Artists And Writers Game Turns 65

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Actor Christopher Reeve loomed on second base as musician Paul Simon stepped up to bat. It was 1989, the bottom of the ninth, and the Artists were down by one run against the Writers.

It was now or never.

Media proprietor Mort Zuckerman pitched the softball down the 6-feet-6-inches to Mr. Simon, who swung hard, sending a long line drive to left center field. The runners took off—one scoring from third base, tying up the game, with Mr. Reeve not far behind.

He rounded third and was bounding toward home when an outfielder threw the ball to the cut-off man, Mr. Zuckerman, who was 10 feet from home plate. The pitcher then flipped the ball to the team catcher, journalist Carl Bernstein.

The base runner and catcher collided. Mr. Reeve’s 6-foot-4-inch frame knocked a startled, and smaller statured Mr. Bernstein a good 8 feet from home plate. The ball rolled from his glove.

The crowd erupted in cheers. The Artists stormed the field, celebrating their victory. And Mr. Reeve was named Most Valuable Player.

This is just one of the many memories of the Artists & Writers Game—an annual charity event with humble roots, now in its 65th year, that has grown into a major spectacle and fundraiser, benefiting East End Hospice, The Retreat, East Hampton Day Care Learning Center and Phoenix House. The game draws thousands every summer to Herrick Park in East Hampton for an afternoon of sun, softball and celebrity-spotting.

But Saturday, August 17, will not just be a day in the park for this year’s 75 players: 32 Artists and 43 Writers. It is a fiercely competitive event with a deep-seated rivalry—both on and off the field.

The Early Days

Not only do the Artists and Writers disagree on which team has the most wins—the former contend they are behind by just one or two games, while the latter insist the gap is much greater—they also can’t settle on how the game got started.

There are at least a half-dozen variations, according to Artists captain Leif Hope, who said that the stand-off between Mr. Reeve and Mr. Bernstein was a memorable happening. He claims that his rendition of how the game started comes straight from two original players: sculptor Philip Pavia and Grove Press publisher Barney Rosset.

It was the summer of 1948. Cubism was over, abstract expression was in full swing and dozens of artists flooded the East End seeking a respite from Manhattan. It didn’t take long before a handful of them—Mr. Pavia, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Joan Mitchell, Franz Kline and Howard Kanovitz, included—found themselves in the Springs backyard of artist Wilfrid Zogbaum.

They brought balls, bats, sneakers, chicken salad, coleslaw and “a lot of booze,” Mr. Hope said. Just two writers joined them: Mr. Rosset, boyfriend of Ms. Mitchell, and art critic Harold Rosenburg.

“It was a picnic, a casual affair. It was a good time,” Mr. Hope said over lunch last Wednesday at Barrister’s Restaurant in Southampton. “De Kooning grew up in Holland. What did he know about baseball? But he was fun.”

And vengeful. Increasingly irritated by “heavy hitter” Pavia, as the years went by, de Kooning decided to get even. With the help of Kline and another artist friend, Ludwig Sander, he bought grapefruits and coconuts, manipulated them to look like softballs and pitched them to the confident, yet unsuspecting, batter.

When he connected, the fruit exploded and showered Pavia in juice. The prank is still practiced today, but usually with a fake grapefruit.

At its beginnings, it was an artists’ game, Mr. Hope said. A game of painters and sculptors.

In the late 1960s, the game garnered a reputation. And a new breed of players: the Writers.

With their inclusion, the game changed forever.

A Rivalry Is Born

The Writers, now captained by longtime player Ken Auletta, began to dominate the field. They were an unstoppable, youthful, agile force. They were greater in number, and often accused by the Artists of flying in lawyers as ringers to play for them, simply because they wrote briefs.

The Writers beg to differ.

“Who? We don’t have any lawyers who aren’t writers,” author Jay McInerney, who alternates between catcher and right field, asserted last Wednesday during a telephone interview. “Most of the Writers don’t even approve of lawyers, anyways. I’m not quite sure what criteria are used to fill out the Artists team, but I can say, for sure, they’re definitely not all painters or sculptors.”

The first deliberate violations on behalf of the Artists—as a reaction to the Writers bringing in two lawyers from California, Mr. Hope emphasized—were 90 mile-per-hour fastballs delivered by professional female softball players against their opponents.

It was 1976, and the first time in recent memory that the Artists had won after a major losing streak, according to “designated ringer” and utility player Eric Ernst. He first played at age 13 in the stead of his artist father, Jimmy, who often needed a breather—another incendiary play by the Artists, Mr. Hope said, which turned up the heat of the game.

But Mr. Ernst was reluctant to take any credit for Mr. Hope’s handiwork.

“Those softball players, that was the start of it, that heat, and how Leif got his nickname,” Mr. Ernst said during a telephone interview last week. “Which is, ‘That sonofabitch Leif Hope.’”

The Artists continued to stretch dictionary definitions for potential players—which Mr. Hope said he learned from the Writers—by bringing architects on board, including alternating third baseman and outfielder Russell Blue, who tore a bicep tendon catching a line drive last year, but is almost as good as new, he reported.

“It’s been a great ride,” Mr. Blue said during a telephone interview last Tuesday. “Anytime there’s a bad call against the Writers, Mike Lupica just goes off the deep end there, for a while, and that is one of my fondest memories. Just watching him turn into a spinning top. Ranting and raving like the losing team’s going to die. Watching those guys go nuts on the umps when there’s a bad call. It’s hysterical.”

It is not uncommon for the umpires to figure out the rules as they go along, according to landscape designer Edmund Hollander, who also plays for the Artists. After a particularly controversial play, the team’s third baseman remarked to the nearby officiant, “You guys actually came up with the right decision.”

“Well, that’s unusual in my line of work,” the ump mused.

“I’m a landscape architect,” Mr. Hollander said, striking up a conversation. “What do you do?”

“Oh, I’m a Supreme Court justice,” the ump, Stephen Breyer, casually replied.

Mr. Hollander burst out laughing at the memory. “It’s like saying, ‘Hi, I’m Moses, nice to meet you,’” he said. “It was intimidating, but he had a very good sense of humor about the whole thing. He said the Supreme Court’s a lot easier because when you don’t know the rules, you just make them up.”

The Celebrities Arrive

A “great gallery of characters” has passed through the game over the years, Mr. McInerney said. They’ve ranged from political heavyweights—such as President Bill Clinton, who umped in 1988 when he was governor of Arkansas, according to Mr. Hope, and returned, making a guest appearance last year that completely stopped the game—to big-name stars, including Chevy Chase, Christie Brinkley and Alec Baldwin.

“Ken Auletta and I had a contest racing around the bases,” Mr. Baldwin wrote last week in an email, “and it was a tie.”

But game play for Mr. Baldwin hasn’t always gone his way. One of Mr. McInerney’s moments of glory was tagging the “30 Rock” star out at home plate, a move that sealed MVP for the Writer.

“He ran me over and I managed to hold on to the ball,” Mr. McInerney recalled. “He came on hard. He was much bigger then than he is now. It’s amazing that I escaped injury.”

For 1010 WINS Radio reporter and game broadcaster Juliet Papa, seeing Mr. Clinton last year made her personal highlight reel, she said.

“The game was tied and he literally came out from behind the bushes on the first-base side and I saw him,” Ms. Papa said of spotting the former President. “I stopped the game and said ‘ladies and gentlemen, Bill Clinton is here.’”

Writer and sportscaster Ann Liguori’s favorite memory of the game was when she introduced her boyfriend, Scott Vallary, and their golden retriever, Skye, to Ms. Brinkley. Holding the puppy in his arms, Mr. Vallary leaned in to give the blonde supermodel a kiss, but Skye got to her first—landing a big, wet lick on her cheek.

“I caught it on camera!” Ms. Liguori wrote in an email last week. “It was a classic moment.”

Sculptor Jeffrey Meizlik’s crowning achievement came in 1996. His game was on point, with great defensive plays as shortstop, a few hits and even a home run, he recalled last Tuesday during a telephone interview from his home in Virginia. The MVP title was his that year.

But then Mr. Simon ran face-first into one of the outfield posts trying to catch a pop fly. As a result, the musician chipped his tooth.

“In the next papers that came out, any publicity I could have gotten for being MVP, the articles were all about Paul Simon and his tooth, and I was barely mentioned,” Mr. Meizlik, who will be playing his 37th consecutive game on Saturday, grumbled humorously. “Actually, he was a pretty good ball player. And a nice guy, for the most part. As nice as somebody can be during a softball game.”

That same day, Bill Collage was watching from the stands in complete awe. On the brink of hitting it big as a screenwriter, the then 25-year-old wrote a letter to Mr. Auletta soon after, explaining that he was a pretty good softball player, too.

The author wrote back. “Come on down to the game.”

In 1997, he did.

“I showed up and there was my jersey with my name on it,” he recalled last week during a telephone interview. “But yeah, I was definitely benched.”

Late in the game, George Plimpton hobbled into the dugout—big, tall, and petered out, Mr. Collage recalled. He sized up the young writer and asked, “Can you play first base?”

And with that, Mr. Collage was in.

In 2003, just one month before the legendary writer died, the two men were doing an interview together when Mr. Plimpton asked Mr. Collage, “Who put you in the game?”

“You did,” the screenwriter answered, adding to Mr. Plimpton, “And I thought to myself, ‘I can follow in your footsteps, but I can never fill your shoes.’”

After a pause, Mr. Plimpton asked, “Who said that?”

“I said that.”

“That’s a good quote.”

It is a moment Mr. Collage will never forget, he said, not to mention standing in the outfield next to baseball giant Yogi Berra, chatting for about 40 minutes while watching his son and shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Dale Berra, play in the game. Or bonding with Roy Scheider on the pitcher’s mound after he struck out heavy hitter Rick Leventhal of Fox News. “Wow, good pitch,” Mr. Collage remarked to the late actor.

Mr. Scheider smirked and leaned in close to Mr. Collage.

“He’s gonna need a bigger bat,” the actor whispered.

“I practically died laughing, to have Roy Scheider replay one of his all-time favorite lines like that. I mean, I’m in the movie business because of ‘Jaws’ and ‘Marathon Man,’” Mr. Collage said. “How did I get to sit between Carl Bernstein and Ben Bradlee one year? How did I get to meet Bert Sugar before he died, and Kurt Vonnegut? This is insane, for a guy like me. Those are my heroes. And we’re all part of this incredible fraternity.”

This past fall, Mr. Collage found himself at Madison Square Garden for a Carly Rae Jepsen and Justin Bieber concert—a present to his son, he said—and decided he needed a cocktail in between sets. He hopped onto an incredibly long line, he said, right behind none other than Paul Simon, who was also there with his family.

“The funny thing about this game, you have this weird entrée to these people that you normally wouldn’t have,” Mr. Collage said. “So, I tell him I play in the Artists/Writers Game now and that I actually saw him play. And the whole time we stood there, we had this great conversation about what it used to be and what it is now. It’s a very unique and special thing to be a part of.”

An East End Family, Complete With Fighting Words

It’s been 65 years and nearly 420 players. This is a game of tradition that will never die.

On Saturday, the Writers will arrive with swag and confidence, even though their presence was virtually non-existent in the early days. And while the Artists will always hold the title as game founders, they perpetually play as the underdogs.

“We always go onto the field and look at this array of talent the Writers have and say, ‘How will we win?’” Mr. Hollander said. “And about every three years, we figure out how to win. They’re younger, they have more people and they have more talent, in terms of softball. But that doesn’t mean they always win.”

Last year, the Writers clinched the victory after 10 innings by just one run—12 to 11—and will fight on Saturday to keep their title. And the Artists will struggle to redeem themselves after a narrow loss.

A coin will be tossed. One team will take the field. The other will step up to bat.

Let the Game begin.

The 65th annual Artists and Writers Charity Softball Game will be held on Saturday, August 17, at 2 p.m. at Herrick Park in East Hampton. Admission is free, but there is a $10 suggested donation. For more information, visit artistswritersgame.org.

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