“For us to now eliminate this ordinance and bring pinball back to its popular stature here in Kokomo,” Goodnight said, according to the Kokomo Tribune, “we think this is nice.” The Kokomo municipal council voted to repeal the law this winter, part of an effort to eliminate outmoded codes and obscure regulations.
Goodnight signed the document overturning the ban atop a Flying Aces pinball machine in a Kokomo record store. Although the game had been illegal for six decades, Kokomo authorities did not enforce the ban in recent memory — to the point that, as the Associated Press reported, Kokomo pizza and record proprietors were surprised to learn they had been offering an illicit pinball supply to the local flipper junkies.
Considering the spectrum of games the ludic American enjoys, pinball falls on the quainter side. Unlike video games of the “Grand Theft Auto” stripe, it has not been blamed for inspiring an 8-year-old to fatally shoot his grandmother. (That video games are capable of criminal influence is hotly contested.) No one has walked off a cliff while cocking a pinball plunger, unlike monster chasers on a “Pokémon Go” hunt. A brief search of medical literature yielded no study of pinball and concussions to be turned into a Will Smith movie.
And yet pinball’s innocence was not always assumed.
The Kokomo Tribune found in its archives a story from July 1955, “City Council Outlaws Pinball Machines,” in which the then-mayor decried pinball as a game of chance that encouraged gambling. Pinball games were “against peace and good order” and they “encourage vice and immorality and constitute a nuisance,” according to the ordinance, the Tribune reported.
Of the anti-pinball crusaders throughout history, perhaps none were as famous as New York City Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia. La Guardia, the Verge wrote in its 2013 history of arcade games, called pinball machine operators “slimy crews of tinhorns, well dressed and living in luxury on penny thievery.” He told a court in an affidavit that the game emptied “pockets of schoolchildren in the form of nickels and dimes.”
The sliminess of pinball crews aside, La Guardia was not completely off the mark. It was not until 1947 that pinball machines began sporting electromechanical flippers. In the game of bagatelle, pinball’s precursor, once players fired off a ball, the only technique at their disposal was to nudge the device itself, so that a ball fell in a given hole. (Pinball, though not quite a tool of youthful corruption, could be a source of gambling; some early games also gave out cash payments.)
As part of his mayoral effort to rid the city of criminal activity, La Guardia succeeded in passing a pinball ban. But Michael Schiess, director of California’s Pacific Pinball Museum, told Atlas Obscura that the mayor earned the most support after Pearl Harbor, rather than rousing the public’s anti-pinball concerns.
“They needed materials and resources for the war effort,” Schiess said, “and pinball of course used wood, wire, metal, glass, all these resources that were required for the war.”
After the introduction of flippers, it became easier for pro-pinball factions to promote the argument that the game was a test of skill. It would remain illegal in New York until the pinball industry brought a man named Roger Sharpe before the city council in 1976. He gave a demo on an unfamiliar machine, and the shot he took became the stuff of pinball legend.
“Sharpe went in and did a Babe Ruth number where he called his shot, and then he launched his ball,” Schiess told Atlas Obscura. The city lifted the ban.
Since that time, some of the pinball craze may have waned, though a circuit of professional players still competes across the U.S., leaving a trail of high scores and three-letter initials behind. And in Kokomo, new players are still discovering the game. The only member of City Hall reported not to violate the ban was Police Chief Rob Baker. Baker gave one of the machines in Kokomo a spin on Tuesday, becoming the first person to legally do so in 61 years.