EAST HAMPTON, N.Y. (AP) — Its roster of participants is impressive: former President Bill Clinton, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, three Baldwins, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Simon, Jackson Pollock and Kurt Vonnegut, to name just a few.
Organizers of the annual East Hampton Artists & Writers softball games are a little fuzzy about when they got their start — most peg it to around 1948, when artists including Pollock, Willem de Kooning and others organized casual pickup games on summer afternoons in their yards. Today they have become one of the premier events in the Hamptons, New York’s summer resort for the haves and have mores.
“I’ve played against some of the greatest house painters in the world,” jokes reporter Carl Bernstein, making a common, good-natured accusation that his opponents pepper their rosters with “ringers” to gain a competitive advantage.
This year’s game, billed as the 65th and slated for Aug. 17, is expected to draw thousands to watch writers such as Bernstein, Richard Reeves and Mike Lupica play artists including Domingo Zapata and Eric Ernst and actors Josh Charles, Lori Singer and others. With the support of corporate sponsors and deep-pocketed donors, the game is expected to raise $100,000 for eastern Long Island charities.
“Like professional wrestlers, we pretend we want to kill our opponent,” says author Ken Auletta, the longtime captain of the writer’s team. “We mock how the other side cheats. We act like winning is all that matters. Winning does matter. But so does the camaraderie forged over many games and many after-game beers.
“And most of all, so does the money we raise at the game for needy local charities.”
As the game has grown in popularity, celebrities have increasingly clamored to play. Batting practice begins at noon, where competitors are sized up by captains Auletta and Lief Hope, the longtime helmsman of the artists’ squad.
Over the years, there have been regular disputes over what constitutes an artist or a writer. Boxer Gerry Cooney once played, organizers recall, because he worked on canvas (nyuk nyuk) and a pair of power-hitting attorneys played one year for the writers, qualifying because they wrote “legal briefs.” Another year, the artists squad recruited a couple of semiprofessional women’s softball players, including a pitcher who threw laser beams at opposing players.
Paul Simon, who only played a couple of years, is considered among the better competitors. “The line, ‘Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?’ is self-referential,” Bernstein jokes. And former Jets behemoth lineman Marty Lyons is remembered for hitting perhaps the longest home run in the lore of the game. Among the many gags played during the contest is a moment when a cantaloupe or turnip is substituted for a softball and thrown to a batter.
“Recently, the splatter across home plate caused by Willem de Kooning’s hit sold for $500,000,” jokes Fred Graver, a former National Lampoon editor-in-chief who wrote for David Letterman and Jon Stewart.
To commemorate the 65th anniversary, organizers last month held an art exhibition at East Hampton’s Guild Hall, where they displayed works from artists such as Pollock, de Kooning, Ernst and Hope.
A common theme of all games is that precious few keep track of the actual score. Reeves estimates in an essay for this year’s game program that in “modern times,” the writers have won 28 games, the artists 16 and there has been one tie. Juliet Papa, a reporter for WINS Radio who helps announce the games, notes that two popular Hamptons weekly newspapers often report different outcomes from the same game.
“It’s the only game I know of where a play can be contested two innings after it occurs,” Graver says.
The roll call of former players numbers in the hundreds, organizers said. Among the more notables are supermodel Christie Brinkley, Alec, Billy and Stephen Baldwin, Yogi Berra and his son Dale, Bob Woodward, Tom Wolfe, Martha Stewart, George Plimpton, Phillip Pavia, Bianca Jagger, John Irving, Clifford Irving, Josh Charles and Chevy Chase.
Publisher Mort Zuckerman, who pitches for the writers’ team, said several years ago he persuaded his friend Justice Breyer to umpire. Breyer, Zuckerman said, “was willing to give up a seat on the court in order to get into this game.”
Clinton was a little-known Arkansas governor in 1988 when he umpired, hitching a ride to the post-game party with another player. It was a different story last year, when the former president appeared to cheers, halting the proceedings to sign autographs.
Graphic artist Walter Bernard recalls the 1976 contest, when New York Times theater critic Clive Barnes was calling balls and strikes.
“The first pitch of the game, he said, was adequate.”