The idea for a skee-ball book began when Thaddeus Cooper and Kevin Kreitman were hanging out in their kitchen.
The two were drinking wine, and Cooper was playing a skee-ball game on his iPhone. He thought about a documentary on how skee-ball ended up on mobile devices, being sure that a book on the history of the game had already been written.
Turns out it hadn’t.
So the two found the patent of the original creator, and the next five years involved research into the game’s origins (ones with ties to South Jersey, in fact). The documentary was put to rest, and their book “Seeking Redemption: The Real Story of the Beautiful Game of Skee-Ball” was created.
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Published at the end of 2016, “Seeking Redemption” takes the reader through the birth of the game in 1907 to the struggles and triumphs it faced in the following years.
When Cooper was researching for the book, he and Kreitman found that multiple people claimed to have invented the game, but after stumbling across a few articles, he learned that a gentleman named Joseph Fourestier Simpson, a Vineland inventor and businessman, had patented the game in 1907.
Cooper also found that his papers had all been donated to the Vineland Historical and Antiquarian Society.
Cooper was convinced that Simpson was the creator.
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“It is most definitely Simpson. In the archives of papers that we got from Vineland, there are letters with him and business partners with drawings, sketches, plans and it was an incredible find,” said Cooper, a New Jersey native who now lives in California.
Simpson partnered with William Nice Jr. and John W. Harper. The first two took on the daily endeavors of the Skee-Ball Alley Co. in 1909, and Harper, being very enthusiastic about the game, worked as manager for the company, investing an unspecified amount of money into the company, according to Cooper and Kreitman.
Nice died in January 1910, and the company went to his estate. Harper then paid out more to keep the company going as time went on, since the heirs were not enthusiastic about helping the company succeed and paid as little as possible.
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By August 1910, the company was broke and unable to pay shop rent. By this time, Harper had sunk more than $10,000 into the company, was unable to pay the taxes on his property and was borrowing money to live. By sometime in 1911, he had lost the house and was living with friends.
The game faced a “lengthy coma,” as Cooper and Kreitman called it in the book.
But skee-ball wouldn’t die. It continued to grow as J.D. Este purchased the company from Simpson and Harper in 1914. This led to tournaments, and the game began to spread rapidly up the coast.
The game was so successful you now can’t head into most arcades without seeing a skee-ball alley.
Cooper and Kreitman said despite the highs of a growing fan base in the early years being followed by the lows of financial struggle, one thing was clear when writing this book: Skee-ball has been a vital part of South Jersey.
As early as 1910, there were skee-ball alleys in Wildwood Crest and other towns along the New Jersey coast.
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Skee-ball tournaments with several hundred players were held in Atlantic City in 1915.
“When you look at the cluster, they were around the Philadelphia area and the shore,” Cooper said.
As kids, they themselves loved the game. Cooper remembers stumbling upon it at a young age in Point Pleasant in Ocean County.
Surrounded by electronic racing games and first-person shooters, it’s no surprise that skee-ball is still a game a kid (and adult) will step up to play.
Whenever he talks to adults about the game, their eyes light up, Cooper said.
“There’s something about this game that families just glom to it and everybody remembers happy times playing skee-ball. I never heard an unhappy story about being a kid and playing skee-ball,” he said.
609-272-7258 MReil@pressofac.com Twitter @acpressmaxreil