LaGuardia Kicks Organized Crime in the Pinballs
On January 21, 1942, New York City Fiorello LaGuardia signed a bill that horrified children across the city. The Mayor outlaws pinball games. Pinball!! As the United States was entering the Second World War, that was the top of the legislative agenda in New York City. LaGuardia seemed to have a real problem with these arcade games popular with The Big Apple’s youth.
The story is a bit more complicated than a simple vendetta against the seemingly unassuming machines. LaGuardia was a crusader for many populist causes, but his hatred of the mafia was legendary. He attacked the mob in anyway he could, trying to “drive them out of town”. He went after any industry that they were involved in using legislation and the NYPD. One of these industries was, of course, gambling. He had literally taken a sledgehammer to slot machines in the 30’s.
He saw pinball as the next iteration of the slot machine. The pinball table had been invented in 1931 but was seen as a game of chance. The “flipper” mechanism was not actually invented until 1947 so kids would bang fruitlessly on the machine in an attempt to manipulate the silver orb as it traversed the table, indifferent to their machinations.
Organized crime saw an opportunity here. They often operated and installed machines, setting up small de facto gambling clubs for New York’s youth as they went. Kids would gamble their pocket change and lunch money on the games. Prizes started out small, like a free game or a piece of candy. It soon ramped up to money, jewelry, even household goods such as chinaware. Not all, and maybe not most, pinball machines were operated by OC guys, but it was enough for LaGuardia.
On January 21, he sent the NYPD out on raids that resembled Prohibition operations. Cops dragged the brightly adorned tables into the street and began smashing them to bits. The metal was recycled for military use as the war effort ramped up.
Soon other cities such as Chicago and Los Angles followed LaGuardia’s lead. Bans were put in place around the country. The war on pinball became a nationwide phenomenon. No pinball loving kid was safe from the eye of the local beat cop.
How long did this ban on pinball machines last? Let’s just say that if The Who’s Pinball Wizard was working his crazy flipper fingers in NYC, he might have a problem with the NYPD. Tommy would be a walkthrough in Manhattan Central Booking until the law was repealed in 1976.