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The Pen, The Brush & The Bat

All artists, all writers, have their respective tools of the trade. But at the annual Artists vs. Writers Softball game, this year slated for Aug. 17, the weapon both sides will wield is made of wood and swung with gusto—and, sometimes, at one another.

George Plimpton, 1991

Paul Simon, 1995

Yogi Berra and Eli Wallach, 2001

Roy Scheider, 1989

Christie Brinkley, 2006

 From left: Alec Baldwin, Pelé and Peter Boyle, 1992

Lori Singer, 1995

Jay McInerney, 2010

Cain and Abel. Lee and Grant. Mickey and Willie. And add to some of the greatest rivalries ever: The Artists vs. the Writers. Huh? Okay, a teensy overstatement. However, for 65 years, softball teams consisting of some of the more well-known artists and writers in the Hamptons have been battling for bragging rights on dusty ballfields before an ever-increasing number of spectators. Adding to the intensity of the competition is that at times, what the rivals say about one another before, during and after the games is more enjoyable than the contests themselves. The things they say about each other go something like this:

“If we feel like it, the Artists will beat the hell out of the Writers then watch them get upset and angry, because their early toilet training is obviously lacking.”
– Leif Hope, game organizer

“The untalented who sell to the unprincipled, who sell to the utterly bewildered.”
– John Scanlon, on the abstract expressionists on the Artists team

“They say he bought U.S. News & World Report so he could write a column and then be on the Writers team. I suppose if he wanted to play for the Artists he could go out and buy a paint factory.”
– Wilfrid Sheed, on Mort Zuckerman

“She’s not an artist, though many people would rather look at her than a bunch of paintings.”
– Ken Auletta, on Christie Brinkley being on the Artists team

“One year Abbie Hoffman played, saying he wanted to be on our team because he did ‘happenings.’ We let him play second base. Someone hit a pop fly; he caught it, turned, and walked away, and that’s the last we saw of him.”
– Elaine Benson, who managed the Artists team before Leif Hope

“The Writers are naturally superior—one only has to look at the course of modern art to see that artists aren’t well-coordinated. It’s inconceivable they will win again.”
– John Leo

“That’s Walter Isaacson, a man known for being on the cutting edge of passé. His biography of Henry Kissinger was on the best-seller list—for 25 minutes.”
– Howard Stringer

Despite all the trash talking, when you speak to those who’ve participated in the Writers vs. Artists Softball Game, each will tell a different tale of her or his most memorable experience. Mine was in 1989. My teammates included George Plimpton, Peter Maas, Ben Bradlee, Mike Lupica, Ken Auletta, John Leo and others with much more writing cred than I had at the time. When the bottom of the final inning began on a gorgeous East Hampton Saturday afternoon that featured Christie Brinkley and Suzanne O’Malley as cheerleaders and Roy Scheider leading the trash talk, we were winning 6-5. Three more outs and I could put “winning writer” on my rather sparse resume.

It was not to be. The Artists rallied. Sam Robards, son of Jason (and Lauren Bacall), knocked in the tying run. With two outs, a tanned Christopher Reeve, rippling muscles barely contained in a tank top, brown forelock tossed by the summer breeze, danced off second base. Paul Simon stepped to the plate. At that moment, many of us felt that this was not a fundraising and celebrity boasting event but a real game, as important and thrilling as any playoff Game 7. Simon swung and connected, lining the ball to left, and suddenly everyone was in motion. Reeve rounded third and chugged home. The catcher, Roger Podd, ripped off his mask. The left fielder’s throw arrived first, but as Podd and pitcher Mort Zuckerman juggled it, Reeve arrived sliding, kicking up an atomic cloud of dust, and when it cleared he stood triumphantly safe as his adoring Artist teammates rushed to him. There was little joy for us Writers as we drowned our sorrows afterward at The Laundry, the now-closed East Hampton restaurant owned by Leif Hope that had been the post-game watering hole since the early ’80s. 

Second-best memory? A year earlier, my first Writers vs Artists Game. Before it began, several teammates and I were stretching. One asked, “Who’s the umpire this year?” Another responded, “That guy Clinton who just spoke at the Democratic Convention.” Showing typically shrewd political judgment, I complained, “That’s the best we can do, the governor of Arkansas?” In 1988, we barely knew who Bill Clinton was—same for the rest of the country. His speech for Dukakis at the 1988 Democratic convention went on forever, and he took some ribbing for that, including during the eighth inning when John Scanlon remarked, “This game has now gone on longer than Governor Clinton’s nominating speech.” 

Not having played for quite a few years—too busy writing, I guess—I can’t tell you if the Writers and Artists still take the outcome seriously, but there’s no doubt the 65th anniversary contest this month will be the biggest one yet, at least in terms of popularity and benefit proceeds. 

According to the official account, the event began in 1948 as a pickup game during a picnic somewhere in East Hampton attended by Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Philip Pavia and Franz Kline. This could be apocryphal, but who’s left to say otherwise? In the ensuing years, added to the roster were Leo Castelli, Joan Mitchell, Barney Rosset, Elaine de Kooning and Esteban Vicente. It wasn’t until 1966, when the game was played in the backyard of the artist Syd Solomon, that the players separated into teams by occupation. By then, Jim Dine, Larry Rivers, Terry Southern and Jerry Leiber were cutting and slashing at the plate.

When did the game become more than an excuse for laughs and libations, morphing from a comedy of errors to the sports equivalent of a Hollywood summer blockbuster? When did it become the big event that’s now a fixture on every Hamptons summer calendar? By “big,” I mean—well, look at last year’s game. The Writers couldn’t have composed a better script: an extra-inning victory over the Artists 12-11. But few people care about who wins or loses—it’s about the celebs who show up, and the money. A grizzled Lupica was still in the lineup, as was Auletta. And Leif Hope still managed the Artists… But the star wattage of the players has dimmed over the years. One exception last year was Carl Bernstein; another was the return of the guy who went on to be the umpire-in-chief, Bill Clinton, this time just a spectator. (Expect a return visit, since he and Hillary are renting in East Hampton this August.) And huge props go to the game and its organizers, because they do paint the coffers of local charities green. Reportedly, close to $100,000 was raised for East End Hospice, East Hampton Day Care Learning Center, Phoenix House and The Retreat.

The march to such a large stage can be traced to when the game went big-time, politically and theatrically (and sometimes both). The 1968 contest—the first to be held in Herrick Park, its present venue—was a fundraiser for Senator Eugene McCarthy, with his presidential aspirations. Two years later, money went into a legal defense fund for Bob Gwathmey, a local artist who was arrested for flying an American flag with a peace sign stitched to it. (The Gwathmey case eventually landed before the U.S. Supreme Court, with Gwathmey winning.) The year after that, Woody Allen played and Gwen Verdon was the umpire. In 1972, in a fundraiser for George McGovern, who was running for president that year, Dustin Hoffman made his debut as a pitcher for the Artists. Later, Herman Cherry replaced Hoffman on the mound, and when Plimpton hit the ball on an at-bat, it exploded—it had been replaced by a grapefruit painted white (a gag that had been used several times with various participants. The first time was in 1972).

The 1975 Writers lineup boasted Paris Review co-founder Peter Matthiessen, Wilfrid Sheed, Clifford Irving, James Brady and Gene McCarthy. (After sharing an outfield with Plimpton and Bradlee, all wearing shorts, Brady observed, “I have never before seen so many skinny white legs.”) Over the seasons Abbie Hoffman has played in the game; so have John Irving, Murray Kempton, Walter Isaacson, Chevy Chase, Richard Reeves, Jimmy Ernst, Regis Philbin, Peter Boyle, Dick Cavett, Peter Jennings, Alec Baldwin, Randy Rosenthal, David Geiser, Jay McInerney, Tony Randall, Ed Burns and even flamenco guitarist Carlos Montoya and boxer Gerry Cooney. How did a fighter make the Artists roster? It was speculated before the 1990 contest that it was because of all the time he spent on the canvas. During that game, after Cooney collided with him, Plimpton commented, “He certainly did more damage to me than he did to George Foreman last January.” At The Laundry after-party, though, no one had a bigger grin than Gentle Gerry.

Emcees and cheerleaders have included Bianca Jagger, Betty Friedan, PR guru John Scanlon, Mercedes Ruehl and Sony chief Howard Stringer. Kurt Vonnegut created lithographs to be auctioned. Walter Bernard designed the official poster. In 1996, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer was the umpire; and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani did the honors in 2005. Lori Singer, who became a star in Footloose, reappears in the game once a year, like Punxsutawney Phil. In recent years, thanks to Eric Ernst and Michael Solomon, a second generation has been on the Artists squad.

Not everyone has been enamored of the Artists vs.Writers Game’s expansion into a media event. In 1990, Wilfrid Sheed—whose novel The Boys of Winter was about a group of softball players in the Hamptons—told a reporter, “In the early days there really was no attempt to make it into a polished game, and any shambling defective could get in.” He contended that there was a feeling among the early players “of shock and resentment that the game has been transformed into such a monster” and that “the evolution of the game is a parable for the entire Hamptons scene.”

Despite such dire prognostications, for many people the game today is a lovable monster, especially for the four charities that benefit year-round from this one summer Saturday in the park. For this year’s “event” (sponsors include HBO, Snapple, Regal Entertainment and ESPN Radio), be sure to get there early. 

I used to park in Syd Solomon’s yard, but that was back in the day...