Artists & Writers Softball Game Through the Ages with Ken Auletta & Leif Hope

Ken Auletta and Leif Hope at the 2017 Artists & Writers Softball Game
Ken Auletta and Leif Hope at the 2017 Artists & Writers Softball Game

On this, the Artists & Writers 70th Anniversary Charity Softball Game, we went to two men who have been a part of the action for decades. Ken Auletta, Captain of the Writers team, and Leif Hope, Captain of the Artists team, sat to chat about what it means to hold this event and to reminisce about nostalgic moments of the past.

Ken Auletta

XC: To begin, for those of us reading this program who don’t already know, tell us who you are outside of the game and what you do.
KA: I’m a writer for The New Yorker magazine. I have been since 1977. I’m the author of 12 books, 5 of them national best-sellers.

XC: Wonderful. You just released a new book, yes? This past June?
KA: Yes, my 12th book, called Frenemies.

XC: That’s fantastic. Tell me, how long have you been involved with Artists & Writers?
KA: I would think I played in my first game somewhere in the ’80s. My educated guess would be that I became captain of the Writers team probably 18 years ago.

Regis Philbin at 1995 Artist & Writers Game
Regis Philbin at 1995 Artists & Writers Game

XC: As captain, do you go into the game every year with a strategy for beating the Artists?
There are three goals, and sometimes they’re contradictory. One, to have fun. Two is, in having fun, make it enjoyable for the audience who are here raising money for the four local charities. Three, is to win. Having fun and making it worthwhile for the charities and audience sometimes may conflict with winning. What I try to do is get everyone in who comes. Sometimes it’s just not possible, and you have 50 people and everyone’s not at equal ability, softball-wise. You don’t want to play a weak player in center field or shortstop for nine innings. So it’s always a judgement call between those objectives and the objective of being democratic and getting as many players in as possible and also winning. You’re constantly juggling that. One of the things I do as captain is, I start at first base and I take myself out first. So by taking myself out first, it gives me the authority to take out others, because I’m not favoring myself. Some people don’t want to come out sometimes, but I say, “Hey, I took myself out, we got to get people in.”

XC: Tell me what you know about the rumor that the game started as a means to raise bail money.
KA: I never heard that. Or at least it never came up in my era, in the ’80s. If it’s true, it happened long before me.

Carl Bernstein and Eric Ernst
Carl Bernstein and Eric Ernst

XC: How do you feel about the game and how it impacts local charities?
KA: I think it’s great fun. It’s community building. It’s raising money for local philanthropic organizations. I wish we could raise more money for them. The audience who comes, the people the event attracts, they’re the contributors. We’re out there and we’re having fun and playing a game—we pay for hats and shirts and maybe take out ads in the program, but essentially the contributions come from the people who come to the game. The players are not really making a sacrifice. It’s all credit to the fans who come, and I hope more come. One of the things the Board did this year, which was smart, I think, was to make the game a little later so that it doesn’t encroach on beach time. You know on a sunny day, you don’t want to sit outdoors at two o’clock in the afternoon. You’d much rather do that at four o’clock.

XC: Agreed. It’s about satisfying the fans. I’m sure many long-time goers want to know if you have some top memorable moments from over the years.
KA: We’ve had a number of really good games, including in the last few years. We had one, two years ago that went into overtime—extra innings. But you remember incidents that are fun… or at least memorable, probably not fun. For instance, I remember when Gerry Cooney, heavyweight champion of the world, who they somehow decided was an artist—maybe he was an artist of flopping down on the canvas after getting punched—he didn’t qualify as an artist but nevertheless he played. And he had never played softball before. He thought what you did was hit the ball, run to first base and instead of stepping on the base, you’re supposed to knock over the first baseman. So this big guy running down at full speed runs into and knocks over our first baseman, Andrew Lack, who was the president of NBC News and broke his shoulder! So Andrew Lack is never going to play anymore. He thinks it’s a bunch of savages playing. Now that was funny for me and probably funny for others, but it wasn’t funny for Andrew Lack.

Alec Baldwin at 2010 Artist & Writers Game, Photo: Sonia Moskowitz
Alec Baldwin at the 2010 Artists & Writers Game, Photo: Sonia Moskowitz

I remember another time when I was playing left field and a shallow fly ball was hit to me, and Alec Baldwin was on third base and he decided that he would try to tag up from third base. I mean, I was literally almost over the shortstop so it’s a very short throw for me in left field to home plate. Alec Baldwin decides to tag up and the ball fell on the plate. Jay McInerney, writer, was the catcher and Alec did what Gerry Cooney did and bowled him over. But Jay held onto the ball and it was an out.

There’s also another time when Leif Hope, manager of the Artists team, decided that a pro football player, Marty Lyons was his name, was really an artist. He was about 6’4” and his muscles were bulging. He hit a ball over the tennis court in left field. Literally the outfield, we didn’t move. We just saw this thing fly over the tennis court. We knew there was no reason to move, there was no way to catch it. It was the most towering home run I had ever seen hit. And of course we protested and said, “Well, why is he an artist?” They said, “Well, look at that hit! Wasn’t that an artistic hit?”

So yeah, we’ve had memories like that. I remember another time when I was playing center field and Paul Simon, the singer, was playing left field, and Paul was a good athlete, actually. That year they had put netting around the tennis courts and around the outfield to set up parameters for the game. But they had very low steel bars holding the netting up, that were very pointy and rough at the top. Paul, is a short guy and he went for a ball and he banged just below his eye on that steel frame and he cut himself. That wasn’t fun…

Former Yankee Jim Leyritz and Bill Clinton at the 2013 Artist & Writers Game
Former Yankee Jim Leyritz and Bill Clinton at the 2013 Artist & Writers Game

XC: You remember it, though.
KA: Yeah, boy I remember that. He does too. He never played again, I’m sorry to say. I also remember a time, I think it was two years ago, Bill Clinton played. I had known Clinton because I had covered him some when he was Governor of Arkansas. He came out to the Hamptons in 1988. He had just given a terrible speech at the Democratic Convention that no one was fond of. He came to our softball game that morning in Sag Harbor, where we do our weekly game, and [we] said, “Why don’t you come to the Artists-Writers Game?” and he did. He umpired for the first time in 1988 for a couple of innings. He liked it so much that every time he would visit the Hamptons, he would come and umpire the game or make an appearance at the game. And even when he was President he would make appearances. Two years ago, he again made an appearance at the game and he walks on the field and everyone surrounds him, the play stops. The fans come out and the press surrounds him. We were in the middle of a rally, the Writers, and I ran over to him and he said, “Oh hey, Ken.” And I go, “Mr. President, you have to please get off the field.” It was crazy. And he didn’t realize that we were in the middle of a rally and he was interrupting the game and he very generously obliged. The Secret Service of course, is looking at me like, am I attacking him or something? I wasn’t. I was polite, but I thought, oh my god they’re going to arrest me and I have to play in this game. He left the field, but the truth is he would gather crowds around him and we so appreciated that he would show up. He remained a very popular figure in the game from the first time he umpired. Those are some of the best memories I’ve got

John Franco and Walter Bernard
John Franco and Walter Bernard

XC: Brilliant. As a nice segue, you mentioned earlier that there are so many players, not all of them the best at the game. Off the top of your head, who would you note as the best or worst player you’ve seen play?
KA: I’ll be glad to talk about the best. I don’t want to be dramatic about the worst, because there are a lot of candidates up for the worst. But among the best, John Franco, the former Mets pitcher. Pithed for us two years ago and then played center field. He was a great athlete. He got the MVP award that year. The Artists have some good players too. I remember Yogi Berra’s son played for the Artists one year, he was a really good player. Then you got people like David Baer, who is our shortstop—young guy, he’s in his 20s. For hustling and rah-rah, my co-captain Mike Lupica. Mike is full of energy and hustle and very demonstrative on the field. He’s not one of the best players in the way that John Franco is one of the best players, but probably the most spirited and fun to play with.

Mike Lupica and Dan Rattiner
Mike Lupica and Dan Rattiner

What I have found over the years is that I’ll get a lot of calls starting in August with people saying they want to play. And they’ll say, “Hey, I’m a really good player.” And anytime someone says, ‘I’m a really good player,’ the odds are they’re not, because a good player doesn’t boast. I always say, come to the field early and let me see you work out at batting practice and fielding practice. Inevitably, that player who said they were a really good player, when I watch them field balls or bat… For instance, the late Peter Jennings—who was a friend of mine, the ABC News anchor—like Gerry Cooney has never played softball before. And he didn’t know what to do with a softball. One year we put him up to bat, and Leif had arranged for the softball to have water in it. And so when Peter swung and hit the ball it exploded and it was a lot of fun. But Peter would probably agree that he was one of the worst players.

George Plimpton
George Plimpton

Oh! One of my favorite memories of the Artists-Writers Game was of George Plimpton, great writer. George used to play in the game for many years before I started playing. George was about 80 years old. He came down to the game, I was coaching and I pinch hit him, which he was very happy about. I said to him, “George, would you like to have someone run for you?” He said, “I can run myself.” He swings at the first pitch, and it’s a line drive which knocks in a run and he runs over to first base. Now I run over to first base and I say quietly, “Do you need a runner now?” And looks at me like, who is this insect who thinks I’m no longer capable of running? He says again, “I will run for myself.” It was just thrilling. Unfortunately he passed away within months of that game, but he left an indelible memory.

XC: Tell me, Ken, looking through old programs, I’ve noticed the name of the event changes from a charity event to a celebrity event. While both of these are true, how do you see those two things coalescing for the future of Artists & Writers?
KA: I think we don’t have enough celebrities. If we had more celebrities we would draw a bigger crowd.

XC: Do you think you’re a celebrity?
KA: No. I think Jay-Z is a celebrity. Beyoncé is a celebrity. I’m known by a handful of people outside my family. I think one of the challenges is to get more celebrities and therefore get more of a crowd and therefore raise more money, ideally. I’ll never forget talking to a celebrity once and asking them to come play in the game. This celebrity figured they would go there and suddenly be accosted by people and have cameras poking them from the crowd. There’s a legitimate worry of getting hit in the back of the head with a camera and a fear of being besieged in an open area. It’s not like going into an office or something, where you’ve got security guards. You’re alone out there and you’re in shorts wearing a glove and a hat and suddenly you’ve got a hundred people around you and they’re pressing in on you. It’s unusual, and for some it could be scary.

Eric and Jimmy Ernst
Eric and Jimmy Ernst

The other thing that the celebrities I’ve talked to don’t say, because I was speaking to a real big celebrity once and I asked them to come play and this person said, “You guys are too serious.” And what was he really saying to me? What he was really saying to me, and I’ve heard it from others is that, I don’t want to make a fool of myself. I have an image to uphold. And if I go out there and I play a sloppy game and the press writes about the errors I made or the wrong base I ran to, I’m going to be embarrassed, humiliated. Shamed. I would counter and tell them, you’re just going to look human out there. And they would say, “No, I’m going to look like a fool.” So that’s another reason why it’s a disincentive for some celebrities. But we need more celebrities. If you think about it, we have a lot of famous artists out here and they don’t play—they used to. We have screenwriters, and actors, and comedians out here. Jay-Z is an artist. He’s also a writer, he writes his own songs. He would qualify for both teams, and I would love for him to play. But so far we’ve struck out on acquiring some of those people. I really think that’s the way to grow and the best way we can raise more money for the community.

Leif Hope

XC: Tell me, how long have you been involved with Artists & Writers, and been captain of the Artists team?
LH: I started the thing as a charity in 1980, and Kenny’s been playing too, so I don’t know.

Peter Cook
Peter Cook

XC: It’s always such a heated game every year. As captain, do you go into the game with a strategy for how you’re going to win the day?
LH: Well, it depends. If you have a good pitcher, they’re going to hit the hell out of you. They love a good slow-pitch. Kenny, of course joined the Writers and we both love to beat each other’s brains out. I’m sure he says the same thing, but it’s all in good fun.

XC: I’ve spoken to fans of the event and everyone has so many great memories of the game and of you. You’re apparently known for doing a stunt every year, with your turnip-ball enduring the longest of any of them. What were some of your favorite gags?
LH: Actually the idea came in about 30 or 40 years ago. Herman Cherry was playing in the game and I think it was Dustin Hoffman who was pitching. A guy came over to me with Herman and said, “Leif, he’s got something for you,” and handed me a grapefruit that was painted like a softball. And I said, “Oh, that’s great.” I took it from him and I started walking out to the mound, but Herman’s friend said, “You don’t understand. He would like to pitch it.” And I said, “Of course! Of course!” I realized I was just insensitive and apologized. I walked to Dustin and said, “Herman’s got a grapefruit painted like a softball and he would like to pitch it. Can I replace you just for that play?” Dustin said, “Of course.” I went to Herman, who’s a painter and a poet, and said, “You want to remember, this thing doesn’t bounce. If it hits the ground…”

George Plimpton was at the plate and waiting for a pitch. “I know, I know” Herman kept saying. So I’m there when the game starts again, looking at the ball as he pitches it, and it was short! George looked at it as it dropped to the ground. You could hear it— blub blub blub blub blub. George asks, “What kind of a ball is that?” He of course knew what it was. We had not done that before. They came back for the second pitch and George just hammered it across and it just splashed everywhere. It was great fun. So that was the start of it. We’ve had baseball stars like Jim Leyritz who got the grapefruit, he was a good sport about it. A lot of good sports in this game, including Kenny, who has a new book out by the way. Frenemies. I have the book.

Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton

XC: That seems fitting. One person people tend to associate the game with is Bill Clinton. They say it was a great achievement on your part for getting him to come out. Do you want to tell us how you managed that?
LH: Well, my ex-wife knew the Clintons. She’s from Arkansas as well. She got them to come out. They came out one night, I went up to him and I said, “Governor”—he was a governor at the time, 1988, I think—“have you played this game?” And he said he had. And I asked, “Do you know the rules?” “Well I think I know some of them.” I wasn’t trying to be a wise guy, it was just to double-check, and told him the rules you don’t know, make ’em up. He was a good sport.

Roy Scheider played for many years and Alec Baldwin played a number of times. Before Alec was playing with us, about seven or eight years ago, it got be the ninth inning. The Writers were winning by two runs and he was up second. He came to me and said, “You could put a hitter up there in place of me.” He wasn’t a bad hitter, so I asked him, “Alec, are you guaranteeing me that you’re not going to get a hit?” He said, “No, no, no.” So I told him to just get a bat and get up there. And he did. And he made out anyhow. But the point is, he was generous. He’s always been generous.

Rick Leventhal
Rick Leventhal

XC: It’s so good to hear that the participants are such decent people.
LH: Years ago, before it was a charity and just a regular Artists-Writers game, 40 years ago, Senator Gene McCarthy played. He had played first base for the Northern League or one of the leagues up there in Minnesota. I asked him if he loved the game. He said, “I would rather be known as a great first baseman than as a senator.” And that’s the power of baseball as an American sport. I would rather be known as a first baseman than a senator. Don’t you think that’s remarkable?

XC: It’s definitely a wonderful sentiment to hear someone say out loud.
LH: Of course! I think he meant it. In any case, he was fun.

Ed Hollander
Ed Hollander

XC: This brings me to my next question. There’s a persistent rumor the game began as a means to raise bail money. Can you speak on that?
LH: I can speak on that. They never raised money for anything, except for two artists who got into trouble with the law during the Vietnam era. Bob Gwathmey, who was a painter and the son of Charles Gwathmey, who was a famous architect, and Bill Hoffman, who was a painter. They flew the peace flag. It was a great sentiment, you know, in support of the country. We all were against the war. I think we raised $600 for their legal costs.

XC: So this is where the rumor comes from?
LH: Yes, as far as I can remember, we never raised any money for anything other than that.

XC: Let the record show. Another interesting fact that’s always noted is that your team is a more diverse group with respect to the occupations and qualifications as “artists.” You move beyond just paint and canvas.
LH: We’re much more catholic than the writers—catholic with a lower “C” of course. But because we include actors and architects. Writers are so strict. I asked them one time in 1975, before it was a charity —I asked Gardner Spungin, and you can spell that any way you like. He was the manager of the Writers. And they had flown some players in from California. They were very good players, by the way. We never stretched…that is, we didn’t stretch very much. A little bit maybe. We’d take in an actor occasionally. I asked Gardner during batting practice, “Gardner, how do these guys fit as writers?” And he said, “Well, they write briefs.” And that was enough that they won the game.

Chevy Chase and Jeff Meizlik
Chevy Chase and Jeff Meizlik

The next year, in 1976, I called the Hartford Falcons. It was a softball team. I had read about this woman, Joan Joyce, I believe, who was a champion pitcher for the Falcons. They played all over the country. I finally got the manager and I told them who I was, and that didn’t matter, he didn’t know who I was. But I told him who I was and I asked him if I could get Joan to one game, she doesn’t even have to play the whole game. We offered to get someone to fly to Hartford to pick her up and bring her to East Hampton. He wasn’t sure and said he would try to get in touch with her. A few weeks went by and I called again because I hadn’t heard from them, and the manager told me she was in a motel in Indiana, that they were playing down there. So, I managed to get her on the phone. Ximena, are you offended by vulgarity and profanity? Because I don’t like profanity.

XC: Not at all, go for it.
LH: I got her out of, apparently, bed at around 9:30 or 10 o’clock in the morning. I told her who I was and she said, “Yeah…I’d like to do that”—she had a very sleepy voice. Then somebody, some guy in the background, said, “Wow, uh, who the f— is that?” She shushed him. Anyway, they called me shortly before the game and replaced her with their second pitcher, and the manager said she was just about as good as Joanie, and we won that game. The Writers wouldn’t talk to me for five years because of it. I could only play her in one inning, so I played her in the ninth inning. But it has always been very personal game.

Lori Singer
Ann Liguori

XC: You’ve already spoken about some noteworthy games of the past, but is there any one that sticks out to you above all the others?
LH: Chris Reeve, you know, the actor who was paralyzed from a fall off a horse. Anyway, he was on the sidelines and I went up to him and asked, “You Chris Reeve?” Yeah. “You’ve played this game?” Yeah. So I told him to get out here and to get a shirt, so he got a shirt and he played. I think we ended up selling A Kiss from Chris Reeve for $5 and some women went bananas about that. Anyhow, he played in the game, ninth inning. Artists are behind two runs. We’re up last. A guy got a hit. Scratch hit. He’s on first. Chris Reeve got up, big guy, and he swung mightily and it dribbled towards third base. The third baseman I think fell down trying to field it. So now he’s on first and the other guy is on second.

Paul Simon
Paul Simon

Now this is very important, next guy got out, but he moved them up to second and third, this guy was out at first. We’ve got two outs and Paul Simon got up, and he’s a left-handed hitter and he hit it sharp to the left-center field. I’m not sure who was playing center field, but he had a strong throwing arm. The guy on third scored to tie the game, we were only one run behind. Chris Reeve, big tall guy, comes pounding around third base, coming to home plate, and the throw came in from center field to catch him—he was the winning run, and Mort Zuckerman caught the ball 10 feet from home plate. And just as Reeves was running by, he slipped it to the catcher right away. Reeves collided with the catcher. I think it was Jay McInerney, but I’m not sure. Either way, they went flying. The ball was of course loose and it was the winning run. We won that game. We gave the most valuable player award to Chris Reeve, however the real hero of the game was Paul Simon, who shot to left center field.

XC: As a local event, as a charity, how do you want to see this event move forward over the next 30 years as the game moves towards 100?
LH: We’re having a lot of difficulty raising money, but I would like to continue raising money for the charities. It’s more important for the charities than it is for anything else. And we would like to keep playing great games, but I would love to beat the hell out of the Writers.

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