Pinball in the City of Boston: A Historical Look

Pinball in the City of Boston: A Historical Look

Pinball has seen something of a revival in Boston in recent years. With that said, pinball has had an interesting history in Boston, throughout New England, and across the United States.

Pinball and Illegal Gambling

Most people today likely think of pinball as being an entertaining game, a game that does require at least some degree of skill. In the 21st century, that is a fair assessment of pinball.

Back in the 1920s, 1930s, and into the 1940s, pinball was not quite as clearly a game of skill. Pinball machines of that era didn't come complete with the flippers are player can operate in order to guide a ball, at least to some degree. Flippers were introduced to pinball machines in the United States in 1947. The only real element of skill associated with pinball during the Jazz Era and through much of the Great Depression was the manner in which the plunger was manipulated by a player to shoot the ball in the first instance.

Ultimately, cities like Boston, New York, and nearly all major cities in the United States criminalized the playing of pinball. These ordinances deemed pinballs to be games of chance, or a form of gambling, and hence illegal.

The enforcement of the anti-pinball laws in Boston wasn't particularly strident. The same cannot be said of every U.S. city where pinball was criminalized. For example, in New York at the start of the pinball prohibition, the Mayor of New York City made enforcing the pinball ordinance his number one law enforcement priority.

Quite like during Prohibition, pinball went "underground" in many locations in the United States. However, unlike Prohibition when people went to speakeasies, some of which were very upscale, pinball machines were consigned to less desirable places. For example, in many cities, pinball machines were tucked in the back of establishments like adult book stores.

By the mid-1970s (yes, the 1970s) anti-pinball ordinances finally were off the books everywhere in the United States. Pinball enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in the 1980s, particularly in arcades.

Boston Pinball Leagues

In recent years, pinball leagues have become increasingly popular in Boston. There are two major organizations that supports league play in Boston. These are the Boston Pinball Association and the New England Pinball League.

A great deal of the league play takes place in bars, pubs, and taverns in Boston. There are two basic types of pinball league play in Boston. First, there is "selfie" league competition. This play includes individuals who compete against other individuals. Second, there is also team play in some leagues in Boston as well. This competition is rather like the team dart tournaments that are highly popular across the United States, including in cities throughout Massachusetts.

Summertime Arcades in the Boston Area

Arcades remain popular in Boston in the summertime. Some of these iconic, vintage arcades hearken back decades. These arcades feature pinball.

Pinball machines at the summertime arcades typically are not involved in league play. With that said, during the summer, there are likely to be special pinball events or competitions at one or another the arcades still operating in Boston.

A Proverbial Pinball Museum

In Boston, there exists what is a proverbial pinball museum, thanks to the dedication and tireless efforts of a Bostonian named Charlie Webster. In his basement, Webster has collected 25 pinball machines. Rather than calling the space a museum, Webster actually calls it his “Wicked Pissa Pinball Pit.”

One interesting feature of Webster's pinball pit, or museum, is the fact that it is not a private spot. He welcomes people to his home and his collection of pinball machines. Moreover, Webster most definitely does not have a look but don't touch policy in regard to his pinball machine collection.

Throughout the pinball league season, competitors are welcomed into Webster's home to play on his machines. These league play opportunities occur on Friday night during pinball league season.

Webster exemplifies a trend that has quietly taken at least some speed among people who collect pinball machines. With that said, a person would be hard pressed to find another individual like Webster who has collected such a number of pinball machines and who has opened his or her home up to people, including strangers, to participate in pinball league play. According to Webster, who currently is in his mid-fifties, he has not intention to shut down his pinball pit or museum to the public. Nor does he have any desire to not welcome league players into his home.

About The Author
Jessica Kane is a writer for The Pinball Company, the best online source for new, used, and refurbished pinball machines, arcade cabinets, and more!


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