The annual Artists-Writers Softball game was contested last Saturday afternoon in East Hampton. This event is held every August, going back to the very early days of the “Hamptons,” to a time even before the invention of baseball by Abner Doubleday in 1839.
The winners and losers in those early days have been lost in the mists of time, but beginning around 1948, we have reports of artist Willem de Kooning playing in the game, which took place as a picnic in the front yard of the home of artist Wilfrid Zogbaum in Springs. Attending that affair that day were Barney Rossett of Grove Press, painter Joan Mitchell, art critic Harold Rosenberg and painters Jackson Pollock and Franz Klein.
The original idea of the game was to see whether artists could hit and field better than writers. Those were intellectual times, when such a determination could make a difference in the world of philosophy and science, but in the end, or the middle, if you will, it was found that there was no difference at all between the two, and so they’d have to find some other reason to play, which they never did.
In any case, over the years, everyone from politicians to plumbers to movie and Broadway stars to Pulitzer Prize winning novelists have played in the game, either because they have been reeled in by the locals who play the game or they had come disguised as locals to stand and contest this event besides the likes of Bill Clinton, Alan Alda, Kurt Vonnegut, Pelé, Matthew Broderick, Paul Simon, Countess Luann de Lesseps…well, the list goes on.
For the last half-century, the game has been played every year on the sandlot softball field behind the supermarket on Newtown Lane in East Hampton (currently Stop & Shop). This year, after the Mayor welcomed the crowd, the Choral Society of the Hamptons sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Joe Torre, the former manager of the New York Yankees, threw out the first ball. The star of this year’s show, John Franco, leaped up and caught it as it came over the plate very high.
Everyone was happy to see Franco. He was a world-class relief pitcher for the Mets for 15 years in the 1990s and 2000s, was selected to four All Star games and played in one World Series and, as it turned out, would pitch a complete game for the Writers this year, which earned him the MVP award. There is something quite remarkable about how Franco plays. He’s graceful and at ease, he smiles all the time, he can leap tall buildings with a single bound, and in the top of the first inning he surprised everyone by coming out to pitch for the Writers.
As it happens, I have been the starting umpire for this game for the better part of 40 years, and I stood behind him on the mound when the infielders threw the ball around before the game got underway. Franco was warming up by throwing the softball overhand to his catcher. Not at 90 miles an hour. But overhand nevertheless. And every pitch was right down the pipe. This could not continue.
“It’s underhand in softball,” I told him. “Slow-pitch, underhand.” And so he complied, and now gently slow-pitching, retired the side one, two, three in the very first inning. At this rate, I thought, this game will be over in less than an hour.
But, of course, it wasn’t. In the bottom of the first, just Franco being there seemed to charge up the Writers. A huge rally ensued against pitcher Walter Bernard, from which the Artists never recovered. Mike Lupica doubled to lead off, then Benito Vila singled, Franco came up and singled (he’s a Major League PITCHER for heaven’s sake, pitchers don’t hit), Jay DiPietro singled, Bill Collage singled and when that first inning ended, the score was Writers 4, Artists 0.
Franco was wonderful to watch. The ball would come back to him after a caught long fly ball, and he’d catch the throw with a teenager’s grace. He made me think he was on the current roster of the Mets. But he’s from a prior era. He’s 55. I looked up his stats between the fourth and fifth inning on my cell phone. He had a 2.89 lifetime ERA, quite excellent. He was the team captain for four years. He would have, I bet, played whether they paid him or not. It seemed he was having so much fun.
In the fifth, Franco singled again, but was caught in a rundown and tagged out on the Jay DiPietro single to center that followed. So much for perfection. Also, it is interesting to point out that despite Franco’s lifetime 2.89 ERA in the Majors, he let in six runs, all earned, here at our annual game. That gives him a lifetime ERA of 6.00 in softball, but in spite of it he’s an undefeated winning pitcher: 1 win, 0 defeats.
In the eighth inning, an Artist rally was snuffed out when, with runners on first and second, Billy Strong flied out to center but then a quick throw picked off actor/filmmaker Michael Dougherty, who’d forgotten to tag up at first. “I made a mistake,” he said later.
And also in the eighth inning, during that same rally, moments after writer Brett Mauser hit a triple, Artists manager Ronnette Riley ran to the umpires and said Mauser had come to bat out of order. In the end, Ken Auletta persuaded the umps to decide it was a do-over, even though, by softball rules, it should have been an out. And so when the proper batter, Peter Borish, came up, he hit a single instead of a triple and it was all to no avail.
All in all, it was great fun to raise money for the Retreat, the Eleanor Whitmore Early Childhood Center, the Phoenix House Academy of Long Island and East End Hospice. The final tally of funds will be known August 30, 2016, when bidding closes on over 70 experiences, travel and art currently on Charitybuzz.com.
There was one odd thing, however. At past games, the teams have been given T-shirts, with one color for one team and a different color for the other, with the name of the player on the back and the name ARTISTS or WRITERS on the front. This year, the owner of a new apparel store in East Hampton, Big Flower, generously donated the T-shirts, caps and $10,000 to the charities to showcase the quality of the shirts, which are American grown and manufactured and retail for $110, by showing only wording on the back. As a result, all T-shirts appeared the same color and without wording on the front, which made you think that they were all on the same team, and also possibly prisoners, since their names were high up on the back. This may be fitting, as it’s rumored the first softball fundraiser was held to bail out an artist. However, there are hopes that next year the shirts will be more contrasting and possibly have logos on the back, so spectators can tell players apart.
There’s always something going on at the Artists-Writers.