“Big Jim” Elkins arrives in Portland after serving five years in the Arizona State Penitentiary for shooting a cop during a botched robbery. A small-time pimp and drug dealer, he will eventually become one of Portland’s most powerful crime bosses. His racket of choice? Pinball.
Pinball, today, may be a harmless barroom pastime (and a brilliant theme for a late-’60s rock opera), but in ’30s-era Portland, it was an “epidemic” sweeping the city and, in the eyes of some, a dangerous gateway to youth gambling. In those days, many machines were like slot machines, paying out cash and other redeemable prizes. Reformers saw no distinction between pinball and gambling, claiming pinball was a game of pure luck, not skill. The city, a 1936 letter to the Oregonian chided, should not condone the stripping of nickels “from the credulous, the optimistic, the perennially hopeful.”
The law eventually agreed. In January 1937, Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge James W. Crawford banned the machines, branding them as lottery games. “The element of chance predominates in the play of these games,” he declared, modestly acknowledging “the small element of skill” involved. Portland continued to rake in $120,000 annually on license fees for “amusement only” pinball machines until 1951, when Mayor Dorothy “No Sin” Lee declared even such chaste machines illegal. (After years of injunctions and appeals by operators and license-fee-coveting city commissioners, the state Supreme Court upheld the ban in 1954.) Lamenting the many small businesses this ruling would kill, one restaurateur could only shake his head: “Portland is getting to be a city that’s dead.”
Stumptown began rising from that ominous grave when the ban was lifted in 1976. Today our city is home to 415 machines and counting, according to the Portland Pinball Map (portlandpinballmap.com), which receives more than 2,000 hits a day. Scott Wainstock, a co-founder of the website, says luck is only a small part of the game: “It’s incredibly hard, knowing where to shoot the ball, how to keep it up. You’re battling against gravity.” —MP
Crime boss Al Winter becomes the undisputed king of all gambling operations in Portland. According to crime writer Phil Stanford, in a scene worthy of The Sopranos, when two small-time crooks try to move in on the action Winter warns them, “The problem is, you didn’t get my permission. Now I want 50 percent of everything you got, and if you do it again, we’ll break your hands.”
A high-profile downtown murder inspires two major reports on vice in the Rose City—damning testaments to the corruption of Mayor Earl Riley. Outraged voters send Riley packing in the next election.
Dorothy “No Sin” Lee becomes Portland’s first female mayor and launches an all-out war on vice. Within the next few years, Lee outlaws slots and gambling in private clubs—including pinball machines, deemed a dangerous “gateway” to youth gambling.