Review: Bragg Brothers' Pinball Depicts Repeal of the Game's Ban in New York City

Politicians in the last century accused pinball of being mob activity.


Many things were banned in New York City for much of the 20th century but are legal today. Pornography. Recreational marijuana use. Pinball?

As if his namesake airport isn't bad enough, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia led the crusade against pinball in 1941 on the supposed grounds that it was a mob-backed gateway to get kids hooked on gambling. Pinball was seen as a game of chance, not skill. La Guardia told cops to make the seizure and destruction of pinball machines their "top priority," and cities across the country followed his lead.

Reason's own Bragg brothers, Austin and Meredith, directed and wrote a fantastic film about the wonderfully mustachioed man most responsible for overturning the ban in the 1970s, Roger Sharpe. Available to stream on various services, Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game is a biopic that tells how Sharpe's pinball obsession intertwined with his struggling writing career and romantic life. The New Yorker's Richard Brody declared it better than all of the best picture Oscar nominees for last year.

Sharpe's story shows how a few people can nix stupid laws (though it helps to have on your side some "unicorns": politicians who actually change their mind based on evidence).

Yet, the ban's legacy lives on. Though rarely enforced, some laws banning pinball are still on the books. Getting them repealed can be just as hard as getting a high score: South Carolina is on its third legislative effort in the last decade to repeal a law prohibiting minors from playing pinball.