Howard Co. pinball enthusiasts relive past, keep hobby alive
Free State Pinball Association league meets at Volleyball House in Elkridge
Lee Wilk hones his skills on the "Doctor Who" pinball game in preparation for his competition play for the Free State Pinball Association. (Baltimore Sun photo by Gene Sweeney Jr. / November 16, 2011)
"Pinball was a huge part of my life when I was 16," the Ellicott City resident said between turns in Free State Pinball Association's weekly league play in Elkridge.
"It's that whole nostalgic, coming-of-age thing," said Joe Schober, FSPA president, who drives each Wednesday from Great Falls, Va., to play in the 10-week tournaments held at Volleyball House, which has eight machines. "We're trying to recapture our social structure and fun."
Sergio Johnson, the association's vice president, is equally sentimental about the hobby. As a collector who has amassed 35 machines in the basement of his Woodbine home, he says there's more to the club's agenda than reliving the past.
Though members share memories and trivia when they gather for serious-but-friendly competition, they also aim to prolong the life of a dying pastime by encouraging people of all ages to join them in playing while they still have the chance.
"Pinball's still out there, but it's at the tail end of its popularity," Johnson lamented. "Sometimes people really don't miss something until it's gone."
Every mom-and-pop operation, 7-Eleven and department store had pinball machines in the 1970s, when the coin-operated amusements were in their heyday, said Johnson, a 49-year-old real estate professional.
Introduced without flippers in the 1930s, the games were initially looked down upon by those who felt operators were stealing nickels from unsuspecting players who couldn't possibly control the game's outcome.
When flippers were added after World War II, pinball's reputation and popularity climbed. It coasted along with few changes until 1975, when the addition of solid-state electronics allowed manufacturers to add speech, sounds and memory, Johnson said. Games became more interesting and more complex, breathing new life into the hobby.
"But everything changed again in 1979 when Pong was introduced," Johnson says of the first commercial video game. For pinball aficionados who weren't ready to abandon their hobby, the new pastime held few attractions.
"With video games, once you learned the pattern, you broke the game," Johnson said. "In pinball, the ball is wild, and every game is different."
Schober, a computer programmer who met his wife, Julie, at an event a year after the league was founded 16 years ago, describes pinball as a game that combines skill and chance.
"Another huge attraction is the knowledge of physics principles" that some players use to strategize game play, Schober said. "And some people liken the spin and kinetics of pinball to pool."
Schwartz, now a bank vice president, splits his allegiance between pinball and video games, which he's played "ever since they were invented."
Like many pinball players, he stands with one foot planted firmly in front of the other, cups his hands at the two front corners of the machine and goes into a nearly trancelike state of intense focus.
"Balance is very important," said Dave Hubbard, league commissioner. "That stance," he said while watching Schwartz play on a '70s game called Grand Prix, "is an athletic position that allows you to throw your hips into the game."
Hubbard knows a player who places one foot on top of the other so he can pivot with one motion, helping him use his body weight as a tool to nudge the machine to alter the course of the steel balls.
"There's no wrong way to do it. That's the beauty of it," he said.
Bernie Kelm, who has been playing pinball for 31 of his 41 years, said his son stood on a chair to play pinball at 18 months, before he could even talk. Kelm used to plop him down on his machine's glass top to keep track of him while he played. That baby-sitting arrangement had an accidental benefit, he said: His son learned to count to a billion at an early age by watching Dad rack up the points.
"He's 12 now and he plays in the league," said Kelm, a Glen Burnie resident who helped start FSPA in 1995. Sixty members play at three regional locations: Elkridge, College Park and Fairfax, Va.
Pinball surged again in popularity in the 1990s, but the wave was short-lived, Johnson said. New pinball machines are being sold to collectors instead of to operators, he said, adding that pinball machines will never again gain ground on video games.
"It's not a good thing and it's not a bad thing," he said, adding there are still some games he'd like to add to his collection.
"I will certainly be disappointed [when this ends], but sometimes things just run their course."