On a fateful day in the 1960s, Roger Sharpe moseyed into his fraternity brother’s favorite hangout spot: a burger place just off the University of Wisconsin’s main campus. During this period in young Sharpe’s life, he studied marketing. His fabulous mustache had yet to sprout across his upper lip, and he lacked three qualities all his brothers seemed to share. For one, confidence. Two, balance. And three, the ability to wow a crowd with his pinball-playing skills.
But that was all about to change. As Sharpe leaned against the diner counter, he watched in amazement as one of his closest friends effortlessly balanced a burger, fries, soda, and cigarette while playing an almost flawless game of pinball. When it was time for his friend to hurry to class, he locked eyes with Sharpe.
“Finish the game for me?”
And from that moment on, Sharpe was hooked.
Roger Sharpe: The Unsettled Writer
After Sharpe’s graduation in the early ’70s, he accepted an editorial position with GQ magazine and moved to New York. While this should have been a period of excitement and great change, Sharpe found himself in a rut. His first marriage ruptured and failed. Not to mention, the monster that lurks under almost every writer’s bed — writer’s block — began to haunt him. And everything he did write? Well, he certainly wasn’t proud of it.
In an effort to regain his solace and remember how to believe in himself, Sharpe returned to the one element of his life he felt he had truly mastered: pinball. At work, he began to write a series of short research articles, mostly so he had an excuse to have a pinball machine in his apartment. However, the more he researched, the more his passion grew. Later, in 1977, these short articles and feature stories eventually evolved into his book Pinball!
Covering the origins of pinball up until 1978, Sharpe’s debut book explains the history of the game and the allure of a small, silver ball. But Sharpe knew that providing factual information simply wasn’t enough to capture the true essence of pinball. His book also includes his funny, occasionally cathartic personal experiences with the game as well as excellent photography. Photographer James Hamilton captured photos of the pinball machines as well as the surrounding arcades, restaurants, laundromats, and people who often frequented them. Today, Pinball! is an out-of-print collectible that serves as a time capsule of an era when pinball, instead of video games, ruled the day.
However, once Sharpe found his footing in the journalistic world, he still had one problem. Across the entirety of New York City, or any metropolitan area for that matter, there wasn’t a single pinball machine to be found. Why? Because New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia outlawed the game altogether.
A Ban? On Pinball?
Starting in the 1940s, pinball was involved in a decades-long ban across numerous major cities, including New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, because it was depicted as “sinful.” During this time, many lawmakers and government leaders associated the game with the rapidly popularized gambling industry. Some of the companies that designed and manufactured pinball machines also produced slot machines, and pinball seemed to blur the line between gaming and gambling.
In 1941, Mayor La Guardia spearheaded the first citywide ban on pinball, claiming that it was a game of chance rather than skill. La Guardia made the ban one of his top priorities during his mayoral term. As the head of the New York Police Department, he ordered the officers to launch prohibition-esque raids and dump the (nearly 2000!) culpable machines into the Hudson River. In a time of moral panic, La Guardia hoped that his seemingly absurd act would reduce alcohol and drug consumption, protect children from the lure of gambling and crime, and stop… Italian mob activity? Yep, you heard that right.
(To be fair, La Guardia wasn’t completely off. In the 1980s, a Chicago-based pinball manufacturing company, Bally Manufacturing, nearly lost its casino license after it was discovered that Gerardo “Jerry” Catena, a reputed mob leader, was one of the company’s original investors.)
Roger Sharpe Saves the Game
By 1976, Sharpe fell aloof and wistful. It seemed nearly impossible that the 35-year-long ban on his favorite game would ever end. Nevertheless, just like the fateful day in the University of Wisconsin burger place, Sharpe’s luck changed once again.
Throughout his time at GQ magazine, Sharpe continued to write journalistic stories about pinball. When one of his articles was published in The New York Times, Sharpe successfully caught the attention of the Music and Amusement Association. They desperately needed his help.
That’s how, in April of 1976, Sharpe found himself in front of a pinball machine in the New York City Council chambers. Looking around, he stared at the faces of the cold, reluctant council members. He lifted a finger and pointed at the target he planned to send the silver ball through. If he did so successfully, he could prove that pinball was, in fact, a game of skill, not chance.
Pulling the plunger back the perfect, precise amount, Sharpe sent the ball rolling across the field. His eyes flickered back and forth as it bounced across the machine. He held his breath, squeezed his eyes shut, and then, alas! Sharpe’s “sharpe-shooting” skills sent the ball straight through the target he promised it would. After several more correct calls, the council members had seen enough. Every member voted in favor of lifting the ban. Mayor Abraham Beame signed it into law.
In the hearts of pinball historians, connoisseurs, and professionals, Sharpe’s shot will always be remembered as the shot that ended the pinball ban forever.
Looking to the Future
Shortly after his famous testimony in front of the New York City Council, Sharpe packed up his things and returned to his hometown in Illinois. There, he decided it was time to end his journalism career. Instead, and perhaps more suitably, Sharpe joined and worked in the gaming industry for 26 years. Today, Sharpe leads his own gaming company, Sharpe Communications. The first pinball machine his company designed, The Sharpshooter, displays an image of Sharpe wearing a cowboy outfit and his same fantastic mustache.
After Sharpe’s first divorce, he met and fell in love with Ellen, an artist and single mother. Marked by their marriage, the world has seen the very first “pinball family.” Sharpe, Ellen, and their two sons all play competitive pinball. According to the International Flipper Pinball Association, Zach and Josh Sharpe are ranked 5th and 18th worldwide.
57 years later, in March of 2023, Sharpe was given the opportunity to watch his legacy on the big screens. Directed by Meredith and Austin Bragg, Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game tells the story of Sharpe’s turbulent life. At the Heartland Film Festival, it won the Overall Audience Choice and the Directorial Debut awards. In other words, the film is as charming and clever as Sharpe’s real-life story.
So, if you’re wondering if something as simple as pinball can change a person’s life, the answer is yes! Sometimes, the story of a lifetime comes from taking a chance on our unique skills. And maybe a little bit of luck.
If you’re looking for a game without the flashing lights and blaring noises, look no further! Click here for eight bookish board games you can play with all of your fellow bibliophiles.