A Pile Of Dirt And Its Place In History

I read last week that an elaborate operation will go into effect the moment that Derek Jeter gets his 3000th base hit. Time will be called. Then guards will accompany men with brooms, dustpans and buckets out onto the field to gently brush five liters of dirt from the infield over which Jeter has trod as he ran  first into the dustpans and then into the buckets. The men will then run off and the game will resume. But over on the sidelines, caps will be put on the liter bottles with a royal seal glued over them.

This valuable dirt will be, during the rest of the season, auctioned off by the thimbleful to the highest bidder as a collector’s record of this great event—benefiting not Derek Jeter, but the Yankee management that owns the dirt. I am not making this up. [expand]

The same day I read this, I read a press release from Town and Country Real Estate about the sacred ground where the first Artist-Writers Game was held in 1948 in the backyard of the home of artist Wilfrid Zogbaum in Springs. For just $4,990,000, all the dirt upon which that game was played can be yours.  Also, along with it come the home, the barn, the pool and over 10 acres of harborfront property.

We all know the history of this annual game. Or for those that don’t know it because they were born too late, here it is.

That first game was an informal affair, which began after a picnic lunch on the Zogbaum lawn attended by some of the greatest artists of the day. They included Franz Kline, Phillip Pavia, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Joan Mitchell. It was a softball game without anyone keeping score. And it did include a small grapefruit painted white which was swapped out with the real softball and pitched by Harold Rosenberg to sculptor Phillip Pavia who, with a mighty swing, splattered it all over himself.

Paintings by some of these artists fetch as much as  $100 million today when they go up for sale.   Springs, at that time, was becoming the center of the world for Abstract Expressionism, which took the art world by storm in the late 1940s and 1950s. The artists said the north light in Springs was unmatched for what they wanted to do. People came from all over the world to this community to see these men and women at work and purchase their paintings.

The “game” was moved to a sandlot baseball diamond in what is now Herrick Park behind Waldbaums in East Hampton in the 1960s.  Although the roots of this annual game go back to 1948, the first game actually played under the name of Artist-Writers’ Game was in 1968. It has been played every year in that same spot once a year since.

The game has been attended by a wide variety of artists, writers, billionaires, actors, actresses and directors and producers. There have also been politicians who have played, including presidential candidates and future presidents of the United States. Attending, umpiring or playing over the years have been Paul Simon, Pele, Carl Ichan, Alec Baldwin, Bianca Jagger, Regis Philbin, Chevy Chase, Christie Brinkley, Mort Zuckerman, Laurie Singer, Ken Auletta, Bill Clinton, Alan Alda, Mike Lupica, Roy Scheider, Eli Wallach, James Jones, Rudolph Guiliani, Gwen Verdon, George Plimpton, Ben Bradlee, Matthew Broderick, Peter Jennings, Abbie Hoffman and Yogi Berra.  Heavyweight challenger Jerry Cooney played for a couple of years. Hockey star Rod Gilbert played a couple of years. All have or have had places out here.

I have many memories of this game. I played for the Writers beginning in 1968, then got traded to the Artists in 1973. I think my lifetime record as a player was 3 singles in 14 at bats.

Beginning around 1978, I began umpiring the game, calling balls and strikes from behind the mound along with some of the “guest” umpires and other celebrities. All those years, in spite of my participation whatever it may have been, I’ve also written about all those games for this newspaper.

Here are some memories I have, in no particular order.

One year the great songwriter and performer Paul Simon went back and back in deep left center field, leaped up, and reaching over the snow fence, caught a towering drive, turning a home run into an out.  He also fell to the ground, having impaled himself in the back on one of the wooden stakes of the fence.  People ran out there. Fortunately, he was only slightly injured. What a catch.

I once called Christie Brinkley out on strikes. She missed three, so we gave her a fourth and a fifth.  Everybody wanted to see her run to first, but it was not to be that year.

One of the great heroes in American politics in the 1960s was Eugene McCarthy, the Democratic Senator, who challenged and then nearly beat sitting President Lyndon Johnson in a primary as he began his campaign to run for re-election. Johnson changed his mind about running after that encounter with McCarthy. He had been largely responsible for the disastrous Vietnam War. Four years later, Eugene McCarthy, in 1972 played first base for the writers. He was an editor at Simon and Schuster at that time.  I recall that he had a split down the back of his pants the whole time he played.

Abbie Hoffman, the famous hippie, played in the game in 1972. He lived in these parts in those days.  He took a ball and a strike and then “stole” first, then refused to leave. He got ejected from the game, tipping his hat as he jogged off.

For many years in the 1990s and 2000s, a great pitching duel took place every year between actor Roy Scheider for the Artists and billionaire Mort Zuckerman for the Writers. I called balls and strikes behind both of them. Zuckerman was fiery and short tempered. Scheider just had a lot of fun. Both were very good pitchers.

In most years, I would start behind the mound calling balls and strikes and then in the second and third inning be relieved for a couple of innings by our “guest” umpire. Most recently it was Mayor Rudy Guiliani.  Before that was Congressman Charles Rangel. In 1988, game coordinator Lief Hope came out to the mound with the “guest” umpire that year who was the Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton. I handed the ball over and went over to umpire at third. But I did wonder why we had the Governor of Arkansas as a guest umpire at our game. It really didn’t make sense, or so I thought.

Actor Eli Wallach, standing ramrod straight in tennis whites at the age of 88, perfectly called balls and strikes for four innings without an error. He still has acting roles in Broadway and in films at the age of 95.

There have been plenty of umpire mistakes over the years. Probably the most difficult for me was one year when George Plimpton, playing first base, wandered over into the crowd sitting on the grass along the first base line to catch a high foul ball. As it came down, actress Lori Singer, who was playing for the artists, stood up and knocked the ball away from him, leading to my calling it a foul ball, which I soon reversed to an out. That call cleared the sidelines in protest. But I stood my ground.

One year I very much enjoyed calling billionaire Carl Ichan out on strikes. He took the third one with the bat still on his shoulder. An excellent pitch it was too.

We’ve played through rain squalls and blazing heat. One game went 17 innings. A number of the games have been featured in The New York Times and Time Magazine.

For the past few years, the narrators of the game have been boxing legend Bert Sugar and television interviewer Jim Lipton. Banter goes back and forth. As good as they are, my favorite commentators over the years were PR genius John Scanlon and TV executive (now CEO of Sony) Sir Howard Stringer.

Here’s one exchange that came over the loud speaker one year as writer Walter Isaacson came up to the plate.

Scanlon:  Isaacson is much taller than he looks.

Stringer:  Winner of four Pulitzer Prizes.

Scanlon:  Author of Spinoza’s Ethics.

Stringer:  His works will be read long after Shakespeare’s are forgotten.

Scanlon:  But not before.

This year’s game will take place at the usual spot on August 20 at 2 p.m.  The game will benefit the East Hampton Day Care Learning CenterEast End Hospice and Phoenix House. Afterwards, all the players and umpires walk up through the park to the Race Lane restaurant for beers on the patio and the announcement by Lief Hope of the player of the game.

One year that was me. I won a jeroboam of white wine. I never even knew what a jeroboam was. And it was quite a feat to get it out to my car. [/expand]


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