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The flap over flippers: South Carolina bill would repeal decades-old ban on kids playing pinball

Pinball traces its roots to the French game bagetelle but has been linked, rightly or wrongly, to gambling since the 1930s. State lawmakers think it's time to go full tilt and end the pastime's bad rap.

CHARLESTON, S.C. (CN) — Not even a century ago, mothers decried pinball as a gaudy game that lured children into delinquency and school-yard debt. In South Carolina, lawmakers wrung their hands over the “cancerous” and “vicious” machines. One senator prayed pinball would be banned before the state became “like Louisiana.”

In the 1940s and 1950s, states and municipalities across the country banned the game for similar concerns. But those laws were repealed, leaving South Carolina as the last state in the nation where a pinball prohibition remains on the books, albeit unenforced.

No less than five pinball-related controversies were settled by the South Carolina Supreme Court between 1939 and 1965, as state and federal law enforcement officials played cat-and-mouse with the game’s manufacturers over features that turned the devices into not-so-secret slot machines.

Now, amid a surge in the game's popularity, a bill recently introduced in the South Carolina Legislature would end a more than 60-year-old prohibition on children playing pinball in the Palmetto State.

It’s not the first time state lawmakers have attempted to repeal the unusual law, which dates back to a time when pinball was mired in controversy over gambling and organized crime.

State Representative Todd Rutherford sponsored the bill that would end the prohibition, known as H3227, which was referred to the South Carolina House Judiciary Committee and first read Jan. 10. The Columbia Democrat did not respond to requests for comment.

Frederick Richardson, owner of Bang Back Pinball Lounge in Columbia, has campaigned for years for the law’s repeal, warning lawmakers about its impact on the game’s popularity.

Starting a new business is already a risky proposition — more so when the services sold are technically illegal. The arcade gaming market share is forecast to grow by nearly $1.8 billion as the entertainment industry recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a recent market study from Technavio, a London-based research firm. Richardson worries the legal murkiness will stifle the industry’s growth in South Carolina.

“I don’t expect ATF is going to come bang down my door, round up all the kids and throw them into a buggy or anything,” Richardson said, referring to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “But, at the same time … let’s clean it up.”

A version introduced last year passed the state House of Representatives, but died in the Senate Judiciary Committee. In 2016, a similar effort to repeal 11 antiquated laws, including the pinball ban, failed, too.

The flap over flippers

To understand how South Carolina’s law came into effect, it’s important to understand the game’s history.

Pinball can trace its roots to the early 1930s with the invention of coin-operated “pin games,” a tabletop version of the French game bagatelle, according to Michael Schiess, founder and director of the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda, California.

Baffle Ball, invented in 1931 by David Gottlieb, was a mechanical game where the player tried to launch metal balls into pockets and holes arranged on a vertical table dotted with pins. The holes and pockets were worth different points, and landing a ball in the smallest target at the top of the board, called the baffle ball, would double the player’s score.

The game was a smash hit in stores and taverns, ushering in a golden age for pinball, as others, including Ray Moloney of Bally, rushed to add eye-catching features like bumpers, bells, backboards and lights to lure players to try their luck.

But pinball’s rise to popularity came amid a national crackdown on gambling. Slot machines were the most common target, but pinball wasn’t exactly innocent itself, Schiess said. Some “one-ball machines,” like the 1936 Mills’ game “Tycoon,” were essentially slot machines, paying up to 30-to-1 for the top prize. And even if the machine itself did not award a prize, it was common practice for the store’s proprietor to pay out winners who reached a high score.


“Pinball came from gambling and then leaped over it to become an amusement game,” Schiess said.

In 1934, Columbia police seized 21 gambling devices, including 11 “pin games,” from area businesses under the state’s anti-gambling laws, according to South Carolina newspaper archives. Four years later, a state legislative committee probing organized crime determined that pinball payouts took place “in every hotel lobby, lunch room, cigar counter and pool room” in the state capital.

In New York City, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia made headlines after ordering police to make pinball raids their top priority. It was part of a crackdown on organized crime, which moved into the pinball market after the crackdown on slot machines, Schiess said. In 1942, the city banned pinball machines entirely. The law would remain in effect for more than 30 years.

The South Carolina Supreme Court heard its first pinball case in 1939. Ralph Alexander, a pinball machine operator, asked the high court to issue an injunction prohibiting the Greenville County sheriff from seizing and destroying his bagatelle-type devices.

Alexander argued, in part, that pinball was a game of skill, similar to billiards or darts, not mere luck.

It was the central question for pinball as it battled for legitimacy in the public’s eye. Games of chance were prohibited in states that outlawed gambling. Games of skill were not. The pinball ban in New York City was repealed in 1976 after player Roger Sharpe demonstrated his dazzling skills for members of the Manhattan City Council.

But the game was still in its infancy in 1939. Flippers, the paddles players use to ricochet the ball across the table, were not invented until 1947. The skill of pinball in its early days mostly relied on jostling the machine and launching the ball into play.

(Vlad Vasnetsov/Pixabay via Courthouse News)

The justices ruled 3-2 against Alexander, finding South Carolina’s anti-slot machine law prohibited any device that did not provide “certain uniform and fair return in value for each coin deposited therein, and in which there is no element of chance."

Alexander did not dispute there was an element of chance in pinball — that was part of the fun — but he argued the “certain uniform and fair return” for playing was the amusement it generated.

But amusement has value, the court ruled, and contingent upon the player’s score, he could win additional games, which lured and induced the player to continue operating the machine.

“This feature, we think, clearly pertains to a game of chance,” the court determined. “And this is true, whether the machine is played for amusement or for other returns, such as money.”

The court would uphold the pinball prohibition in 1941 and 1947, but the game remained popular. More than 500 pinball machines were federally licensed to operate in South Carolina in 1942 – a source of frustration for vice cops trying to tamp down on gambling, according to newspaper archives.

The invention of flippers reignited interest in pinball while shifting opinions about its merits as a game of skill.

The Anderson Daily Mail argued in a 1947 editorial that the state's ban should be lifted. If someone is using the device for gambling, arrest them for it, the paper said – “but to say that placing a coin in a slot for the privilege of thumping four or five marbles through a field of pegs, springs and electrical gadgets is, in itself, a form of gambling is an absurdity.”

The South Carolina Legislature legalized pinball in 1949. Licensing the machines was estimated to bring in $300,000 annually in state revenue, newspaper archives state.

Tilting at windmills

Gambling remained a problem, however. As federal and state authorities cracked down on one-ball machines, manufacturers responded by adding new gimmicks that skirted the law.


One variant game would become the scourge of South Carolina: bingo pinball.

Commonly displaying a sign that read “For Amusement Only,” bingo pinball machines were made by the same companies that made flipper pinball, but they were a far cry from their kid-friendly cousin.

In 1956, Marshall Doswell. managing editor of The Rock Hill Evening Herald, published a six-part series decrying the deleterious influence of bingo pinball on South Carolina’s youth.

For the series, Doswell spent a Saturday night at a York diner playing the game. A dozen teenagers clustered around him as he plunked $5 worth of nickels into the machine. Here is how he described it:

“I needed the 7 in the worst kind of way,” he wrote. “This was my first crack at the pinball machines and I was having beginner’s luck. I already had lighted four numbers in a row on two of the three cards. I won 20 free games off one, 30 free games off the other.

“Now all I had to do was plunk my last ball into the 7 hole to light five numbers in a row — to win 96 more free games.”

A “skinny kid” helped Doswell hit the No. 7 hole by pulling the plunger back all the way and “thumping” it with his thumb, earning the editor a total of 146 games.

He noted no one would actually play the game 146 more times. Instead, the store owner pays the player a nickel for each free game won and then resets the machine using a “knock-off” switch hidden under the table, Doswell explained. The editor would have earned more than $7 from cashing out the games.

Schiess said bingo pinball was developed around the same time flipper pinball was introduced. The addictive game, where a player tries to fill the slots on an electronic bingo card with balls, was much more lucrative for manufacturers than flipper pinball.

“From what I understand reading about it, wives got really pissed at their husbands for coming home with no paycheck – because it would all go into bingo pinball,” Schiess said.

There was even a country song written about it — "Pinball Anonymous" by The Willis Brothers.

Bingo pinball devices operated in a legal gray area. The payouts were illegal under the state’s gambling laws, but “free-play” pinball was specifically allowed under the 1949 law. Federal law prohibited the shipping of gambling devices, including bingo pinball machines, except in a few states, like South Carolina and Tennessee, where they were made lawful.

Doswell’s pinball exposé created quite the stir. One mother who called the paper after it ran said her son would get paid on Saturday and by Monday or Tuesday, the money was gone — all lost to pinball. A Sunday school teacher blamed the game for low class attendance.

Social clubs, parents' groups and religious organizations all expressed support for banning the free-play feature in pinball.

In 1958, a bill was introduced to ban pinball machines outright. A Spartanburg state representative told his fellow lawmakers they were “vicious” devices that promoted juvenile delinquency and gambling.

That bill failed to pass, but a compromise was reached in 1959. Instead of banning pinball outright, a new bill would prohibit players under 18 from using the machines. The bill passed the Legislature and was signed into law that year.

After the law’s passage, pinball-related arrests occasionally appeared in the crime blotter. In 1965, three juveniles were charged with playing pinball at an oil service station in Chester. The oil service station operator was also charged.

Later that year, Chester County police raided a private home in the Baton Rouge area and arrested seven people on card-gambling charges. It was part of a broader crackdown that included four people charged in the city with pinball-machine violations.

But bingo pinball remained a popular pastime for adults. Lawmakers debated legalizing cash payouts for pinball machines in 1972, but the amendment was dropped from the budget at the last minute. A Columbia Record story reported a few years later that flipper pinball was considered “too amateurish” for local bingo pinball gamblers, one of whom competed that year in a tournament in Atlanta, Georgia.

Kyle Spiteri is a product manager for Marco Specialties, a Lexington-based company that bills itself as the largest online retailer of pinball machine parts in the world.

He theorized that bingo pinball was the real target of the 1959 prohibition, but the law was vaguely written and failed to distinguish between flipper and bingo pinball. As to why it had not been repealed previously, he pointed out pinball’s popularity has really only exploded in the last 10 years after several dormant decades.

“The reason why this rule might still be in effect is because people forgot about it,” he said.

No one in recent history has been arrested under the law, Spiteri said, but he’d still like to see the prohibition lifted.

“We’re so far away from the time where most people think of pinball as a scandalous or degenerate form of entertainment,” he said.

Follow @SteveGarrisonPC
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