The annual Artists-Writers Game is a Hamptons tradition, played on a Saturday in August every year in Herrick Park behind the Waldbaum’s supermarket in East Hampton. It’s been written about in The New York Times and New York magazine and was even featured in TIME magazine back when that magazine was in its heyday. This year’s game will be Saturday, August 17.
The game, a softball game, was first played in 1948 in someone’s backyard, but since at the time—and for a long time thereafter—it was not known that it was to become a tradition, nobody remembers whose backyard it was, even looking at black-and-white pictures taken of the game. Attending were Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline Philip Pavia and Jackson Pollock. Also, it was a family picnic. Nobody remembers who won.
What everyone considers the first Artist-Writers Game took place in 1954. It was in Wilfrid Zogbaum’s front yard in the Springs. In addition to the artists mentioned in the earlier game, others attending included Esteban Vicente, Elaine de Kooning, Leo Castelli, Joan Mitchell, Harold Rosenberg and Barney Rossett, the publisher of some very controversial books of that era. Because of writer Harold Rosenberg and Rossett’s connection with writers as a publisher, this is believed to be the first of the games that pitted Artists and Writers. Again, though, nobody kept score.
Some years before 1954 and for some time afterwards, the game was not played annually. It didn’t even have the official name yet. It was like the universe, slowly forming after the Big Bang, aligning and then realigning itself into what it is today. For example, they still weren’t keeping score in 1966, and the game had not yet found its home at Herrick Park. That year’s game was played in Syd Solomon’s backyard in Georgica. Nevertheless, that game in 1966 marks the beginning of the officially named “Artist-Writers Game.” The following year, still at Solomon’s, there was a score and the Writer’s won. But again, blame it on the universe, nobody bothered to write down what that score was and nobody remembers.
The fact that the Writers won that year, however, marks an astonishing eight-year streak where the Writers won, sometimes by huge margins. Nobody could understand this. When I joined playing the game two years later, I wrote an account of the game in Dan’s Papers and noted, referring to the difference, that when the Writers took the field in the top of the first, they looked sober, industrious and highly organized, while the Artists, when they took the field in the bottom of that inning, looked lethargic, awkward and seemingly hung-over.
Others speculated that Artists are cooped up indoors because they can’t get their canvases wet. The Writers, on the other hand, are outdoors a lot, chasing down stories, gathering research, staying fit.
That next year, 1968, was still another blowout. The Writers won 21 to 2. In that game, playwright Neil Simon hit for the Artists, as did Victor Cagliotti, Leif Hope, Ibram Lassaw and Carlos Montoya, the Spanish guitarist. Playing for the Writers that year was Murray Kempton of The New York Times. The game benefitted the candidacy of Senator Eugene McCarthy, who was running for the Democratic nomination for President against the incumbent, Lyndon Johnson. McCarthy never beat this sitting President in a primary, but he came so close that Lyndon Johnson soon announced he would withdraw. It was an admission that the Vietnam War was a bad decision.
In 1969, the Writers slaughtered the Artists again, by 16–2. Eugene McCarthy, apparently in appreciation, came from his Wisconsin home to play in the game. In sliding into second, however, he split the seam in the back of his pants. He didn’t notice it. Nobody told him about it. What the hell.
The 1970 game, which the Writers once again won, by 8 to 6, was played to raise legal funds for Bob Gwathmey, an Amagansett man who had flown an American flag at his home with the peace sign stitched where the stars normally would be. He’d been charged by the town police with the crime of desecrating the flag. The case went all the way up to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Gwathmey. What Gwathmey did, the Court ruled, was “political expression.”
It is hard to imagine today all the rebellions and college takeovers and student protests that were taking place in those years. The country was split in two. The “Establishment” was in charge, was strict, warlike and, if not repressive, secretive. American youth, having been told by retiring President Eisenhower that the country should beware of “the industrial-military complex,” protested against every institution and government organization they could find. The “counter-culture,” which people on that side called themselves, were in favor of freedom of speech, ending the Vietnam War, legalizing marijuana, taking drugs, women’s rights, allowing pornography as a form of “artistic expression,” African-American rights, the rights of workers and, in colleges, a place at the table for the students. It was quite an agenda and it had a huge impact on this country as the years went by, not the least of which, here in the Hamptons, was in its establishment of the counter-culture attitude of the Artists-Writers game.
The 1972 game, for example, was played as a fundraiser for Democratic candidate George McGovern, who was running for President against incumbent Richard Nixon. McGovern was beaten, but it was helped along by the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in a night burglary by hired hands of the Nixon administration. When Nixon publicly lied about what he knew and didn’t know, he was, in order not to be impeached, forced to resign. He was the only President ever to resign from the Presidency in our history.
Joe Heller, the author of Catch-22, played in that game for the Writers in 1972. Also, the first woman was allowed in the game. It was Sylvia Tannenbaum, a painter who, five years later, sold a novel, Rachel, the Rabbi’s Wife, which became a #1 best-seller. She played for the Artists that year. Also appearing in this game were Adolph Greene, actor Eli Wallach, and Andy Malone and John Johnson, two locals who were “painters” by virtue of the fact that they had painted cars in their respective auto-body shops. Actresses Anne Jackson and Gwen Verdon were outfield umpires that year, right field and short center field, respectively. At 7 to 5, it was close. In fact, after the Writers went down in the top of the first without scoring, one artist was heard to comment about the fact that they were still tied, “this is the first time we’ve been this close.” Of course, they didn’t score in the first, either.
It actually appeared, in the ninth inning of the 1973 game, that the Artists for the first time would break the curse. Going into the top of the ninth, they were behind 11 to 6. But then they produced an incredible six-run rally to suddenly take the lead.
When that inning opened with a walk, Writers coach Gardiner Spungin took out his pitcher Maxine Fave, the noted fiction writer, and put in Peter Maas (Serpico) to face Ben Heller, an art dealer who had hit a home run earlier in the game. On the second pitch, Heller powered it over the left-field wall to bring the game to 11 to 8. Mike Croce then walked. Noel Smith doubled, Mark Smith singled, and then painter Ralph Carpentier singled, and suddenly, for the first time in eight years, the Artists were in the lead, 12 to 11.
A game delay followed. The crowd went nuts. Everyone had forgotten that the Writers had one final set of outs in the bottom of the ninth. So finally, when everybody settled down, they made good use of it. They produced two runs, the last from a single by Jack Graves, and that won the game, 13 to 12.
How could the Writers just continue every year to beat up on or humiliate the Artists? Elaine Benson, the art gallery owner who coached the Artists through some of those years, explained it this way in covering the game for Dan’s Papers that year.
“The Writers are rugged types who practice all year. The Artists, individuals all, iconoclasts even, have to be implored and herded, even, just to get together for this one-day event.”
Well known people who played in that game in 1973 were hippie Abbie Hoffman (author of Steal This Book), who had a house in Amagansett that summer with his wife Anita, and came to the plate for his first appearance without a bat. Then when he got the bat, he got into his stance, put his bat on the plate and stole first. The umpire sent him back, regretfully, so he could actually swing at something. He singled. But then he ran off and disappeared, to reappear in another part of the park playing on the seesaw with some little kids.
Also in this game were James Lipton, Murray Schisgal, Jimmy Kirkwood, Tom Paxton, and many of the others mentioned before. Betty Friedan umpired this game. As for me, I played second base for the Artists and went one for two.
For me, personal highlights of the game, which I have started as balls and strikes Umpire since about 1981, have been calling Carl Icahn out on strikes, calling Strike Four and Strike Five on Christie Brinkley, and handing the ball to Bill Clinton after umpiring three innings so he could handle the rest of the game and telling him “if you need any help from me about anything, I’ll be on third base, umpiring there.”
This article ends in an anti-climax. In 1974 the game was played, but for one reason or another there was no write-up about the game in any of the newspapers, either in Dan’s Papers or The East Hampton Star. All anybody knows about the 1974 game was that it was a thriller and the only run scored was off the bat of Eugene McCarthy, who eight years earlier had caused that cosmic shift in the Presidency of the United States.
At this point, McCarthy was no longer a senator, he was now an editor in New York City at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich and was a writer of poetry. The mention of this 1–0 game comes only in an article in The East Hampton Star that year inviting people to come hear Senator McCarthy read his poems. The article talks about the reading, then says, oh, by the way, Eugene McCarthy won the Artist-Writers game for the Artists this year.
Over the years, many famous and infamous people played in the Artist-Writers game. They have included Christie Brinkley, Alec Baldwin, Mayor Giuliani, Congressman Charles Rangel, former Cleveland Mayor and NBC commentator Carl Stokes, Bill Clinton (as Governor of Arkansas), Roy Scheider, Paul Simon, Ken Auletta, Walter Isaacson, Mort Zuckerman, Dick Cavett, John Irving, Mike Lupica, boxer Gerry Cooney, Suzanne O’Malley, John Scanlon, Walter Bernard, Richard Reeves, Regis Philbin, Lori Singer, Eric Ernst, Ben Bradlee, Peter Jennings, Jay McInerney, Brett Shevack, football players Wesley Walker and Marty Lyons, Jeff Meizlik, Tom Clohessy, Richard Wiese, Dennis Lawrence, Joe Sopiak, Carl Bernstein, Josh Charles (star of The Good Wife), Ed Hollander, N.Y. Yankee Jim Leyritz, Real Housewife Countess LuAnn, Royal Pains star Mark Feuerstein, and painter Leif Hope, who for the last 30 years has acted as “Chairman of the Board” of the game.
Also attending the game at various times have been Lauren Bacall, Bianca Jagger, Yogi Berra, Mercedes Ruehl, Woody Allen, Mark Greene, America’s Next Top Model’s Kim Stolz, and last year, Bill Clinton, returning for a visit all these years since he umpired.
Another memory I have is something that happened at the singing of the National Anthem to kick off the game. Different singers, some of them quite prominent, have sung that before the game starts with announcements and awards at the pitcher’s mound. But one year, I recall that the kids from the East Hampton Child Care Center were called up to sing and, as the crowd rose to its feet, launched into “Bingo Was His Name-o” The crowd sang along with the chorus. And I thought that anthem was a better anthem then the regular one we are used to.
A collection of paraphernalia, photographs and memories of the 64 years of the Artist-Writers Game is available to be seen in the exhibit “They Played in the Game” at Guild Hall on Main Street in East Hampton until Sunday, July 28.