From their emergence in the early 1930s, pinball machines were associated with gambling, so they were banned from many Michigan communities, including Detroit.

Before Flippers, Pinball Had A Bad Reputation

When the first pinball games emerged in the 1930s, they were more random than they became later when you could control the action more with flippers. When the ball was dropped on the early incarnation of the pinball machine, the action relied more on gravity and was totally random. That meant it was perfect for illegal gambling, as you could place odds as to where the ball was going to go.

Wes Hicks via Unsplash
Wes Hicks via Unsplash

According to

Players gambled on games, and operators handed out prizes from free games and gum all the way up to jewelry and chinaware. While law enforcement and civic groups looked askance at pinball for its gambling connections, churches and school boards also argued that it corrupted the morals of America’s children by encouraging them to steal coins, skip school in order to play and even go hungry by wasting their money on the frivolous pursuit.

The association with bad behavior meant that pinball was banned from many American cities, including Detroit.

The difference ended there.

Senad Palic via Unsplash
Senad Palic via Unsplash

Detroit Kept Its Pinball Ban In Effect Until 1972

Although most American cities had lifted the pinball in the early '50s when flippers were introduced to the game, thus making it more about the skill of the player, Detroit held firm, and continued to ban pinball all the way until September of 1972, 50 years ago, when the table top games were considered legal again.

Even though a Detroit Police Vice Squad member testified before the City Council that he didn't know why they were banned in the first place, the Council was cautious about allowing the tables back into the city, adding that pinball couldn't award free games as a prize for a high score because 'that would still be considered gambling'.

Only New York City had a longer pinball ban, keeping theirs in effect until 1976.

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