HISTORY OF SKEEBALL
Photo: Alen Lin
“Remember when you were a kid and your parents threw you a birthday party? Chances are they invited over some of your friends (maybe and annoying uncle or two), served everybody a shitty ice-cream cake from Carvel that was shaped like a clown and had you play pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. Sound about right?
For 8 year old Bobby Estes of Philadelphia his birthday party went about the same except for one minor detail – his Dad had gifted him with best damn game ever!!! The year was 1909 and in the few weeks before Bobby was busy pissing his pants for the first time as an eight year old, his father, J. Dickenson Estes (or J-Dub as he was known to his closest friends), was busy devising a new game for his son’s birthday party.
As the son of a lumberyard owner, had more unused wood then the entire Boston Friday night chapter of Magic: The Gathering. Building off of crude sketches that he came up with during one late night bender, he created the game of Box Ball. The original design consisted of a 36 foot lane, wooden rails on the side, a rising hump and three elevated holes through which heavy metal balls could land in.
The game was an instant hit and Bobby’s popularity swelled as he was well on his way towards getting some sweet hand-holding with Ruby next door (and as many Thurs/Fri mornings can attest, Skeeball and nookie go hand-in-hand). The proverbial light-bulb went off in J.D. Estes head, and he decided to showcase it at the town fair. Box Ball was a hit amongst adults as well and two years later he was manufacturing and selling Box Ball to the public. Unfortunately for J-Dub, he sucked at advertising and forgot to tell anybody that he was actually selling it and relied solely on word-of-mouth (which in Philly usually means “Go f#@k yourself” and “Santa Claus is an @$$hole”). The last Box Ball lane he sold was to Maurice Piesen who was the head of the outdoor amusement park industry.
His life wasn’t at a loss though – because JD was so dominant at dropping metal objects with lethal accuracy, he went on to lead the 32nd Provisional Aero Squadron in Paris during World War II.
While Estes was off joining the Army, Maurice Piesen was still figuring out what the hell to do with this monstrous wooden contraption. The 36 foot length of the lanes and the heavy metal balls made this a game for outdoor use and one that was better suited for grown men. Maurice, being a dainty gentleman of leisure, decided to make the game one that everybody could enjoy and one that would fit inside his amusement park arcades. In 1928, he did so by significantly reducing the length of the lane down to 14 feet and replacing the metal balls with wood. He also added two larger circles around the three circles in the center (which by today’s standards would represent the 10 and 20 point circles) making it easier to play and more accessible to the public. He also recognized that Box Ball was a stupid name and renamed it Skeeball since the raised angle of the wood-lane resembled a ski (and apparently because he couldn’t spell).
Boom went the dynamite and Skeeball was an instant hit amongst, not just men, but woman, children and even crazy old Grandpa Gus! In 1932, the first ever National Skeeball tournament was held in Atlantic City. Wikipedia cites one Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson as the champion but, then again, it also says Al Gore invented the slap-bracelet and is a trained ninja. A few years later, in 1935, Piesen sold the rights to the Rudolph Wurlitzer Manufacturing Co. who made the game what it is today. They made numerous changes and improvements like shortening the lane even more, down to 10 feet, made it coin-operated and, thanks to Paul Fuller the designer of the jukebox, gave it the cheesy art deco look that we still see today (except in skeeBoston lanes where we are graced with a weird looking goth couple that haunt my dreams).
In West Philadelphia (born and raised…I’ll wait why you finish the rest of the song), the Philadelphia Toboggan Company had been making Merry-go-rounds and roller coasters for nearly four decades and were looking to expand their business further. Drawing on the popularity of this new ski-something-game that they had been hearing about, they decided to buy the rights from the Wurlitzer Co. In only a few short years, they had Skeeball in almost every amusement park in America.
They added electronic scoring (which I hear is great for some Thursday night teams) and in 1967 added the ticket dispensers so that suckers like me can play hours upon hours, dollar after dollar, to win a crappy miniature teddy-bear for some girl I don’t even like. In 1977, the Philly Toboggan Company became Skee-ball Inc. and exclusively designed Skeeball machines.
They continued making improvements to the game like adding sound, cages to block the cheaters and, more importantly, adding the 100 score holes which made 3-year-old Everett Phillips a happy little boy.
Skeeball would continue to grow with popularity, become a staple to amusement parks and arcades world-wide and eventually find their way to a little 3rd floor in a bar like “#SANDBOXMELROSE” where a couple hundred adults-but-not-really would gather to play a little game they forgot they loved over a few dozen beers with friends and foes alike. So when you’re at the bar this week buying your 12th PBR, pour one out for Mr. J. Dickinson Estes: inventor of the greatest game ever!”
-Guest Writer about the History of Skeeball
Photo: Alen Lin