The last time he went to bat, George Plimpton hit a sharp line drive. “Well,” he said to me, “That makes my day.” “It’d make my year,” I said. He laughed and said, “You’re right. Damn that was good.” So, there we were, two not-so-young-anymore writers, guys who did pretty well, talking about the best Saturday of every year. There is some argument about when the game began, was it 1948 or’49? Or some other year when George and I were kids? But there is no doubt about where it stood with us, right up there with Pulitzer Prizes and the New York Times best-seller list. Players in the game, have included politicians, including one President, Bill Clinton, and more than a couple of candidates, including Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern and Rudy Giuliani. The game was originally all artists, casual weekend affairs in the Springs. The players were or became legends, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Philip Pavia, Franz Kline, Howard Kanovitz, Wifred Zogbaum, Syd Solomon and Joan Mitchell. Some good ballplayers (Pavia), some hopeless (de Kooning). The first pitcher was Harold Rosenberg, the art critic of The New Yorker.
Writers began to appear more. Terry Southern and Arthur Blaustein were among the first. Older artists grumble that the writers took it more seriously. With faces often pale from too much time spent alone at a keyboard, they were there to win. The “savages” included Saul Bellow, Joe Heller, Pete Hamill, Peter Maas, Willie Morris, Peter Matthiessen, James Jones, Ed Doctorow, Irwin Shaw, Wilfrid Sheed, Avery Corman, John Leo, Carl Bernstein, Walter Isaacson, Mike Lupica, Neil Simon, Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving and Tom Wolfe. The formal dividing of the game into Artists vs. Writers was when the fun began––or perhaps ended. It depends on whom you ask. In 1976, after years of Artists’ defeats, Leif Hope hired two professional women softball players. Soon enough, ringers became part of the game. Hope recruited former NY Jets Wesley Walker and Marty Lyons, players bigger than Baldwin, Rod Gilbert and even Pelé. Some players were real athletes, actors, singers and politicians, even Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer once called balls and strikes. Spectators were watching the Baldwins, Christopher Reeve and Paul Simon––along with above-the-title celebrities including Lauren Bacall, Woody Allen, Dustin Hoffman, Alan Alda, Matthew Broderick, Roy Scheider, Chevy Chase, Regis Philbin, Tony Randall and Eli Wallach.
Among the more than 400 who played in the game to date were other stars: Lori Singer is a regular in both the Artists & Writers Game and the 38-year old Sag Harbor Game and Christie Brinkley, who was allowed six strikes and still didn’t hit the damn ball, often plays. Bob Balaban, Peter Boyle, Lorraine Bracco, Ben Bradlee, James Brady and Josh Charles, good ones, James Brooks, Ed Burns, another good one, Dick Cavett, Eartha Kitt, who sang the National Anthem, Norman Lear, James Lipton, Mark Feuerstien and Dr. Ruth. Ex- convicts were also part of the mix: Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Clifford Irving. Hoffman and Irving, by the way, were also pretty good. The bravest men on the field for the last 30 years are Leif Hope, the Artists’ coach and Ken Auletta, the Writers’ boss. Their problem, year after year, is balancing enough talented players to have a chance of winning, with enough big names to keep the crowd happy––and stroke the fair vanities of all. The first move toward charity was in 1970, when the game raised money for Bob Gwathmey. He had been arrested after he sewed a peace symbol over the field of stars on the American flag. But these are First Amendment guys, so Rudy Giuliani, Tom Wolfe, John Leo, Jerry Della Femina and other conservatives were welcomed. Even Bill O’Reilly turned up one year, claiming he was a journalist. Hell, even Canadians are allowed in, meaning Peter Jennings and Mort Zuckerman, who denies that he bought The Atlantic magazine to get into the Sag Harbor Game. Mort, a pitcher most years, won his MVP in 1987.
The four recipients for the money raised in 2012: The East Hampton Day Care Learning Center, the East End Hospice, the Long Island Phoenix Houses, and The Retreat. Oh, the score! In what we call “Modern Times” the Writers have won 28 games, the Artists 16 and there has been one tie. No one remembers the scores of the other 20 games. Leif Hope likes to emphasize that the Artists have won 11 of the last 23 games.
The Artist and Writers Game has many traditions. Perhaps the best-known one is challenging the credentials of players on the opposite team. Is the fellow there at shortshop a true painter, sculptor, actor, journalist or literary figure or is he a mortuary assistant who happens to hit well, and so has been added as a ringer by Ken Auletta of the alleged writers or Leif Hope of the so-called artists? “Your second baseman is a bartender, “a player for the writers might say. “There’s an art to that—and your left-fielder writes nothing but checks,” an artist would reply. When Mort Zuckerman first showed up to pitch for the writers, before he established himself as a well-known editorialist, the artists wondered how he qualified as a writer. “He owns US News,” someone said. Leif’s response: “Well, next year he can buy a paint factory and pitch for the artists.” The late John Scanlon, the play-by-play announcer for several years, had a couple of weaknesses in trying to fill that job: he never bothered to learn the names of the artists, and he had trouble understanding why the game needed any artists at all. When these people worked, if you could call it that, they didn’t even use words!
So if an artist was coming to bat, Scanlon might announce: “Here comes Petrillo the artist (heh, heh). He paints landscapes. No, wait. I think he paints houses. I’ll have to check.” So poor Petrillo, who was probably some sort of master of abstract digital video, had to try concentrating on batting while Scanlon would be cackling away about how many houses Petrillo had painted in the Hamptons, cheap too, and how he is thinking of branching out into Hummel-making, though his wife thinks that might be a bit risky, with a smaller profit-margin and all.
Not that Scanlon treated writers any better. He once introduced screenwriter Alan Trustman as “the author of ‘Crime and Punishment’—maybe you read his book.” And when writer Robert Sam Anson came out with a new book, sold at the game, Scanlon took over the demanding task of signing the books for Anson, inserting heartwarming greetings and offbeat references, for instance “Check page 43—I’m sure you’ll understand.”
But of course the new owner of the book couldn’t understand. Page 43 might deal with well-digging in Vietnam. Scanlon wrote no books, but, of course, on the basis of his creative inscriptions on other people’s book, he clearly qualified to play for the writers.
The head of NBC News lay sprawled in the dirt, his face a Kabuki mask of pain and confusion, his shoulder twisted and contorted at an unnatural angle while nearby, on first base, stood the former heavyweight boxer and one-time Great White Hope, whose heads up hustle (and bone crushing collision) had won him an infield single. Among the spectators, who had come to see celebrities like Paul Simon, Christie Brinkley or Regis Philbin, the initial response was a kind of shocked silence. Midst the startled hush while the television executive was carted off the field and taken to Southampton Hospital, I heard someone nearby ask, “What the hell was that? I thought this was a friendly game.” A game made up of friends perhaps, but in the many years since I started watching the game as a child I’ve seen the textbook evolution of a competition that is, in the deluded minds of the players themselves, as intense and legitimate as the Red Sox against the Yankees, Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier, or the Celtics facing the Lakers. Motivated by the same explosively flammable combination of competitive drive and repetitive familiarity (absent, of course, any discernable athletic prowess), the Artist Writers game illustrates with immediate clarity that victory is most satisfying when it’s over those one is most familiar with.
As I once thought I heard the noted author Ken Auletta intone, he whose graceful fielding at first base is so often accented by quotes from Louisa May Alcott, “Rivalry adds so much to the charm of one’s conquests.” So when might this blood feud have actually begun? Some have maintained it started when the writers began showing up more regularly and insisted on playing by legitimate rules. Up to that point the games were distinctly pick-up affairs where regulations were less important than libations and where the final score was often unknown to but a few who had actually paid attention.
All of a sudden, however, a premium was placed on actually knowing the intricacies of the game, subtleties often lost on artists like Willem deKooning, Esteban Vicente, or my father, European émigrés all who loved American baseball but had been raised playing soccer.
As for the writers, each year always seemed to boast a dramatically better line- up than the year before with luminaries like George Plimpton elegantly patrolling center field like a WASP Joe Dimaggio, Neil Simon slinging wisecracks and cracking doubles over Larry Rivers’ head, or Jimmy Lipton, playing a scrappy second base like a cross between Dodger great Eddie Stanky and an angry badger. Against this kind of line-up throughout my youth the artists never provided a serious contest so no true rivalry developed until Lief Hope expanded his role from artist manager to P.T. Barnum-like promoter on behalf of the various worthy causes the game serves to benefit.
The germination for the idea of raising money for charity began when the game was used to gather campaign funds for Eugene McCarthy (the only poet/Senator to ever run for President) and then a few years later to help defend artists Bob Gwathmey and Bill Durham in a landmark civil rights case which involved their arrest for flying a bath towel painted to look like the American flag with a peace sign where the stars would be.
Having realized it was possible to raise funds for a candidate who couldn’t possibly win as well as helping to keep artists with a whimsical sense of political protest out of jail, an idea was born and Lief, while now seeing the altruistic possibilities the game presented, also recognized that in order to attract attention it would be necessary to promote the game in a whole new way. As a result, his first promotion was fielding an all-girl team of artists and hiring a professional woman softball player to fire 90 mile per hour inside fastballs at the writers’ which, for some inexplicable reason, many of the scribes found distinctly unfunny. They didn’t find it entertaining when she pitched a scoreless first inning and they were even more demonstrably unhappy when she was brought back into the game to squelch a writer’s rally in the ninth. The artists ended up winning a game for the first time in modern memory and, among the writers, the manager of the artists had earned the loveable nickname “that son of a bitch Lief Hope”. Over the years other professional athletes were to follow including Dale Berra, Wesley Walker, Pele, and Marty Lyons (whose mammoth home run into the tennis courts is still spoken of in hushed tones), but it was the actual accumulation of talent on the artists’ team in the early 1990’s that truly leveled the playing field. Admittedly, the definition of artist had expanded to include just about any profession that even remotely could be construed as ‘creative’ but, at the same time, as soon as the game became competitive the meaning of ‘writer’ also became significantly more elastic as well.
The artists would add a landscape architect which would be parried by an advertising executive who writes copy which was upped by a lawyer who has an artist for a client which was then offset by a real estate agent who once wrote a short story. And so on. One wonders, then, what new manifestation of gamesmanship will be required for the two teams to remain competitive in the coming years, especially as the core players for each team inevitably must bow to the inevitable inroads of time. Already within the past few years, a number of incidents of the use of performance enhancing substances have been documented including an overdose of Red Bull (leading the overly energized and wide-eyed runner to forget that one can’t go from first to third by bisecting the diamond) and steroid use (actually a cortisone injection for a bad shoulder but, hey, it’s a steroid). Further, at least one storied member of the artist team has for years been a known aspirin and milk junkie.
It should be pointed out, however, that even absent these recent evolutionary trends towards more competent contests, the historical enmity between artists and writers will always guarantee a measure of personal animosity regardless of talent on either side. This has been true from the moment in 1456 when the Renaissance sculptor Donatello taped a ‘kick me’ sign to the back of author Leon Battista Alberti’s cloak, it was evident when heavyweight Gerry Cooney flattened NBC’s Andrew Lack, and it’ll be just as apparent this summer when sportswriter Mike Lupica has his annual collision at home plate with sculptor Randall Rosenthal.
All I remember is a game about twenty years ago, in which umpire Dan Rattiner failed to call a caught pop-up in foul territory out, because he didn’t, and probably still doesn’t, know the rules. (John Scanlon used to instruct people in the pronunciation of Dan’s name with “Ich bin ein Rattiner.”) In fact, Dan was no worse at his position than was I, once a high school pitcher. In that same game, I dropped an easy toss at second because I was overexcited at the prospect of turning a double play. Had I not been legally dead already, Mike Lupica’s contemptuous glance would have finished the job. In those early days, the only guy who actually played softball, among what Peter Stone called “Schindler’s B List,” was Leif Hope, who, at my age now, was in such good shape, one wanted to get four other guys and beat him up. I take that back. Lori Singer was good, too. As was Ken Auletta, who manages the Writers today, and is so win-crazy, that if he came upon a drunk who could hit, he’d make him sign his name, call him a writer, and put him at clean-up. We are talking about an event that has drawn to the plate the likes of Willem De Kooning, Edgar Doctorow, Jackson Pollock, Lauren Bacall, Alan Alda, Betty Friedan, Avery Corman, Eugene McCarthy, Ben Bradlee, Bill Clinton, who couldn’t play, and Paul Simon, who could. No East End tradition can hold a candle to it, including the Sag Harbor group reading of Moby-Dick, which extends from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The Artists and Writers game is fun, and even if it gets ludicrously intense from time to time, the game thrives, thanks to the good and sensible natures of people such as John and Jackie Leo and Kevin and Deb McEneaney, who understand that we are playing in a charity event, not the World Series.
What the A&W game gives the summer is something pleasant to focus on, to look forward and back to in a season when days tend to meld into one another in a sweet haze. At the same time, the game realizes the barely-hidden dream of every artist and writer in the group, none of whom would choose to be what we are if we could be Robbie Cano instead. Imagine Cano, David Ortiz, Joe Mauer, David Price, Roy Halladay, Miguel Cabrera and Derek Jeter suiting up for a Painting and Writing competition. (“Ooh,” says Big Papi, “I simply love that lavendar!) For one glorious day in August, we arise from our dark solitude, blink at the sunshine, break into teams, and play at being athletes. Big, strong, young athletes. Cool.”