Still going full-tilt

Another maker of the machines they love has closed, but these pinball wizards play on

Baltimore ...or Less

November 21, 1999|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,Sun Staff

Pinball was supposed to have died years ago.

There were citywide bans in the 1940s that claimed pinball was gambling. There were attacks from Asteroids, Donkey Kong and Pac-Man in the 1980s. But every time, pinball fought back and won a bonus round.

This time, though, the game appears headed toward that dark hole between the flippers.

WMS Industries, one of the world's last two pinball makers, shut down its production line Friday, leaving only Stern Pinball to make a dwindling number of games.

But if you think pinball is dead, head to North Baltimore on a Tuesday night and step into an arcade sales room where five guys, one guy's wife, and another guy's mother remind the world that the game is indeed alive and well.

OK, alive if not quite well.

They call themselves the Free State Pinball Association: two Maryland clubs (the other is in Columbia) and a third in northern Virginia. The Baltimore branch is the smallest, made up primarily of guys in their 20s and 30s. One guy is a chiropractor, one a manager at Best Buy, the others work with computers. The guy's mom is a cashier at Giant.

What brings them together is the competition -- against each other and against the machine. "Most people think pinball is luck, and luck is part of it, but it's still physics," says league president Greg Hammond, a 27-year-old who paid $1,800 for a game called "Star Trek: The Next Generation" so he could practice at home.

So far this season, his strategy has worked. At the moment, he's on top of the league, a pinball wizard who wears pressed navy slacks, comfortable black shoes and a pager on his belt.

Hammond isn't nearly old enough to remember pinball's huge popularity in the 1930s. Or even its revival in 1969 when The Who was on Broadway, and again in 1975, when the rock opera "Tommy," about "a deaf, dumb and blind kid who sure played a mean pinball" was made into a movie.

Pinball evolved from a French game, bagatelle, that came across the Atlantic during the Revolution. It was a wildly popular distraction during the Great Depression, when seven balls cost a penny. The '40s, '50s and '60s brought innovations that cemented the game a place in America's free time: flippers, bumpers, electric sound, light, dropped targets, fanciful graphics, multiple playing fields, multiple players, multiple balls in play.

Many of the innovations came from a company founded by Harry Williams in 1942. The Williams and Bally lines were considered Cadillacs of the trade, and WMS Industries made them until Friday, when production on the "Star Wars: Episode 1" model ended. The company's video and casino games are the moneymakers now.

The Baltimore players fear their hobby has become like network TV, choked by so many choices on cable. They understand all too well that the Friday closing leaves only one ball left in play, so to speak.

When it's gone, the game is over.

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