When pinballs paid off

Baltimore Glimpses

September 03, 1991|By GILBERT SANDLER

THE BIGGEST legal gambling game in Baltimore is, of course, the Maryland State Lottery, which just paid out $20 million to a single winner.

In 1938, the biggest legal gambling game was pinball. It paid winners in metal slugs, each redeemable for items like kewpie dolls, cigars, boxes of candy and radios.

Pinball was Baltimore's gambling fascination of the late 1930s. An observer describing its popularity wrote: "Go around the corner to the drugstore or tavern or hotel lobby and you will find one or two or 10 pinball machines and a crowd around them. Formerly inconspicuous doorways now overflow at the rush hour with pinball fans, and in the evenings many proprietors of taverns and dance spots have sent their business on an upward swing by installing a machine or two."

Pinball, of course, has been around for decades and is still a popular game. But in 1937 the General Assembly saw an opportunity to garner some tax revenue. It passed legislation allowing payoffs in merchandise.

By the next year there were an estimated 2,000 pinball machines in Baltimore and 6,000 statewide -- all licensed and taxable. Although most of the machines were manufactured elsewhere, mainly in Chicago, one, called the "Jostle," was made in Baltimore.

In those years the machines were smaller than today's, and they lacked the lights and sounds of today's electronic wizards. Some traditionalists prefer the old spring-operated models. One thing you could do with them was cheat just a bit by lifting a corner and coaxing the ball into the most strategic run across the board (a race track, golf course, hockey rink, baseball diamond) and force a win.

This technique was called "tilting." But manufacturers weren't so dumb. They installed devices to detect the cheating and flash "Tilt!" on the scoreboard, thus canceling the game. For seasoned players the challenge was to lift the machine so gently as to avoid the "tilt" alarm. For players in dark concentration it was life on the edge.

The law allowing merchandise payoffs was repealed in 1939. Money payoffs, of course, have always been illegal. If you believe they weren't made in the 1930s -- or yesterday -- Glimpses has a bridge we want to sell you.

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