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Pinball Gets Blackballed

Mar 22, 2013 12:06 PM | 1 comment

Call it morbid fascination, call it a sadistic thrill, or call it plain old curiosity, but for better or worse our eyes are often drawn toward scenes of discord and mayhem like moths to a flame.  For evidence one need only note the traffic jams that build up around gory car accidents as passers-by slow down to gawk or the tabloid tales of misfortunes fallen on the otherwise rich and famous that fly off supermarket shelves.  I can only speak for myself here, but I will admit to taking some small pleasure from a moment of glorious, utter destruction.  Who doesn't enjoy a rousing demolition derby?  So it is with a file of pinball machine photographs from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

One can almost hear the shrill crunch of sledgehammer against glass as Police Commissioner William P. O'Brien destroys a pinball machine at a police garage on the corner of Meeker and Morgan Avenues.  And although I wince at the loss of what looks to be a beautiful old machine -- one called the Cyclone, no less, a name that particularly resonates in this borough -- I can't help but admire the gusto with which O'Brien goes about his work.  What crime did the machine commit to deserve such a fate?  What could anybody have against a pinball machine?  Although pinball machines are considered harmless, even quaint, now, in the 1930s and 1940s they were seen as a morally suspect form of gambling and a cash cow for organized crime rackets. 

In this time, it was customary for prizes to be offered to winners at pinball games.  While winning a toy kazoo after shelling out fifteen cents in nickels on a pinball machine may seem like no great crime or calamity, those nickels added up.  According to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which published a series of articles on the pinball racket early in 1936, there were 16,500 pinball machines in the borough pulling in $20,000,000 in nickels every year.  That "take", as the paper called it, was divided up among the owners of the cafes and arcades where pinball was played and the operators who supplied and owned the machines.  Part of it also went to purchasing the prizes that lucky players could win -- prizes which ranged from gum, candy, cigarettes and cigars to finer items like chinaware, cocktail sets, jewelry, and even lamps.  In the eyes of city officials, there was no skill involved in winning these prizes, making the pinball game nothing more than an elaborate slot machine, which had been banned in the city since 1934. 

If pinball machines were in reality gambling machines, then the industry was, as the Eagle put it, "peculiarly open to exploitation by racketeers."  In December of 1935 Justice Frederick L. Hackenburg of the Court of Special Sessions handed down a conviction of a pinball game operator in the Bronx and in his ruling laid out just how racketeering was involved: "There is a central place for people to go for prizes.  They control the entire game in the [Bronx] county through the central places.  The next thing, they will be allotting territories.  The next thing, when somebody walks across the boundary of the territory, we will find somebody in Bronx Park with five bullets in his head.  It is an incipient racket... There is potential murder somewhere in the back of it."  Twelve days later, a Charles Zavatoni was found dead in Long Island City, with two pinball machines in his car.

Mayors LaGuardia and, later, O'Dwyer both mounted campaigns to keep the gambling racket, which included not just pinball machines but also slot machines and roulette wheels, out of New York.  On multiple occasions through the 1930s LaGuardia ordered the seizure of pinball machines throughout the city and revoked the licenses of establishments that housed them.  The matter was repeatedly brought to court to determine if the game could be won with skill or if it was all a matter of luck.  According to New York state penal code, if chance was the dominating factor for success, then the games were essentially gambling, and were illegal.  In 1936 an NYU professor sought to settle the question with a "strictly scientific" study of game.  According to an Eagle article from June 22 of 1936, "97,800 plays were made on nine machines... Students at the Washington Square school made a total of 67,800 plays on the machines.  None of the students had any technique and a great many plays were made blind, with the machines covered.  Dr. Clark when assigned 10 assistants in his department to the special task of developing skill on the same machines.  They played scientifically 30,000 times in their efforts to become good at it."  Nice work if you can get it!  The result of the experiment showed only a 2 to 9 percent better chance at winning for the practiced students.

Above and below, Police Commissioner Louis Valentine strikes a pose to demonstrate his aggressive stance against gambling in the city.  These photographs show the destruction of roulette wheels, slot machines and pinball machines gathered in raids in April of 1935, but our photograph collection shows similar scenes throughout the 1930s and 1940s.

Despite the various raids and arraignments of pinball operators, the games still proliferated throughout the city.  One raid in January of 1942 alone netted 1,802 games.  Aside from possible connections to the criminal underworld, the games were seen by many as morally degrading and a waste of money -- something considered especially intolerable as the country entered war.  The Eagle, in a not-so-rare moment of hyperbole, drew a straight line connecting the frittering away of so much lunch money on pinball machines to our national fate in wartimes saying, "In these days banishment of gambling devices, innocent in appearance yet thorough in thievery, is really an aid to national defense."

Above, police load a truck with pinball machines confiscated at 651 Atlantic Avenue (which fittingly, if Google Maps is to be believed, is now the site of a Party City Store), in 1942.

Our photo collection regarding the pinball controversy largely documents the aftermath of police raids -- the fun that was had smashing up a warehouse full of roulette wheels, slot machines, and pinball games. 

And when the fun of smashing, stomping and shattering is over, what do you do with several hundred pounds of wrecked gaming equipment?  Load it up on a barge, steer it out to sea, and dump it in the ocean, of course. 


4/7/2013 9:22:34 AM #

Ignorance and hate know no time or place. In the 30s it's pinball, in the 2000s,it's video games.

Silver Fang