And skee-ball, for all its summertime associations, was not exclusively a beach phenomenon. It was also very much a fixture in cities, in places such as Times Square. A 1937 Times account of a suspected murderer, the upholsterer Joseph Gedeon, cited his alibi: He was playing skee-ball at a late hour at a Third Avenue bar and grill. Skee-ball, according to an April 8, 1946 Times dispatch, was specifically targeted in an anti-gambling crackdown throughout Coney Island.
Skee-ball has not just endured for over a century, either. It has actually undergone a resurgence, morphing into a bona-fide, organized pastime. In the past decade, skee-ball exegetes like Eric Pavony have been at the forefront of a skee-ball renaissance. Under his aegis, the old reliable—somewhat gussied up, but still adhering to J.D. Estes’s basic template—has been in brought into the realm of friendly bar competition. It has become the focus of events that feature live music and locally sourced food. Pavony’s avid fan base is of an equal male-female ratio. This skee-ball is played in regular adult leagues as well as youth leagues. There is skee-ball strategy designed to optimize one’s score. These leagues, according to Pavony, have actually engendered numerous marriages.
To be sure, there is a large measure of irreverence in these endeavors (“from skee to shining skee”). But Pavony’s efforts are emphatically not an exercise in hipster irony. His love for the game is genuine.
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This past summer I stood with my tween daughter amid the bustle of the summertime crowd at Jilly’s Arcade on the Ocean City, New Jersey, boardwalk. The skee-ball corner was abuzz with activity. We did manage, though, to commandeer one of the games.
In the antiseptic, increasingly silent computerized world—where the solidity of the TV clicker and the clack of a typewriter have passed into extinction—our skee-ball experience was refreshingly tactile and sensory. There was the grip of the little wood balls, the satisfying thump as the ball made contact with the sturdy little alley, the brief moment of triumph if it successfully hit its target. The ticket dispenser cranked out those little perforated sheets.
What made skee-ball enticing in 1930 continued to make it enticing in 1950 and in 1970 and in 1990, and in the present day. Skee-ball occupies the rare perch of a nostalgia without esotericism: The game is a genuine, low-risk challenge. And there is an innate part of the childhood psyche—which we never seem to truly outgrow—that takes pleasure in the most rudimentary rewards: the gold star from the teacher, the prize in the box of Cracker Jack. That same part of the childhood psyche takes pleasure in tossing a ball and hitting an intended target, in tallying up a score, in collecting one’s little prize. And thus, skee-ball endures.
This article appears courtesy of Object Lessons.