Pinball machines were routinely confiscated and destroyed after they were banned. Credit: Chicago Sun-Times

Pinball was banned in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City for decades and . . . wait, what?

I didn’t have a clue about pinball’s prohibition until I interviewed Roger Sharpe for this week’s Reader cover story. He’s the man who helped overturn the 35-year old ban in New York City with his Babe Ruthian “called shot.”

Then again, the ban was overturned in Chicago in early 1977—before I was born. As an 80s kid who spent a significant time playing pinball and video games at a Bally’s Aladdin’s Castle (th

e Chicago-based “McDonald’s of the arcade business”), my general impression was that arcades were viewed by adults as dens of adolescent sin. That manifested itself in the pop culture of that era when arcades became lazy visual shorthand to suggest misspent youth. That’s where you’d find Sean Penn as slacker icon Spicoli hanging out in the Reagan-era flick Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The low-budget 1983 comedy Joysticks was a (bad) movie about teens fighting to save their arcade from a moralistic businessman who claimed the joint was a threat to their mental health.

All of the anti-arcade pearl clutching isn’t surprising because, well, the older generation is always suspicious of youth culture, especially when it’s paired with rapidly changing technology (hence modern parents freaking out about their kids’ addiction to the online video game Fortnite). But it’s one thing for games to be frowned on, and another for them to be illicit.

I wasn’t able to include the detailed history of the pinball ban in Chicago and Illinois in my feature on the Sharpe family. Still, I wanted to share my findings, because it’s fascinating to think that Chicago was the capital of the pinball industry at the same time local residents like a young Roger Sharpe weren’t allowed to actually play them. It was the equivalent of not being able to drive a car in Detroit or eat a peach in Georgia.

Roger Sharpe demonstrates that pinball is a game of skill to the New York City Council in 1976.
Roger Sharpe demonstrates that pinball is a game of skill to the New York City Council in 1976.Credit: James Hamilton

Here’s what I found about the circuitous history of the local war on pinball by scouring the Tribune and Sun-Times archives and other old documents:

  • The Illinois General Assembly made “mechanical gambling devices” illegal in 1895. It wasn’t until 1942 that the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that pinball machines that awarded free replays would fall under this same category.

  • It’s hard to pin down an exact date on when pinball was banned in Chicago due to its close association with the gambling industry. One legal journal from 1966 cites the year 1931. The earliest documentation I can find is a Tribune article from July of 1938 that states that an Illinois appellate court ruled in favor of Chicago’s ban, saying “the city council is not impotent to deal with these devices which entice children and weak-minded adults to gaming and squandering of money.”

  • Chicago police seized a pinball machine from Harry Wicky’s tavern in East Garfield Park in 1953. A local judge dismissed it, calling the city’s ordinance against pinball invalid. But the Illinois Supreme Court upheld Chicago’s ban in December 1954.

  • Both the Illinois house and senate advanced a bill in 1959 that would have outlawed “gambling pinballs” while permitting those of the “amusement” kind, but Governor William Stratton killed it in a surprise veto. A similar bill was scuttled in the house in 1961. Later, the state revised the 1895 law by allowing coin-op machines that “depend in part upon the skill of the player” and that don’t return money or merchandise back to the player. That revision was passed in 1962 and revised further a year later. Not everyone got the message—two days after the bill was signed by Governor Kerner on July 9, 1963, the Cook County Sheriff’s Department raided 67 establishments and rounded up truckloads of pinball machines.

  • Mayor Richard J. Daley announced a set of anti-crime measures in 1964 (covering everything from wiretapping to Molotov cocktails), and one of his 14 bills would have continued a ban on “gambling devices” but would have allowed for coin-operated games “meant for amusement only” that awarded no more than 15 free games at a time from play. But the Cook County Sheriff’s Department nixed that part of Daley’s crime package in favor of its own provisions. The sheriff department’s proposal and Daley’s proposal both went to Springfield, but both subsequently died there.
  • In 1965, Cook County considered making all machines illegal in a public place and fining people $25 to $200 a day for “attempting to obstruct their removal”—citing a statistic from the sheriff’s department that pinball machines generated $250,000 a year to “members of the crime syndicate.” But it was complicated because the suburbs had a patchwork quilt of regulations. In 1964, Skokie made pinball legal, for example, but it was still banned in Chicago, Evanston, and Oak Park.

  • The rising popularity of pinball in the mid-70s made it difficult for cities to regulate them. Illegal machines were popping up everywhere, especially after the release of Tommy—the 1975 movie in which Elton John played the pinball wizard from the Who’s iconic rock opera. Chicago began seriously considering dropping the pinball ban in early 1976. By that time, Evanston had lifted the ban (city attorney James Murray called it “useless and foolish”) and Oak Park began licensing them to nonprofit entities like the YMCA because they felt those places were well supervised enough that children would be safe. 

Alderman Christopher Cohen proposed an ordinance to legalize pinball in Chicago, telling the Tribune: “We’re in a different era than in the 1930s, when pinball gambling was more in vogue.” He also noted that people were playing it anyway—despite the ban. “There are some machines in my ward, and I know these machines are scattered throughout the city, but no one complains and the police, fortunately, spend their time with things other than looking for pinball machines.

Local media reports in the mid-70s struggled to cover pinball and video games. A Tribune feature from February 5, 1976, with the headline “Pinball Breaks the Sin Barrier” referred to video games as something alien—”electronic contests played on television screens.” Likewise, they interviewed a 15-year-old pinball fan and compared him to an alcoholic or a “dope fiend,” noting that he had to get a fake ID to play in Minneapolis.

Pinball might have been legalized in 1976 if not for Alderman Ed Burke and a few other city councilmen.
Pinball might have been legalized in 1976 if not for Alderman Ed Burke and a few other city councilmen.Credit: Chicago Tribune
  • Pinball might have been legalized in Chicago in 1976 if not for the efforts of a very familiar face on the City Council. That would be Alderman Ed Burke—yes, the same guy who rules the 14th Ward today. Mayor Daley was in favor of lifting it and then taxing it—his plan to tax individual machines and licensing operators promised to raise $1 million annually. But during a finance committee hearing about the proposal in November 1976, Burke helped delay it. He complained that organized crime in Chicago would benefit from the legalization of pinball and feared that schoolchildren would spend all of their “lunch money.”
  • The city of Chicago officially legalized pinball in January 1977—after 40 years. Gary Stern, the CEO of Chicago-based pinball manufacturer Stern Pinball Inc., told me that the pinball companies tried to convince the city that it was a game of skill—and it helped when former alderman Dick Mell realized that two pinball companies in particular (Bally and Williams) were in his ward.
  • Things weren’t necessarily smooth for pinball after it was legalized. Two days before the big “Super Shooter” National Pinball Tournament at the Playboy Club on the Magnificent Mile in 1978, city and state revenue agents seized 23 machines because they didn’t have $75 licenses. Still, Roger Sharpe is quoted by the Tribune saying he was “thrilled” to play in Chicago “without the social stigmas that used to be attached to it.”

  • In 1981, Alderman Patrick Huels proposed an ordinance to restrict pinball by age—making it illegal for children under the age of 18 to play. Huels cited Bridgeport as a community that was adversely affected by new pinball establishments. “These places have become nests for gangs and drugs,” Huels said according to a July 1981 Tribune article.

A 1976 <i>Tribune</i> feature on pinball
A 1976 Tribune feature on pinballCredit: Chicago Tribune