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The Strange Law That Made America’s Pinball Pastime Illegal For 30 Years

Today, most of us think of pinball as an old-fashioned, harmless game. The blinking machines are a fond childhood memory for many, tucked away in the corner of a favorite arcade or pizza parlor. But if you go far enough back in American history, there was a time when some people viewed pinball as a menace to society. In fact, weird circumstances allowed the authorities to outlaw the game and impose harsh penalties. But after a decades-long prohibition, one champion stood up to the anti-pinball crowd.

A secret up in Harlem

There used to be this quaint little cigar shop up on 106th Street in East Harlem, New York. It dealt out the finest fixes and vices to the neighborhood and always had at least a few heads hanging around.

So no one blinked an eye on March 6th, 1948, when an unfamiliar man with a single penny in his pocket walked into the shop. He was a man with a mission.

The Marvel Pop Up

Without throwing so much as a glance toward the tobacco-lined shelves, the man swaggered directly for his target — the Marvel Pop Up pinball machine.

With one slide of his thumb across the clean copper for luck, the man dropped the penny into the slot and braced for the ball to drop. He was a serious player with his eye on the high score.

Chasing pinball glory

His luck seemed to betray him as his third, fourth, and fifth balls fell back into the machine, the tiny pings punctuating his defeat as he slapped the side of the machine in frustration.

As the sixth and final silver orb plopped down, the man found his stride and sunk the little ball into a hole that won him a free play... but the game was already over.

Under arrest

Instead of making good on his free turn, the man, an undercover New York City police officer, cuffed the owner of the small cigar shop for "unlawful possession of a gambling machine."

Jail time was a hard knock, but it was nothing compared to the fate of The Marvel Pop Up. The authorities considered this arcade cabinet to be a piece of dangerous contraband.