History

I Thought I Was the Bally Table King(pin)

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It's a few months old, but last August Popular Mechanics ran a wonderful article on mid-century pinball prohibition in America. It features all the usual accoutrements of prohibition, including pinball raids (that's NYC Police Commish Willam O'Brien at right, showing off "flippers on the table" for the press), underground pinball "speakeasies," and in a nod to the current debate over poker, the story of the successful effort to overturn New York City's ban on the game by proving pinball is game of skill, not chance.

The coin-operated amusement lobby (which represented the pinball industry) eventually succeeded in earning a City Council hearing to re-examine the long-standing ban. Their strategy: Prove that pinball was a game of skill, not chance, and thus should be legal. To do this, they decided to call in the best player they could find in order to demonstrate his pinball wizardry—a 26-year-old magazine editor named Roger Sharpe. Fearful that this hearing might be their only shot at overturning the ban, the industry brought in two machines, one to serve as a backup in case any problems arose with the primary machine. Suspicious that the pinballers had rigged the primary machine, one particularly antagonistic councilman told them that he wanted them to use the backup. This presented a problem: While Sharpe was intimately familiar with the first-choice game, he had never played the backup. As he played the game, surrounded by a huddle of journalists, cameras, and councilmen, he did little to impress City Council's anti-pinball coalition. So he made a final Hail Mary move that, to this day, he compares to Babe Ruth's famous called shot in center field. He pulled back the plunger to launch a new ball, pointed at the middle lane at the top of the playing field, and boldly stated that, based only on his skill, he would get the ball to land through that middle lane. He let go of the plunger and it did what he said. Almost on the spot, the City Council voted to overturn the ban.

I recently asked Sharpe what he thought would have happened if he had missed the shot. After thinking about it for a few hours, he got back to me: "I'm not sure pinball would be legal today."

Internet Pinball Database here. Also obligatory:

(Via Walter Olson's Twitter feed.)