If you were a fan of the classic ABC television sitcom “Happy Days,” you know The Fonz had a special relationship with two particular machines: his trusty ’49 Triumph motorcycle, and the pinball machine in Al’s diner.
But it may surprise you to know that when Fonzie was playing that pinball machine, in 1950s Milwaukee, Wisc, he was breaking the law — and so was Al.
It’s a bit hard for younger Oregonians to believe, but just a few dozen years ago pinball was illegal in most large American cities — including Portland.
When coin-op pinball was first developed, it was mostly a game of chance, not skill — at least until flippers were added in the late 1940s. But even then, authorities still looked at a pinball machine as a straight-up slot machine with some extra gewgaws attached to it to fool players into thinking it was innocuous.
And they may have been right about that — at least, in some cases. But after 1949, the illegal status of pinball was going to have some profound effects on Oregon’s underworld, especially in and around Portland. It would set the stage for a semi-comical battle between two of the Beaver State’s scuzziest racketeers.
Games like pinball had been around since at least the 1700s, but the coin-operated game was developed in the early 1930s, and by the end of the Great Depression they were a familiar sight in bars and malt shops pretty much everywhere.
But slot machines of the “one-armed bandit” type were getting to be a familiar sight, too. And as city authorities started cracking down on these in the 1940s, they also took a look at the pinball games.
To be fair, pinball was mostly luck-based at first. That made it great for gambling operators, since it provided protection against some wizardly player coming to the table and using his or her mad skills to take them to the cleaners. So a number of bars had started letting patrons place bets and cash in extra games that they might win.
They’d quit doing that by the late 1940s, as improvements to the games had dramatically increased the amount of skill that was involved in the game and decreased the role of luck. But by then it was too late. The public-relations war had already been lost.
So in ’49, when the city of Portland outlawed the silver balls, pinball’s reputation was dark and sordid — and alluring. Authorities considered them “gateway machines” used by wicked, scheming men to lure innocent youths into the underworld of one-armed bandits, covert blackjack tables and other underworld wickedness. Rebellious youths, attracted by the forbidden-fruit effect, considered them great fun.
All of which meant that by the mid-1950s — the beginning of pinball’s glory days — pinball in the Portland area was strictly an outlaw enterprise. Games were supplied by criminal syndicates, sometimes in collaboration with corrupt local officials. And when those syndicates started fighting for market share, things could get pretty exciting.
The Pinball Wars
The pinball wars in the north Willamette Valley mostly centered around two racketeers, who supplied the machines that restaurants and bars used. There was Stan Terry, an old bootlegger whose pinball-and-slots syndicate covered mostly establishments south of Portland, in the Milwaukie area; and “Big Jim” Elkins, the self-styled vice boss of Portland itself.
The two of them, in a nutshell, coveted one another’s rackets. They started out in the early 1950s with surprise raids. Elkins, with five or six heavily armed goons, would barge into a bar with Terry’s machines in it, take all the money and as many of the machines as they could haul and disappear into the night. Then Terry would respond in kind. Apparently nobody got hurt in any of these tit-for-tat raids, but then again, they weren’t getting anywhere either.
So around 1955, Elkins escalated the battle by traveling to Seattle and asking the Teamsters Union for help. The Teamsters Union at that time was essentially an organized-crime syndicate, and was already running some machines in Portland under the direction of a short, stocky crook named Tom “Blubber” Maloney.
The Teamster Scheme
Elkins couldn’t get an appointment with the head of the Teamsters in Seattle, so he reached out to Maloney instead. Holed up in the Roosevelt Hotel on Park Street, the two of them hatched a scheme: They’d set up a Teamsters-affiliated pinball operators union, lock Terry out of it and shut him down by denying him access to union trucking services and by throwing picket lines around his customers’ joints.
This was soon done, and a few weeks later, the Coin Machine Men of Oregon was formed. Almost immediately, it moved on the enemy: It summoned a picket line of Teamsters around the Mt. Hood Café, a place with a bunch of Stan Terry’s machines in it.
The Vegas Mafia
It was looking like the end for Stan Terry. Once the Teamsters started shutting down his customers, his remaining clients would leave in a hurry. In desperation, he went and talked to an old underworld buddy who’d worked for legendary former head Portland racketeer Al Winter before he’d left to open the Sahara Casino in Las Vegas. Terry’s friend had another friend who knew Hy Goldbaum, the pit boss at the Flamingo Casino — the mobbed-up joint in Vegas that had been started by the late Bugsy Siegel. Goldbaum personally escorted Terry to Seattle and introduced him to the head of the Teamsters — the guy Elkins hadn’t been able to get an appointment with.
Some cash changed hands, and then a telephone rang and the pickets were pulled from around the Mount Hood. Just like that, Elkins had lost, and now the Coin Machine Men of Oregon was the group on the outside, facing the prospect of pickets and “hot cargo” restrictions on its slots and pinball machines. At that point, it was checkmate: Elkins had no choice but to sell his machines and routes to Terry for whatever he could get. Terry, with the Teamsters, had run him out of the business.
But Elkins wasn’t done yet. He had another scheme up his sleeve to get the business back. All the business. And it was very simple.
Elkins had made the acquaintance of a square-jawed goon named Herman “Bugsy” Burns. Now, he called up Burns and told him he had a job for him: He and some associates would pose as pinball-machine repairmen and start making the rounds to every joint with one or more of Stan Terry’s machines in it. Elkins already had the trucks and fake IDs that they’d need, and had lined up a big warehouse in North Portland where the machines could be hidden afterward. Everything was ready to go.
When the crew got to each joint, they’d tell the owner pretty much what The Grinch told Cindy Lou Who in Dr. Seuss’s classic “How The Grinch Stole Christmas”: The machines were being updated, so they were collecting the old ones, and another truck would be along in an hour or so with the new replacements.
Elkins figured if they were efficient, they could collect every single Stan Terry pinball machine before anybody figured out the scam, and then Terry would be out of business.
And it probably would have worked, too. But they’d never find out. Because Bugsy and his friends got bored while waiting for the signal to start the collection run, and decided to while away the time by knocking over a Safeway. Of course, they got caught.
Stan Terry kept his machines, and kept paying the Teamsters for the privilege. Big Jim Elkins was stuck on the outside looking in, perhaps thinking — as historian Phil Stanford wryly comments in his book — that, “as ever, good help is so hard to find.”
(Sources: Stanford, Phil. Portland Confidential: Sex, Crime and Corruption in the Rose City. Portland: ptown books, 2004; Donnelly, Robert C. Dark Rose: Organized Crime and Corruption in Portland. Seattle: UW Press, 2011)
Finn J.D. John is an instructor at Oregon State University and the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. He produces a daily podcast, reading archives from this column, at ofor.us/p . To contact him or suggest a topic: firstname.lastname@example.org, @OffbeatOregon (on Twitter), or 541-357-2222.