Major League pinball machine

Major League Restoration

December 30, 2006

Michael Sands

The Sands Mechanical Museum

A client asked me to restore his Major League.  It was in great cosmetic condition and complete, so I thought it would be an easy task.  However, as with most games this age, there are always a couple of challenges.

Appearance

The game appears similar to all the other prewar pinball machines of the mid-1930s.  The cabinet is stained wood and sits on spindly legs. There is a wood grained decoration on the side and the legs are stained black but have a natural wood slash down their length. The leg bolts, shooter and coin slide provide bit of bright metal flash that attracts the players.

The separate ball lift and shooter are on the right.  The ball lift is not a push rod but a lift lever.  The coin slide is on the left and a token return slot with tray is just underneath.

The playfield has a baseball diamond as a prominent feature in the middle and there are score holes scattered about.  Some of the holes capture the ball and indicate a score value while other holes drop the ball under the playfield where it causes any number of actions on top of the playfield.  For example, a ball entering the DOUBLE hole will advance a ball two bases just like a double will advance a base runner two bases.

There are some nice decorations on the playfield including a cast ball and crossed baseball bats.  There are also triple lightening bolts at both top corners, indicating the presence of electricity, something unusual for the time!  There is also a small ball tilt pedestal in the lower left corner.

Major League instruction plate

instruction card

How to Play

(see instructions, above or printed here)

Major League allows the player to simulate half an inning of baseball.  The game keeps track of outs and runs but does not recognize balls or strikes.  The runner on base is advanced correctly.  As with many of the previous pinballs, each ball resting in a hole indicates a score and the player is responsible for totaling up the score.  It is clear that runs dominate the score as they are ten times more valuable than the values for the various capture holes.

The players are under the honor system to stop playing once there are three outs.  The game does not have an electrical or mechanical disable switch once the third ball enters the out slot.

Major League pinball playfield

Version A playfield, note cast crossed bats and ball at the top.

Strategy

But how does it really play?  Is it exciting, does it require any skill, and would you play it again?

First I must get a ball into the Batter Up hole while avoiding the capture holes.  The batter up hole is the one just in front of the crossed bats. Actually, I need to avoid all the closed, capture holes during the entire game because then the ball is out of play.  Any balls entering the open holes are acceptable because they are returned to play again.  Alright, I got a ball into the Batter Up hole and it suddenly appears out of a scoop on the pitcher’s mound and rolls down to home plate. 

Now that I have a batter up, it is time to get a hit.  Obviously a home run is nice but any open hole will advance the ball at least one base.  Ah ha, I manage to make a double, and my ball representing the batter is advanced in two quick pulses to second. 

Next I want to get another batter at the plate so the Batter Up hole is my target.  I make the hole and once again I have a batter at home and a runner on second. My target is any open hole and this time I get a triple!  In quick succession my second base runner advances first to third and then rolls down to score at the bottom in the runs bucket.  My batter advances in three quick steps to third where he holds up. Things are really going well until my next ball misses all the holes and ends up in the out slot. One out and only two more to go before I am finished with this inning.

Unfortunately if I already have a batter up and I try and put another batter up, the second will roll harmlessly into a hole behind the umpire, ready to be played again.  On the other hand, it turns out a single will advance the runner and place the next batter up!  From now on I am shooting for the single hole as it accomplishes the two tasks with one shot.

And so it goes until I get three outs or all the balls have been played.  How does the game accomplish this magic? The secret is under the playfield, so let us take a look.

The game I restored was missing the reward card but it typically indicates what the proprietor is supposed to give the player in case the player gets a very high score.

Major League pinball patent, 1,973,820

patent drawing with the first figure the playfield layout and the second two images the cabinet with the ball guides.

Research and History

My first step is to research the game and find all the information available.  I start with Richard Bueschel’s excellent books where I found Major League in Pinball Encyclopedia 2 on page 142.  Richard listed three patents for the game which I quickly obtained front the USA government online patent database. 

Major League was built by Pacific Amusement Manufacturing Company (PAMC) and released in July 1934.  The initial concept was by C. Hale when he was working with Harry Williams but both soon left the company.  Development of the game was left to Bon MacDougall who had the advantage of understanding electricity.  MacDougall’s goal was to animate the ball movement.  Rather than using mechanical means for propelling the ball around the baseball diamond like Rockola’s patented World Series, he wanted to use electricity.  This way he avoided the patent and more importantly added a feature, electrical animation.

“Major League has more ball animation than any game thus far introduced.  The eye of our American people loves to see quick action.  The balls swiftly darting from base to base supplies this action.”

Bueschel goes further to suggest this game “was a major factor in the creation and advancement of the electromechanical pinball game.”

Three patents were issued to Bon MacDougall for this game:

  • 1,973,820 covered the overall concept of the game and provided many of the electrical details.  The ball movement included being pitched and moved to first base, successively moved from base to base, and moved multiple bases depending on the hole value.
  • 1,983,811 focused on the pitching mechanism, which elevated the ball back up to the playfield and started the runner around the base.  The original patent included a complicated linkage for raising the ball but the final game employed only a simple solenoid.
  • 2,035,271 provided the details on how the ball, representing the base runner, moved around the bases.  This was complicated by the need to drop a runner left on base when the game was reset.
Major League coin door sticker

operator instructions attached to the inside of the coin door

The coin door has a sticker inside, providing instructions on how to manage the game. The wording shows how the electronic part might be new and the operators needed to have additional information. It suggests care must be taken when cleaning and adjusting the electronic components. I like the last sentence, "NOTE - Worn out batteries ruin the action of this game."

coin slide and token return tray

coin slide and token return slot

This game included a token rejector mechanism and slot. The game is able to detect a token and return into the token tray.

ball return guides

ball guides and ball lift solenoid under playfield

Mechanical Restoration

We provide "museum quality" restorations, which require more effort than just getting the game to run. Some of what is described here is excessive and not normally needed to get the game operational. Some of the pictures show the original, rusted components, and other pictures show the clean assemblies, ready for action.

Removing the playfield shows a tilted board with a series of cast ramps.  The ramps catch the balls as they fall through holes and feed them across some rollovers as they wind their way down to the ball feed.  The reason the ramps weave back and forth becomes obvious later, when trying to get the game to play correctly.  The ramps are also raised up off the wood, allowing the ball to drop even more.  One of the ramps is very long and is segmented into two pieces to facilitate the manufacturing process. You can see the join halfway down the right ramp, shown above.

ball lift mechanism

ball lift solenoid and chute, prior to restoration

In the center is the chute and ball lift solenoid.  The solenoid is crude, hand-wound and contained in a casting.  No paper cover!  The ball lands in a scoop, on the left, and closes a contact. The solenoid is energized and catapults the ball upwards, into the scoop on the pitcher’s mound.  The scoop redirects the ball path towards home plate.  The wiring is all bare wire stapled to the reverse side of this ramp.  There is no real circuit for the ball lift as it is energized every time a ball enters the scoop.

base runner mechanism

base running unit and reset slide attached to the bottom of the playfield

Examining the bottom of the playfield shows only the base running unit.  The metal plate supports a finger at each base and connects them all with a series of levers and rods.  The single solenoid, shown at the bottom, powers the unit and with each electrical pulse, the finger that sticks up through the base hole pushes the ball to the next base. 

reverse base runner hole

detail of one of the bases with impulse lever and trap door finger, before restoration

The reset mechanism is a bit more complicated than normal.  As the coin slide is depressed, the shutter slides and allows the captured balls on the playfield to drop through.  How does the ball left on base get dropped through? Each base has a trap door which held up until a reset is required.   Then the finger slides out of the way and allows the trap door to open and the base runner falls though.  Almost like a magic trick!

The corrosion is shown here as white powder on the metal components. You can see the crude weld that holds the impulse arm to the base running unit.

bead blasted ball guides

ball guides and ball lift mechanism, bright and shiny clean

I glass bead blasted the ball feed castings, solenoid housings, and the base running castings.  This removed all the old, caked-on lubrication and corrosion that prevented free movement.  I replaced the old, hardened rubber bumpers that cushion the falling balls with new rubber pads.  I replaced some worn insulation and adjusted the contacts for the rollovers and batter up unit.  Cleaning the ball return areas and the ball lift guides completed the housekeeping.

base runner hole

third base, showing ball impulse finger and trap door (center ring)

Cosmetic Restoration

I always say most restoration work is just cleaning.  This game has been sitting for over 70 years and has accumulated dust, dirt, corrosion, nicks, and scratches.  The restoration work I perform attempts to retain as much of the original patina as possible.  (Remember the Antiques Roadshow visitor that is informed his old desk was worth over $50,000 if it had the original, old, nicked and scratched finish.  With the shiny, uniform finish it is now worth only $5,000.) I get rid of the dirt and gunk while preserving the original patina. Sometimes this requires some creativity.

I measured the pin height and removed all the pins on the playfield.  I polished the cabinet and playfield with Johnsons Paste Wax, my favorite cleaner and wax.  I polished the ball guides and pins with Semichrome and using a block of wood to control the height, reinstalled the pins.

I cleaned and polished the coin slide, ball lift, and shooter.  I added a new rubber bumper, actually a plumbing rubber washer, to the shooter to absorb the shock.  At the customer’s request, I placed the game on free play by putting a wooden toothpick to hold the coin feelers up as if sensing a coin.

I examined the cosmetics of the game, especially the playfield, looking for areas where the paint or finish is being affected by the ball travel.  I place inconspicuous protection to stop further deterioration but this game did not need any spots except in the area of the ball feed.  This protection can be a small patch of polyurethane paint, a patch of Mylar, or a bit of rubber padding.

A new set of marbles, without the chips and dings, will be installed when the game is finished.  China has started making one inch all white marbles, much to my delight.

Assembly and Testing

I fabricated a power supply so corrosive batteries would not be required.  A small six-volt transformer with a bridge rectifier was placed where the batteries are normally installed.   I added a fuse to protect the solenoids.  The upper playfield base running unit gets it power from a couple of bare contact plates that slide together when the playfield is installed. Most of the rest of the wiring is bare with no insulation. Because of the fire hazzard, I always recommend the game not be left on and a power strip or other switch be included to turn the game off when left unattended.

All the ball guides were installed and carefully adjusted to catch the falling balls, keep them rolling, and feed the rollover switches.  Time to play the game!

ball lift mechanism, reverse

underneath the ball lift mechanism, showing contacts and crude wiring

First problem I encountered was a weak solenoid powering the ball lift.  The scoop on the pitcher’s mound needed some rubber lining to cushion the glass marbles as they shot up from the bottom.  The rubber prevents nicks to the glass.  However the ball needs to travel up and towards home plate and there is just not enough of an impulse to make this happen.  One solution is to increase the voltage, which is like high tapping a electromechanical pinball machine.  I prefer not to do this because the game will play more aggressively than originally designed and it causes abuse to the marbles.  I checked the windings on the solenoid and the action of the solenoid bucket and pivot.  By carefully adjusting these items and making sure the electrical contacts were clean, I was able to get the ball loaded reliably into the batter up position.

interior game of Major League pinball

ball guides assembled in the cabinet

The next problem was to get the base runner to go from base-to-base reliably.  Once a runner was in position, getting a triple or home run would not result in the base runner making it as far as he should.  The base running unit is pulsed each time the action ball rolls over one of the lane switches in the lower ball guides, shown above.  Remember how the ball guides weave back and forth?  This is to provide time between impulses, allowing the base runner to get to the next base before the next impulse comes along.  Unfortunately I did too good a job of cleaning the ball guides and the ball was rolling across them too quickly.  Careful placement of felt dots slowed the ball enough at each wiggle to make the base runner unit reliable. In addition, the game needs to be carefully leveled. The ball will roll down quickly if the angle of the playfield and the ball ramps below is too steep.

The game is now ready to be played.  Hopefully it will amuse people or another 70 years with its action we American so desperately crave.  As the original brochure says, “The balls swiftly darting from base to base supplies this action.”

ball lift mechanism
ball return tray

ball return and ball feed guides, note crude wood carving and slots

The game was crudely constructed, with many joins being cut by hand. Rework, shown above where the ball guide is chipped away, is all over the game, as are hand cut holes and notches, as shown above. The ball return and lift do not follow later conventional design and construction. Note how the ball lift is a clockwise rotation instead of the later push rod activated lift.

Major League signature

signature underneath playfield

I always look for signatures or other marks in the interior of a game. There were several here, but none that I recognized. It is an unusual way to collect autographs!

The Mystery:

As with many of the games manufactured during this time, changes are sometimes made. Some changes are to make the game run better, some are to reduce the cost of manufacturing, and some are because the materials used to make the games change. This latter happened during World War II as the war took priority for many of the materials.

Major League appears in two very different configurations. See if you can guess which version came first.

The game described above has cast metal ball guides and the rollover switches appear in the middle of the paths. There was no cast instruction and award card holder, only a plate identifying the manufacturer. The base running unit was a complicated set of rods and lever arms. Finally the layout of the holes required a base runner before shooting a ball to advance that base runner is different. The configuration of the game, with ramps and holes is the same as the drawings appearing in the patent.

A second version has significant differences in the ball guides. These guides were made from bent tin plate and only extended from the top arch to the batter up scoop. The switch contacts act to delay the rolling to the action ball, allowing time for the base runner to arrive at the base before being shoved to the next base. This single piece ball guide can be built and installed as an assembly, simplifying construction.

However it also results in a different layout for the holes in the top playfield. No action holes can appear below the scoop at the pitcher's mount. As a result of the different hole locations and the fact all the balls entering action holes will end up in the batter up position, the play of the game changed.

All action balls end up at the batter up location. There are no holes for sacrifice hit or stolen base actions because they are below the ball guide assembly so the holes were relabled as foul balls. All the action holes are high up, near the arch.

The second version did not have the cast ball and crossed bats but did have the cast instruction and award holder.

My Guess:

Here is what I think but you are welcome to draw your own conclusions.

I think Version A was an early game. It was complicated and played well. It came out before the cast instruction and award card holder was built but later version of the same game included the casting. I do not think the casting was removed because there is a generic cast plate with the manufacturer's name on it. The amount of crude wood work also indicates small production numbers because the production parts were not cut correctly. Later versions will be made from precut production pieces.

Later, when the game was a success and large numbers needed to be produced, the company cost-reduced the manufacturing process. The expensive castings were replaced by tin ball guides. The number of guides were reduced. These last changes required the layout of holes to change and some of the play functions to change as well. In some ways the Version B game became easier to play (see below for play characteristics).

As a result, Version B was produced. Still fun to play and still demonstrating the swift movement of the ball from base to base. Bueschel indicated the two versions of the game but did not identify what those differences were.

Version B Pictures

The following pictures, except the base running unit, were contributed by Jim Knowe. Dan Ferguson contributed the following description of how the version B game played and the picture of the running unit.

There is a next batter up slot under the playfield which always contains a ball. There is always a batter up at home. A played ball entering a hole in the playfield will cause the batter at home to start running the bases. The next batter in the slot under the playfield will become the batter up at home, and the played ball will hide in the next batter up slot under the playfield.

This means there will always be a batter at home ready to run and any ball played will cause the base runner to advance.

version two ball guides

Version B ball guides made from tin plate

Version B playfield

Version B playfield, note open holes and renamed lower holes

Version B playfield reverse

Version B, bottom of the ball guide board, showing switches and ball lift solenoid

Version B diamond actuator

Version B base running unit

Version B instruction casting

Version B cast instruction and award card holder

Version B game

Version B cabinet

Michael and his wife, Lynne, do museum quality restorations of antique arcade games at the Sands Mechanical Museum.  More examples of their work can be found at www.sandsmuseum.com.  Thanks go to the Ken Lyons and the other members of the prewar pinball group for help with this article.  Special thanks to Jim Knowe for pictures of Version B and to Dan Ferguson for additional information about how Version B played. The prewar pinball group can be found at Yahoo Groups or by visiting Ken’s website at prewarpinball.com