When pinball was invented nearly a century ago, machines had no flippers, and the game was based mostly on chance — meaning low-down, hooch-swilling plunger-pullers often used it for gambling. In the 1930s, the city of Oakland, California tried to rid itself of this scourge and officially outlawed the game.
That didn't really work. Pinball, of course, is played for recreation in bars and arcades everywhere, including the Bay Area, and in recognition of that, the City Council's public safety committee is moving to officially legalize it.
"I think it's great. People love pinball," said Adrien Smadbeck, a cook at Hi-Life, an Uptown pub that has 13 pinball machines and hosts a women's pinball league. "It's different than a video game. With pinball, I see a lot of people socializing and making friends. I'm glad the city is doing this."
Oakland wasn't the only city to greet the game's flashing lights and white-knuckle action with good old-fashioned moral panic. Machines were banned in New York City until 1976, when ace player Roger Sharpe pulled a Babe Ruth, calling his shot in front of the City Council to demonstrate that pinball was a game of skill, and should therefore be allowed.
Reminiscent of another New York sporting legend, he declared that if he could make the ball go through the middle lane on his next turn, then he would have proven that pinball is a game of skill- essentially, he was calling his shot, and staking the future of pinball on it. Pulling back the plunger, he let that silver ball fly. Upon contact with a flipper, the ball zoomed up and down, through the middle lane. Just as Sharpe had said it would. He had become the Babe Ruth of pinball and, with that, proved that there was indeed skill to the game of pinball. The council immediately overturned the ban on pinball. By playing a "mean pinball," Roger Sharpe had saved the game.
Oakland City Council's public safety committee will likely pass a measure allowing pinball today, which will then be heard by the full Council.