By Lauren Wanko
At the Silverball Museum and Retro Arcade, the clank of wooden balls means one thing to daily operations manager Ron Webb — Skee-Ball.
“Skee-Ball has always been a part of the Jersey Shore. We have people that come in and just say, ‘I’ll come in if you have Skee-Ball for me to play.’ We have people waiting in line on weekends to play them,” he said.
Skee-Ball fans share a passion with this California couple — Kevin Kreitman and Thaddeus Cooper. They spent five years digging through about 5,000 documents to learn about the history of the game, which is the focus of their newly published book, “Seeking Redemption: The Real Story of the Beautiful Game of Skee-Ball.”
The authors say Jonathan Dickinson Este is often mistakenly credited as the inventor of Skee-Ball. They say it actually all started here in New Jersey. Joseph Fourestier Simpson invented the game. He was born in Philadelphia in the early 1850s but he was living in Vineland when he patented the game in December of 1908. They say soon after that he and his partner struggled with marketing Skee-Ball.
Which is where Este comes into play. The wealthy Princeton University graduate had the money and connections to market the unknown game, say the authors.
“In 1913, Jonathan Dickinson Este became interested in purchasing the game after playing it for a number of years after his return from Princeton and he put two alleys into von Voigt’s Pool Parlor in Princeton, N.J. and ran them there for a while and then he installed a set of alleys across from Million Dollar Pier in Atlantic City, put up signage, did advertising and bought the patents and rights to manufacture and took it over,” Cooper said.
By around 1915, Skee-Ball was wildly popular in Philadelphia and soon spread along the Jersey Shore, say the authors. The nation’s best players made their way to Atlantic City in the early 1930s.
“In 1931, Layman M. Sternbergh, who was a Skee-Ball operator, constructed a facility in Atlantic City, N.J. called Skee-Ball Stadium and it was the very first venue dedicated only to Skee-Ball. In 1932, they had the first national Skee-Ball tournament there,” Cooper said.
“New Jersey has always been kind of a nexus of energy for Skee-Ball,” Kreitman said.
There are four Skee-Ball machines at the Silverball Museum and Retro Arcade in Asbury Park.
The manager says Skee-Ball is so popular here that they always keep replacement parts on hand so the machines are always up and running.
Webb understands why the game appeals to adults.
“Somebody like me, I’m in my 60s, so I remember because I’m a Jersey Shore guy playing all this stuff, so now I’m reliving my childhood,” he said.
“All this other stuff doesn’t appeal to me as much as Skee-Ball does. I don’t know, there’s something about it. It’s very old school and they don’t make games like this any more,” said Neptune Township resident Jessica Pivarnick.
The alleys are 10 or 14 feet long depending on the machine, but they weren’t originally built that way.
“The alleys were 32 feet long and the Skee jump was in the middle of the alley, not at the end so at first they thought it was a real man’s game because it took strength to launch that ball and as soon as it came out very rapidly after that they started marketing to women and there were, from the very beginning, women competing in tournaments,” Kreitman said.
People are still competing in leagues today. For those though not quite at that skill level, there are still plenty of Skee-Ball machines along the Jersey Shore.