The History of Skeeball
August 23, 2016 / 0 comments
We all owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Jonathan Dickinson Este. Este would go on to be a renowned fighter pilot during the first World War, shooting down 4 enemy planes, leading the United States 13th Aero Squadron, and being awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. But before this, J. Dickinson Este invented the game of Skee Ball.
Mr. Este first conceptualized the idea in 1909, creating his first Skeeball lane from scratch in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The first lane was 36 feet long, and Mr. Este got the idea for the jump ramp (as well as the term ‘Skee’, an early alternate spelling for Ski) from watching Skiers launching off hills into flight. This is likely the reason why he built his first lanes so long, and each was included with long hooked poles for retrieving balls which become stuck along the length of the lane. Needless to say, attempting to roll fist sized balls 36 feet into small holes with accuracy proved to be beyond the ability of the average casual roller, while requiring a full time attendant to retrieve balls was costly. As such, the lanes were later reduced to 14 feet to make them easier to use, and then to the slightly shorter lengths of 10 and 13 feet popular today.
The first Skee Ball lane was sold to an amusement park in 1914 (not by Mr. Este, he was too busy fighting a war at the time). The game was an instant hit, and quickly spread across the United States, becoming a mainstay in carnivals and arcades ever since. Skee Ball has become a part of our collective nostalgia, that game we played as kids in carnivals, along boardwalks, and in Chuck E Cheese’s, giving us a chance to play ball indoors without being yelled at, spitting out tickets which we exchanged for prizes, and helping bring joy to our childhood. The early days of Skee Ball were more contentious however, as giving out prizes in exchange for play was considered a form of gambling in some states, and the game was limited and outright banned in some parts of the country for a time! Perhaps it is then no small irony that the first National Skee Ball Tournament was held in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1932. City and state officials soon realized the harmlessness of Skee Ball in society however, and overturned the bans. As such, Skee Ball can be enjoyed in all 50 states today.
The game has changed a lot over the years. Besides the most obvious difference- shortening the lanes from 36 to 10 and 13 feet, there have been additional changes as well. The original machine only had 3 cups for scoring. Additional rings were added to limit gutter balls and add a bit more depth to play, creating a design which would be standard for the next 60+ years. Coin operated machines were first created in 1936, charging a nickel per play. Before this, patrons of the game were expected to hand their nickel to a park attendant, who would then start the game manually. Skee Ball tickets were first added to the games in 1967 (before this prizes were awarded based on hitting certain scores specific to each amusement park). This proved to be extremely popular. Sounds, lights, and the Hundred scoring cups were added in the 1970s, advancing the game to it’s modern conception.
Skeeball was a game commonly found in amusement parks, arcades, and children’s games centers for the past 100 years. Beginning in 2006, the game was introduced into an entirely new arena, the bar. Eric Pavony, founder of Brewskeeball first placed a Skee Ball machine in a bar in Manhattan, creating a local league which would change the course of Skee Ball history forever. Over the next ten years, Skee Ball machines and leagues would be added to bars across the nation. BayTek, a Wisconsin-based amusements manufacturer and the makers of Skee Ball competitor, Beer Ball would go on to purchase its rival and the long time producer of Skee Ball machines, Skee Ball Inc in 2015, bringing together the previously individual focuses of carnival and bar-based Skee Ball under one umbrella. Meanwhile in 2012, Joey, better known within the competitive Skee Ball industry as Joey the Cat, formed a Skee Ball company which brought Skee Ball machines and tournaments to corporate and private venues, creating another layer of adult oriented competitive Skee Ball play, continuing the shift of Skee Ball from a game played by children, to one enjoyed by all ages.
Here’s to the many future chapters of Skeeball history that have yet to be written. Roll on!
Written by Attila the Hundo