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Why Many American Cities Outlawed Pinball After Pearl Harbor

Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images

There’s nothing quite like visiting an arcade and playing a rousing game of pinball – noises pinging, lights flashing, watching your score creep higher and higher. Yet these games were once seen in a much less favorable light, as they were believed to be a form of low-life entertainment associated with the mob. By the mid-1940s, many American cities had outlawed the machines, largely due to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Crusade against pinball

The war on pinball was largely started by Fiorello LaGuardia, mayor of New York City between 1933 and 1945. He was elected on a platform that promised to do away with corruption and crime, particularly by hitting back at the Mafia. He made it a personal mission to “drive the bums out of town.” LaGuardia’s first target was slot machines, many of which were controlled by mob boss Frank Costello.

Fiorello LaGuardia smashes slot machines with a sledgehammer while a crowd watches on.
New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia destroys slot machines with a hammer, October 13, 1934. (Photo Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images)

This proved very successful, and he was able to remove thousands of them from the city – taking to some with a sledgehammer before they were sunk on a barge. His next target became pinball machines that were manufactured in Chicago, a city full of major organized crime. LaGuardia asserted that this game “[robbed the] pockets of schoolchildren in the form of nickels and dimes given them as lunch money.”

Pearl Harbor changed everything

Despite his campaign, it took a little longer for LaGuardia to see success in banning pinball based on morality concerns. It wasn’t until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 that he gained a lot of traction. LaGuardia drew on the newly found positivity toward the conflict to argue that not only were pinball machines a waste of time, but they were a waste of important materials that should instead be used for the war.

Group of American sailors in uniform playing pinball.
Group of US Navy Men play pinball at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel while overseas, 1942. (Photo Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images)

He wanted “the metal in these evil contraptions be manufactured into arms and bullets which can be used to destroy our foreign enemies.” The message resonated with the people of New York, and on January 21, 1942 pinball was declared a form of gambling. This allowed police raids to commence. Within only three weeks, agents were able to collect roughly 3,000 games yielding 10,000 pounds of metal for the military.

Spread across the country

LaGuardia certainly got the ball rolling, and it wasn’t long before other American cities including Chicago, Milwaukee, New Orleans, and Los Angeles, followed suit. This of course never truly stopped the game, it just meant that it drove people to play it in secret. In the following decades, pinball remained a ‘morally questionable’ activity. It wasn’t until the 1970s that attitudes truly started to change.

American soldiers play pinball in a busy officers club.
American soldiers playing pinball at Rainbow Corner, the American Servicemen’s Club in London, January 27, 1945. (Photo Credit: Kurt Hutton/ Picture Post/ Hulton Archive/ Getty Images)

Finally, in 1976, the original ban was officially lifted in New York, but it was no easy feat. Professional pinballer Roger Sharpe had to play in front of the city council and prove to them that the game actually did require skill, not just gamblers’ luck. He called where the ball was going to go before making the shot and, sure enough, he called it right.

More from us: How Pearl Harbor Forced the World’s First Global Commercial Flight

As with the ban’s initiation, other cities soon followed New York’s lead and allowed the game to be played again. Almost everywhere, that is. As of 2023, it is – shockingly – still illegal for those under the age of 18 to play pinball in South Carolina.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.