Sunday, February 16, 2020

Niche Collections: Craig's one-ball horse race pinballs

Once the pinball craze swept America in 1931 it didn't take long for them to create machines with automatic payouts.  For Amusement Only my ass!  From the get-go you would bring your high score to the attention of the bar-keep or pharmacist or shop-keep (sometimes they were all the same person, it was a different time...) and collect your payout.  Maybe it was store credit (they were called trade stimulators and lumped in with the rest, at first) or maybe a drink or a smoke or maybe maybe maybe even some shiny nickels from the register.

The first of the payout machines had cute little hidden drawers for payouts you had to know where to access, but the law caught up to that trick fairly quickly.  Mind you it's the 1930s, information traveled at drastically distended speeds depending on where you lived.  But it didn't matter if you were flagging the attendant, raiding the payout drawer, or racking up credits on the backbox, it was all skilled gambling.  Slots had been around for a few decades at that point, but pinballs put the player in control of their own fate, no longer at the sole mercy of the spinning wheels.  Who needed good luck when you had a precision plunge?

Many pinheads will not be familiar with the one-ball machines, but they are a vital part of the history of pinball today.  In the era before flippers, I would assume they gave the most excitement for one's nickel as the odds spun and flashed, perhaps giving you a chance at a lucrative payoff.  They need to be known for so much American legislation was reactive to their popularity.  They need to be known because they are stunning pieces of art, craftsmanship, and Americana.  And personally, I think they're awe-inspiring because they took a problem like "what do we do about people moving the machine and winning more?" and the solution was:  BUILD THEM AS HEAVY AS A TANK SO THEY CAN'T BE MOVED.

Niche Collection 003: Craig's one-ball horse race pinballs

Bally Sunshine Park (1952) - The very last one-ball game produced by Bally

the basics
who: Craig Smallish (pinside)
where: America
what: American one-ball horse race, credit and payout machines
when: "I began actively collecting woodrails in late 2012, with a focus on horse games back in 2014."
how many: "I currently own 15 EM pins, with 8 being one-ball, horse race themed games, and 2 being mid ‘30’s era horse race themed, side-bet/credit games, one lowly flipper game with a race horse theme, and an 1871 Redgrave Bagatelle. Other than my most recent acquisition which was neglected in a barn for years, they all play and function well!"

How did you first discover these types of machines?
Generally, my initial attraction was toward the woodrail era pins. The artwork, design and construction, historical relevance, all factored into my interest in games of the 1934-1955ish era.   One evening several years ago I came across a craigslist ad for a rather haggard looking, large flipperless game with numerous holes in the playfield. Although the photos weren't the best quality, I could still make out the playfield and backglass art.  Being a graphic designer and illustrator, I tend to gravitate toward those machines with graphics and visual themes that I find particularly pleasing and/or interesting.  That particular craigslist machine was no exception, and after contacting the seller, a deal was struck - or so I thought.  I had made the foolish mistake of taking someone’s word that the machine was mine, and that they would definitely hold it until the end of the week. Sadly when the day came to pick up the game, I was dryly informed that the machine had been sold the day before to a ‘nice man who offered us more money’.  The sudden deflation of both excitement and anticipation only drove what had been a cursory interest in the one-balls, to an increasing thirst for knowledge, and the desire to own one of these jumbos (a term used by the manufacturers in their early product promotions).

Bally Seabiscuit (1938)

Bally Seabiscuit (1938)

Bally Seabiscuit (1938)

What ensued was a 2 month passionate pursuit that involved posting ‘old horse race pinballs’ wanted ads across the midwest to track down the mysterious new owner. I calculated that this individual was likely a coin op collector or dealer, and by using a screenshot of the original craigslist ad in my wanted ads, I might stand a chance of attracting their attention. It was my only shot, and thankfully after a week or so into the postings, an email lit up my inbox. A conversation began with the individual who had bought the machine from under my nose. After several days of 'horse trading', a trek across three states, and a newly formed friendship with the ‘nice man’, I was finally driving my aged Volvo back home with what had quickly become my grail pin. A vintage console and musty pin smell completely filling the back of my station wagon, I securely buckled the coveted backbox safely in the passenger seat beside me. My 1938 Bally ‘Seabiscuit’ was headed to a new paddock.

Bally Seabiscuit (1938) - playfield detail

What attracted you to them?

It truly remains a blend of several layers that attract me to the one-balls. The playfield, backglass, and in many cases the cabinet art and design are what I take notice of first. Illustrative techniques, visual themes, color palette, and typography are all woven into the intrigue. I also pay close attention to the cabinet design and material use, metal castings, wood variety, joinery, grain and finish all play roles on varying levels. For instance my recently acquired 1949 Universal Photo Finish happens to have birdseye maple skirting and inner side rails framing the playfield. That feature wasn’t immediately noticeable under the years of grime, but the discovery was a very pleasant surprise when I began the cleaning and conservation process. Likewise, the playfield graphics which are divided into 4 tiers, Purse, Show, Place and Win, are graphically themed to both illustrate a classic horse race from start to finish, yet also, masterfully represents a beautiful day at the race park from early morning until dusk through each respective level.

Bally Fairmont (1941)

Bally Fairmont (1941)

Bally Fairmont (1941)

Bally Fairmont (1941)

Once inside, I often find the mechanicals equally as fascinating, and the challenge to bring something back from decades of non play is exhilarating. Finally, the historical factor adds a certain romance into the equation. Each of these machines has a relatively unknown background, which based on the original purpose of their design, can only be guessed at. The only evidence of history tends to be the plentiful ‘kick’ marks and scuffs on the front and sides of most one ball cabinets. I’ve seen a few front doors cracked nearly in half from repeated blows - clearly the result of one more lost bet.

Bally Fairmont (1941) - view from the instruction card

When I work to repair and conserve, or simply drop a nickel and play new games on each of these machines, by extension I become a continuation of that history. While the last one ball rolled off the line nearly a decade before I was conceived, I somehow feel a certain degree of nostalgia, either real, or imagined for that era, and in turn, for the machines. With little effort I can visualize the settings which these games likely called home. Rich wood paneled night clubs, smoky corner bars, naugahyde-boothed supper clubs, surely these games traversed the like. If you’re able to imagine, to put yourself into that time and place, then these machines can take on a remarkable dimension.

Of course the play is an intrigue as well. At first glance one might think the games are merely a one-ball shot at a payoff. The fact is there are strategies which weigh heavily in the play. The more evolved the machines became, the more layers of strategy a player needed to consider prior to gambling another hard earned nickel.
1937 Bally Arlington, next to Sea Biscuit

1937 Bally Arlington

1937 Bally Arlington - backglass detail

1937 Bally Arlington - playfield detail

What is the history of this kind of machine?
The classic one-balls began in 1936,  although some accounts stem the origins back to '34 or ‘35. Produced as a game of chance for the purpose of gambling, the horse race theme paired well with the sport that was widely popular with the common man. They evolved rapidly with late 40’s and early 50’s machines offering different play strategies, and options to improve odds. Manufacturers typically produced two types of machines to sidestep the laws, one version would award players a direct payoff in coins, while another version would or game credits. The credit version of the games was of course one approach to skirting earlier gambling laws which made direct machine payouts  a no-no. Having a relatively short history which ended dramatically with the passage of the Johnson Act, the one balls are generally credited with being the predecessor to the bingo pins which were extremely popular in the 1950’s, 60’s, and in fact, into the 2000’s
time to get to work: Sunshine Park internals

What inspired you to acquire so many of them?
I suppose the tendency to build a theme-collection of any type of pin, is a commonality of our hobby. Whether it’s the comparing of design improvements and advancements throughout their development, or identifying the various subtle themes and artistic approaches, for me, it all contributes to the want. Rarity is also a factor. As these games aren't all that common to begin with, the hunt and capture adds fuel to the fire. Especially in the colder seasons, I find myself scouring the online marketplaces for anything one-ball, horse race related.
Bally Sunshine Park (1952) - backglass

Bally Sunshine Park (1952) - bumper detail

Bally Sunshine Park (1952) - playfield

Bally Sunshine Park (1952) - NO GAMBLING

You mentioned that your collection also contains 2 horse race side bet pins, can you describe the gameplay of these two machines?
Absolutely. My 1937 Genco Home Stretch has a playfield similar to the classic Bally Bumper with multiple passive spring bumpers, plus several whisker, and lateral dual-post flat springs for added action. Played with 4-5 balls, the primary goal is to advance the animated horses on the backglass down the home stretch. With a changing ‘mutual board’ (tote board) there are added layers of possible ‘awards’ a player might receive. The ultimate goal is to have your favorite pick cross the wire first, with a second and third place pick selected as well.

Genco Home Stretch (1937) - backglass

Genco Home Stretch (1937) - playfield

Genco Home Stretch (1937) - instruction card

The other machine is one of my favorites. Also a ‘37, it’s a Chicago Coin, Chico Derby. Also designed as a credit game, the first challenge a player faced was to line up the horses (balls) into the starting gate atop the playfield. Fully loaded the gate holds 5 balls, however getting all 5 into the gate is a bit more of a challenge than it might seem. Plunger nuance is everything here. Simply pulling the plunger back and firing away will most often scratch the race with your ‘horse’ running wild past the back of the gate and down into the scratch lane. A very, very gentle coaxing is key, and once a player manages to get at least 1 to 5 ‘horses’ into their respective gates, the next ball put into play can, or will pass behind into the scratch lane. As it does, it will sound the bell, trigger the starting gate open, and the race is on. On the way toward the finish line at the playfield bottom, balls can occasionally roll over contacts which change the place odds and points, adding more excitement to the game. The goal is similar to Home Stretch, and like any true horse race you’re looking for your pony to come in first.

Chicago Coin Chico Derby (1937) 

Chicago Coin Chico Derby (1937) - card 1
Without a doubt, both of these credit machine’s were designed and functioned well beyond simple amusement for the player. Along with cash being awarded by the business owner, advance side-betting prior to the start of another ‘race’ was a regular activity among patrons.

Chicago Coin Chico Derby (1937) - card 2

With a collection of gambling machines and an afternoon off, how do you enjoy spending time with them?
Great question! Specific to the classic one balls, I have developed a simple game I’ve termed 20-buffalos. A nod to the nickels minted up until 1938, the game begins as one might imagine - with 20 nickels. From there I attempt to build my purse using strategy I’ve learned from playing these games. Races with a single number 1, or 7 horse selection (commonly outer flank playfield horses), I will typically play a single nickel without increasing odds with yet another coin. On selections of a number 2 or 6 horse (closer inside the playfield), I occasionally add another nickel or 2 to bump my odds up. However when the machine feels generous and gives you a two, three, or four horse selection, then you truly need to examine those particular horse numbers for probability of a win. Again, numbers 1-7 are outside playfield horses, 2-6, are closer inside flanking, and 3,4 and 5, are more often winners (theoretically I suppose). Depending on the specific machine, many other dynamics like the A,B,C,D game, spell the name, features, etc, can all present different challenges and tactics for every nickel dropped. Very rarely a special feature might present a player with a full field of all 7 horses. When that happens, I’ll just continue to drop nickels bumping those odds up until I perceive the machine is maxed out (not always the highest odds, yet the machine seems to have reached it’s ceiling on raising points). Then I’ll pull the plunger, and wait for the payoff! The secret of course is learning when to stop.
Having been there myself, I can see how a cursory observation of the one balls might leave an individual with the impression that they’re not much different from the old slot machines. Simply drop a coin, and take a chance. These ponies however present way more depth, way more strategy, and certainly thoughtful consideration.

1956 Gottlieb Derby Day

Are you a fan of horse racing in general?
I suppose I’m more a fan of the idea of horse racing. More accurately, horse racing as I imagined it to be in the 1920’s through the late 50’s. I’ve had exposure to horses at various times of my life, and in fact my step father was a well respected ferrier for horses, but I’ve never actually witnessed an actual race in person. Interestingly enough, the closest I’ve come to a racetrack, was when my daughter and I drove past Churchill Downs on our trip to buy my 1952 Bally, Sunshine Park, and when I drove to Arlington Illinois to pick up a newly acquired 1937 Bally ‘Arlington’. How’s that for irony?
actual horse-racing signage

I will confess to watching racing, however the contests are from the same era as my one ball ponies. Having latched on to a minty vintage ‘47 RCA TV, I retrofitted the system with an RF modulator, and a ROKU which allows me to stream youtube playlists comprised of vintage races from the 30’s to 50’s. I also have a few track related pieces which add to the game room ambiance. For instance all of my one-balls have their own vintage trophy cup which holds a reserve of nickels ready for action. I suppose after confessing that, one can safely assume I’m a nerd.

1947 RCA Victor - converted to stream youtube horserace footage!

What do you tell people about these machines when they walk up to them and have never played them before?
Much of the conversation has to do with the history and function of the machines. Even to the novice pinball fan, the difference in the playfield and backglass is immediately noticeable. No flippers, lots of holes? Naturally that leads to discussion about gambling, the Mob, Mayor LaGuardia, and ultimately the Johnson Act/pinball ban. Of course each one of my games has gone through some level of rehabilitation, so each machine has it’s very own story back to glory which I always enjoy sharing.

1949 Universal Photo Finish - backglass
1949 Universal Photo Finish - kick plate

1949 Universal Photo Finish - playfield
1949 Universal Photo Finish - LAW CARD

Advice if someone reading this wanted to get into these machines?
An aptitude for EM troubleshooting is a huge plus as the one ball games of the later 40’s and early 50’s can appear daunting. In reality, they really aren’t that terrible, and in fact if you view their repair as an enjoyable part of the experience, a puzzle if you will, then sit back and enjoy. On the plus side, a bigger horse (late 40’s/50’s) in need of some tlc can occasionally be found for a pretty reasonable price. For instance, an Indiana auction hall recently sold a ‘49 Bally Champion for something in the neighborhood of $150. Granted, it needed some generous love and attention, but it appeared relatively complete and presented a good solid foundation to work with.
where else are you going to store your nickels?

Of course within any type of pinball genre, the age, condition, production numbers, theme, artist, designer, etc, all weigh heavily into determining market value. One-ball horse races are no different. That said, over the past 4 years I’ve seen some subtle upward nudging on values and increased interest. In that same regard, I believe that noted bingo-guru and general pin promoter Nick Baldridge is center-most in advancing the respect level for the long forgotten one-balls. Just as his ingenious Multi Bingo caused a significant stir, his Multi Races is attracting interest in the very same way.

gameroom shot 1
gameroom shot 2

Photo Finish kickplate seen in the garage

...and a few more machines in the collection:

1936 Bally Bumper

1940 Bally Charm

1947 Williams Cyclone

Have a machine to sell?
Standard boilerplate for everyone that arrives here via searches:  If you have any of these kinds of machines and want more info on yours and/or want to sell them, please email me at and I'll see if I can help you.  No matter where you are in the world, chances are there's probably a community of people I can get you in touch with.

Have a collection to showcase?
If you a niche collection that might be appropriate here, please email me at

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