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Play a 'mean pinball' at the Pacific Pinball Museum | Bartell's Backroads

Play and learn about the long history of American pinball games. You might be surprised what you don't know.

ALAMEDA, Calif. — If classic rock band “The Who” were to run into a modern-day pinball wizard, they would most likely find them at 1510 Webster Street in Alameda. Though it looks like an arcade, the game filled room is actually a museum. The Pacific Pinball Museum to be exact.

“The oldest one we have is from 1869,” said museum founder Michael Shiess.

The Pacific Pinball Museum is loaded with antique, rare and modern machines - a little something from every era of pinball. Shiess fell in love with the game as a kid and became passionate about the long history of pinball.

“It’s so entrenched in our American history and culture, and most people don’t even know that pinball has been here since we declared our independence,” said Shiess.

Before it was called pinball, the game was called bagatelle. It was a French invention brought over to the U.S. before the American Revolution as a way to pass time and make a little money. 

“It was pretty much a gambling game,” said Shiess. “Why? Well, people wanted escapism. You play for penny and you could win a dime. That was a lot.”

Over time, pinball became wildly popular, especially when the mob started buying machines up during the Great Depression. In 1942, New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia put the kibosh on the game.

“Mayor LaGuardia said, 'Hey, these things are just as bad as slot machines because little kids are playing them,'” said Shiess.

Pinball machine arcades were outlawed in cities across the country, including Alameda.

“Until 2014, we got the law removed. We had to go into city council,” said Shiess.

Today, the Pacific Pinball Museum highlights the evolution of the machines as they moved from springs and bells to electro-mechanics. As pinball technology got better, so did the graphic art adorning them. The colorful images were not only key to marketing but key to the game as well.

“It also integrates into the theme and into the story as you play the game,” said Shiess.

You won’t win any money or prizes at the Pacific Pinball Museum but after paying your admission, all games are free. That’s a good thing if you want to learn how to play a mean pinball.

“It’s doesn’t take any brawn. It just takes an understanding of gravity and vectors,” said Shiess.

The Pacific Pinball Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is $22 for adults and $12 for children.

MORE MUSEUMS FROM THE BACKROADS: The International Banana Museum is so appealing: one man's quest to collect all that is banana.

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