for the hearing and they’d hauled two pinball machines into the meeting room. One that Sharpe was to play and another that would serve as a backup in case the first one suddenly died.

Michael Schiess:
And I started going over to the game that had been designated.

Mickey Capper:
The council had been pretty antagonistic to Sharpe. They thought he would cheat and right before he was supposed to play, a council member stopped him.

Michael Schiess:
He said, “No, not that game, that game over there.”

I think that the head of the city council thought that that game was somehow rigged. Let’s go with the game that’s been turned off that nobody’s paid any attention to that’s over there in the corner.

Mickey Capper:
The council session took a 20-minute recess so that the camera crews could change the lighting from the original machine to the new machine.

Roman Mars:
And then Roger Sharpe steps up and starts playing.

Michael Schiess:
Back then I was able to really show off, so it was very nice to be able to call my shots and just do whatever I wanted to do. Making backhands and shots from right to left, from left to right.

Mickey Capper:
And then for the grand finale, Sharpe wanted to prove that even the first shot, the one that involves just pulling back the plunger and letting go, that even that shot can be perfected with skill. So he turns to the council members and says…

Michael Schiess:
If I do this right, it’s going to land right down the center. Pulled back the plunger. It went up and ball straight down the center and the guy who had a seat at council threw up his hands. That’s enough. And I was ready to keep on playing. I was having fun. City Council voted six to zero to pass the legislation.

Roman Mars:
Sharpe said in the past that he got lucky with this shot, but now he says that he was being modest, that his plunge was not luck.

Michael Schiess:
To do what I did, that was skill. To have done it the way that I did it was pure naivete.

Mickey Capper:
Within a year, pinball was legal again in most places across the country.

Roman Mars:
But not in Oakland and Alameda, whereas we heard in the beginning of the show, pinball just became legal in 2014.

Mickey Capper:
Even with the rise of video games, the pinball industry continued to experience waves of success until the 1990s, but over time, people lost interest.

Roman Mars:
The last big corporation to manufacture pinball machines lost millions of dollars on its pinball division and decided to shut down in favor of a more profitable operation, making slot machines for casinos.

Mickey Capper:
After decades of fighting to prove that pinball could be a game of skill, it turned out that the most lucrative bet for game makers was on games of chance, gambling machines.

Roman Mars:
You know Bally’s Casino? They used to be in the pinball business and they took their name from their first hit pinball machine manufactured in 1932 called Ballyhoo.

Pinball 2000 Promo:
“Welcome to the 21st century.”

Roman Mars:
In 1999, pinball tried to make a comeback with a game that integrated a video screen on the back glass with a mechanical playfield.

Pinball 2000 Promo:
“Welcome to Pinball 2000. Welcome to the new image in pinball. Welcome to the 21st century.”

Roman Mars:
That was a promo video for Pinball 2000. Despite the reverb and the menacing ticking clock and the mountains of hyperbole heaped upon the promotion of the game, it never really caught on.

Mickey Capper:
Which is probably because if pinball still has any appeal, it’s actually the vintage analog nostalgia feelings it brings up in people. We like it because it’s not the future. It’s the past.

Roman Mars:
Back in the Pacific Pinball Museum, Mike Schiess thinks pinball is making a bit of a comeback and it’s because people are longing to get away from screens and from games that they play at home alone.

Michael Schiess:
So with pinball, you can kind of gather around and watch your friends suck. And that’s the other thing that’s really cool is that anybody can suck at pinball. I mean it’s a great equalizer. You don’t have to be smart. You don’t have to be physically an athlete.

Mickey Capper:
I think what he means is that anybody can suck and anybody can be great. It’s a nerd’s game, a rebel’s game, an underdog’s game. One of the best pinball players in the US right now is a young guy with autism who can memorize the geometric patterns that the ball makes on the playfield.

Roman Mars:
And then, of course, there’s that deaf, dumb and blind kid I heard about once. Never saw him play, but I heard he wasn’t really good.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Mickey Capper and Katie Mingle with Sam Greenspan, Avery Truffleman and me, Roman Mars. Mickey did another piece about pinball and its roots in Chicago for a program I love called ‘Curious City’. It’s not really just a show. It’s this news-gathering experiment based at the WBEZ where people submit questions about Chicago and Curious City investigates and imports it. It’s genius. We’ll have a link on our website.

Credits

Production

For this story, reporter Mickey Capper spoke with pinball wizard Roger Sharpe, and Pacific Pinball Museum director Michael Schiess. He also sat through an Oakland City Council meeting.

This piece was inspired by Mickey’s piece on pinball for WBEZ’s Curious City — check it out! There’s a ton more cool stuff to learn about pinball in his original story.

Music

“Catch as Catch Can” — Glue
“Milieu” — Beats Antique
“Knight Moves” — Chilly Gonzales
“The Wizard” — The Who

  1. Betty Gay

    Thank you for this story! My grandmother, who grew up in Oakland, forbade my mother and uncles from playing pinball because she said it was “like gambling.” And in turn, my mother forbade my brother and I from playing these games as well. Now it all makes sense!

  2. I was listening to the Freakonomics podcast and they created a gameshow where participants share a interesting fact, and the participant basically shared this episode. Since I listen to a lot of podcasts, I thought I had heard the account of the illegal pinball machines on an earlier freakonomics episode. I wondered why they did not acknowledge that they had heard it already, then I remembered that I had heard it here. Good scoop!

  3. Donner Dan

    That song by The Who is “Pinball Wizard”, not merely “The Wizard”. (That’s a song by Black Sabbath!)

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