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Pinball Gets Blackballed

Mar 22, 2013 12:06 PM | 1 comment

Call it morbid fascination, call it a sadistic thrill, or call it plain old curiosity, but for better or worse our eyes are often drawn toward scenes of discord and mayhem like moths to a flame.  For evidence one need only note the traffic jams that build up around gory car accidents as passers-by slow down to gawk or the tabloid tales of misfortunes fallen on the otherwise rich and famous that fly off supermarket shelves.  I can only speak for myself here, but I will admit to taking some small pleasure from a moment of glorious, utter destruction.  Who doesn't enjoy a rousing demolition derby?  So it is with a file of pinball machine photographs from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

One can almost hear the shrill crunch of sledgehammer against glass as Police Commissioner William P. O'Brien destroys a pinball machine at a police garage on the corner of Meeker and Morgan Avenues.  And although I wince at the loss of what looks to be a beautiful old machine -- one called the Cyclone, no less, a name that particularly resonates in this borough -- I can't help but admire the gusto with which O'Brien goes about his work.  What crime did the machine commit to deserve such a fate?  What could anybody have against a pinball machine?  Although pinball machines are considered harmless, even quaint, now, in the 1930s and 1940s they were seen as a morally suspect form of gambling and a cash cow for organized crime rackets. 

In this time, it was customary for prizes to be offered to winners at pinball games.  While winning a toy kazoo after shelling out fifteen cents in nickels on a pinball machine may seem like no great crime or calamity, those nickels added up.  According to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which published a series of articles on the pinball racket early in 1936, there were 16,500 pinball machines in the borough pulling in $20,000,000 in nickels every year.  That "take", as the paper called it, was divided up among the owners of the cafes and arcades where pinball was played and the operators who supplied and owned the machines.  Part of it also went to purchasing the prizes that lucky players could win -- prizes which ranged from gum, candy, cigarettes and cigars to finer items like chinaware, cocktail sets, jewelry, and even lamps.  In the eyes of city officials, there was no skill involved in winning these prizes, making the pinball game nothing more than an elaborate slot machine, which had been banned in the city since 1934. 

If pinball machines were in reality gambling machines, then the industry was, as the Eagle put it, "peculiarly open to exploitation by racketeers."  In December of 1935 Justice Frederick L. Hackenburg of the Court of Special Sessions handed down a conviction of a pinball game operator in the Bronx and in his ruling laid out just how racketeering was involved: "There is a central place for people to go for prizes.  They control the entire game in the [Bronx] county through the central places.  The next thing, they will be allotting territories.  The next thing, when somebody walks across the boundary of the territory, we will find somebody in Bronx Park with five bullets in his head.  It is an incipient racket... There is potential murder somewhere in the back of it."  Twelve days later, a Charles Zavatoni was found dead in Long Island City, with two pinball machines in his car.

Mayors LaGuardia and, later, O'Dwyer both mounted campaigns to keep the gambling racket, which included not just pinball machines but also slot machines and roulette wheels, out of New York.  On multiple occasions through the 1930s LaGuardia ordered the seizure of pinball machines throughout the city and revoked the licenses of establishments that housed them.  The matter was repeatedly brought to court to determine if the game could be won with skill or if it was all a matter of luck.  According to New York state penal code, if chance was the dominating factor for success, then the games were essentially gambling, and were illegal.  In 1936 an NYU professor sought to settle the question with a "strictly scientific" study of game.  According to an Eagle article from June 22 of 1936, "97,800 plays were made on nine machines... Students at the Washington Square school made a total of 67,800 plays on the machines.  None of the students had any technique and a great many plays were made blind, with the machines covered.  Dr. Clark when assigned 10 assistants in his department to the special task of developing skill on the same machines.  They played scientifically 30,000 times in their efforts to become good at it."  Nice work if you can get it!  The result of the experiment showed only a 2 to 9 percent better chance at winning for the practiced students.

Above and below, Police Commissioner Louis Valentine strikes a pose to demonstrate his aggressive stance against gambling in the city.  These photographs show the destruction of roulette wheels, slot machines and pinball machines gathered in raids in April of 1935, but our photograph collection shows similar scenes throughout the 1930s and 1940s.

Despite the various raids and arraignments of pinball operators, the games still proliferated throughout the city.  One raid in January of 1942 alone netted 1,802 games.  Aside from possible connections to the criminal underworld, the games were seen by many as morally degrading and a waste of money -- something considered especially intolerable as the country entered war.  The Eagle, in a not-so-rare moment of hyperbole, drew a straight line connecting the frittering away of so much lunch money on pinball machines to our national fate in wartimes saying, "In these days banishment of gambling devices, innocent in appearance yet thorough in thievery, is really an aid to national defense."

Above, police load a truck with pinball machines confiscated at 651 Atlantic Avenue (which fittingly, if Google Maps is to be believed, is now the site of a Party City Store), in 1942.

Our photo collection regarding the pinball controversy largely documents the aftermath of police raids -- the fun that was had smashing up a warehouse full of roulette wheels, slot machines, and pinball games. 

And when the fun of smashing, stomping and shattering is over, what do you do with several hundred pounds of wrecked gaming equipment?  Load it up on a barge, steer it out to sea, and dump it in the ocean, of course. 

Mapping Brooklyn's Baseball Heritage

Mar 15, 2013 4:53 PM | 0 comments

For the past couple of days I've been laying the groundwork for a map of Brooklyn's baseball past. It's a daunting task, our borough being so rich in baseball lore, but with the help of many terrific books in our collection, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and our directories I've managed to come up with quite a few points of interest. Thanks to Google maps I've been able to overlay these historic baseball sites with the locations of our branch libraries, with the hope that the wandering baseball scholar will find herself -- if in need of reference materials or a restroom -- a library nearby to visit.

Aerial shot of Ebbets field

So what can you expect to find here? Well, the childhood home of Joe Torre, the address where Sandy Koufax lived while a student at Lafayette High School, the building where Duke Snider and Gil Hodges first roomed when they lived in Brooklyn. In addition to these more recent points of interest, you will also be able to discover where in Carroll Gardens the mid-19th century club, the Charter Oaks, played and what kind of uniforms they wore (pink shirts, pink and white striped pants).

Keep in mind though that this is certainly a Beta of all Beta maps; in time I hope to tinker with it to make a more comprehensive, detailed, and error-free version. If you're scoring at home and you notice I've made an error, feel free to point it out in the comments section below. I have yet to completely annotate each point of interest, so be patient, in time they will each be fleshed out and links to relevant books will be included. All of the invaluable texts I used to begin this map can be found here at the Brooklyn Collection and include the following titles:

Long Before the Dodgers: Baseball in Brooklyn, 1855-1884 by James L. Terry
Ballparks of North America by Michale Benson
Baseball Legends of Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery by Peter J. Nash
Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy by Jane Leavy
Praying for Gil Hodges by Thomas Oliphant
When the Dodgers were Bridegrooms by Ronald G. Shafer
The Duke of Flatbush by Duke Snider with Bill Gilbert
Baseball's Peerless Semipros by Thomas Bartel

 So here ya go... play ball!

View Brooklyn Baseball Tour in a larger map

Brooklyn Connections Teacher Workshop

Mar 13, 2013 3:08 PM | 0 comments

On Monday, 3/11/13, Brooklyn Connections had the pleasure of welcoming 28 educators from throughout the City for a teacher workshop on the Civil Rights Movement in Brooklyn. The day started with a lecture from Dr. Brian Purnell, an Assistant Professor at Bowdoin College who has just published Fighting Jim Crow in the County of Kings, a book examining the impact of the Brooklyn Chapter of Congress Of Racial Equality (CORE). The Brooklyn Collection has been fortunate enough to have had Dr. Purnell come and speak at similar events several times before, and it is always a pleasure to hear him. As one educator wrote on their post-workshop “Dr. Purnell is the best!” We at the Collection wholeheartedly agree.

Dr. Purnell’s lecture focused primarily on the effectiveness of CORE within Brooklyn, and the idea that we should not necessarily teach the Civil Rights Movement as a ‘finished’ topic that ended in victories all around, but rather as a continuous struggle that is far more complex and interesting for students to interact with.  Additionally, it happened in our “backyards” and offers students an opportunity to make a tangible connection to their local history.

Throughout the lecture, questions from our attending educators prompted discussion of such diverse matters as urban renewal, gentrification, Robert Moses, geographic differences within the national Movement, red-lining and ghettoization. Several shared their own memories with the movement and observations on how Brooklyn has changed within their lifetimes.

After a quick lunch, our librarian Ben Gocker took all of the teachers on a tour of the Collection, including our small but impressive map room and a trip down to the “Morgue” – the archived newspaper clippings from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

The Brooklyn Collection has a great selection of primary source documents (photographs, emails, oral histories…) on the Civil Rights Movement, and we have assembled a select few on different protests for teachers to use in their own lesson planning. The binders also include suggested readings of books contained within the Collection and example activity sheets for source analysis as well as some suggested lesson plans for teachers to use with their classes.

We ended our day with educators sharing different ideas and activities they had tried with students in the past. Dr. Purnell took advantage of the time with us to ask teachers about their experiences teaching the Civil Rights Movement in their classrooms, and the give-and-take nature of the discussion was so interesting that we ran over time, and could easily have prolonged the day further.

Feedback from the event was extremely positive, and many of the educators felt that they had learnt a lot throughout the day, both from Dr. Purnell and from the other teachers in the room.

We had a wonderful day with everyone, and really appreciated the highly dynamic group of educators who were assembled in our collection. We’d like to extend a hearty thank you to everyone involved and hope to see them again for another workshop in the near future!


Brooklyn Visual Heritage

Mar 5, 2013 11:10 AM | 1 comment

Brooklyn Visual Heritage is here! A collaborative digitization project that aims to make historic images of Brooklyn more accessible, Brooklyn Visual Heritage was created as part of Project CHART, which you can read more about here

Brooklyn Visual Heritage includes digital images from the archival collections of Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Historical Society and the Brooklyn Museum.  While it does not include all of the digital images available at each insitution, it does bring together over 10,000 images of Brooklyn culture, landscape and history.  With free text searching you can find images from multiple institutions at one time or if you want to move at a more leisurely pace you can just scroll through our gallery looking for images that catch your attention.  We also offer advanced searching of our metadata for users looking for more detail.  We invite you to come in and search any way you want.

Maybe you are interested in Coney Island
















Or Gardens




























Or Crime



















Maybe a specific photographer interests you, like Anders Goldfarb.














 E. E. Rutter








 or Jamel Shabazz








At Brooklyn Visual Heritage, though, our favorite thing to search for is cats.  



























Whatever it is about Brooklyn you love, there is a good chance Brooklyn Visual Heritage has something to show you.  Please search around and let us know what you find.