The Artists vs. Writers Softball Game was contested this past Saturday afternoon. This is an annual summer event, held on the sandlot ball field behind the present day Stop n Shop, in East Hampton since 1948. Painters and sculptors in the community gather for the battle on one side. Writers gather on the other. For many years, the Writers won, sometimes by wild margins. But then the definition of “Artist” was expanded—this was around 1980—and since then, with people who are artists in their field, be it Wall Street, Hollywood or government, were now allowed. So Paul Simon, Roy Scheider and Carl Ichan played, among others, and the balance of power got restored.
Last Saturday’s game rocked back and forth through nine innings, with the Artist winning in the end, 10–8. Perhaps the biggest blow of the game was struck by Chris Pfund, a sound engineer artist, who, with a mighty swing in the seventh inning, hit the ball for a home run, soaring past the center field fence and bouncing off a beach umbrella open above the heads of a couple sitting on folding chairs underneath to protect themselves from too much sun or the likes of Chris Pfund.
The rest of the game, before and after, was sensational, consisting of diving catches by outfielders, close calls at home plate and, at one point, the walking slowly in by a right fielder not too familiar with the game to get under a high fly ball, only to step out of its way at the last minute so it wouldn’t hit him when it came down. Ah, but all was forgiven.
A highlight of the game came with the arrival of President Bill Clinton. He entered the field unannounced as the pre-game festivities were winding down in anticipation of the umpire calling “play ball.” Standing happily in foul territory on the third base side, he enjoyed himself as a crowd soon began making a big fuss over him. Juliette Papa, the 1010 WINS commentator who is one of the longtime announcers of the game, pointed him out, then asked him on her microphone to come out to the mound, where she could engage him in conversation. He did that and allowed that no, he wouldn’t play in the game but he’d be happy to umpire the first inning, calling balls and strikes.
As I am the longtime starting umpire calling balls and strikes, I handed the ball to him and stepped aside for that inning. When it concluded, he handed the ball to me to continue on into the second inning. And this sparked a memory.
In 1988, I had just finished calling balls and strikes for the first inning when Leif Hope, the manager of the game, walked over to me on the mound behind the pitcher and said they had an important guest he’d like to have pitch the next inning. The man came out and Leif told me who he was—Bill Clinton, the Governor of Arkansas. I handed him the ball and I spoke first to Leif, quietly.
“What has the Governor of Arkansas got to do with the Artists-Writers Game?” I said this in a whisper. Leif said, “Trust me, it’s important.”
“If you need any help with your umpiring,” I told Governor Clinton, “I’ll be over at third base, umpiring there.” Then I trotted off the field.
At that time I was 49 years old. He was 41.
As I left the field this year, having handed him the ball to umpire the first inning, I felt an odd emotion. I wouldn’t call it jealousy. It was just that he had gone on to do so much in his life compared to what I had done with my life. So now he’d gotten a promotion. Back then, he umpired the second inning. Now it was the first inning.
I do also recall back then he was a fine umpire. He knew the game quite well. Now for the first inning he still was excellent, although once the announcer on the microphone from behind the backstop noted after one particular pitch, “If the President says it’s a strike, it’s a strike.”
And then after the first inning, I got the satisfaction of having him hand back the ball to me to umpire the second (which of course I did flawlessly, except for all those calls where the players were yelling at me). As he did that, I pointed out to him that he was giving me what I had once given him, and he got it. Bill Clinton’s earlier appearance umpiring the Artist-Writers game is described in his 2004 book, My Life.
A few other notes about the game:
This event, now three-quarters of a century old, takes place in what had at one time been a very quiet center of downtown, behind the stores. Now the place is bustling with activity. A Chamber of Commerce outdoor fair was going on around the bend in the park, beyond foul territory in right field, out of sight but not out of hearing distance. We heard the sounds of the fair, they heard the cheers from the softball crowd. The two joyful events enhanced each other, in my opinion. And during the seventh inning stretch, about 30 kids, between maybe 4 and 10, came to the game and ran once around the bases, happy to join the fun.
There are so many cars downtown on every summer weekend. I think on game day the village should provide shuttle busses (school is out) between the parking lot by the railroad station and the parking lot behind the stores, running every 15 minutes.
The crowd was smaller than prior years because the Village, in all its wisdom, had ordered the bleachers—which have been present in all prior games—be removed from along the first base line. There is an overhead telephone and electric line that runs parallel to that line but behind those bleachers. I think the Village ordered the bleachers down because they felt a foul ball might cause a problem with the wires.
It has not happened since 1948, or even before, but I’m told that centuries back the lines came sizzling down one time when the English settlers and the Indians played a game back in 1658. So now, for the first time, you either stood or sat on folding chairs you brought. Next year we should have people bring more folding chairs, or we should bring back the bleachers and have the spectators sign a waiver stating they are there at their own risk and would then be free to sit in the bleachers.
Commentary for the game from Juliet Papa, Anthony Cafaro, Fred Graver and Josh Brandman was especially witty and informative this year. They contributed mightily to the fun.
I was told after the game that the number of batters allowed in the hitting orders had been increased from 9 to 12. Nobody noticed the difference, everybody who wanted to play got to do so, and it was a great idea.
As for the game, first the Artists went ahead, then the Writers. At the end of six, the score was tied at 6 to 6 after Pfund’s towering home run. But in the seventh, Chris Wragge hit a home run and in the eighth a double by Russell Blue followed by four singles broke the game open for the win for the Artists. In the bottom of the ninth, the Writers struck back with a home run by Alec Sokolow, but it was too little too late.
This 2019 game was the 50th anniversary of my first appearance in the game. In 1969, I played for the Artists and at one point slid safely into second. It is so reported in the 2019 program. I have no recollection of that slide, but I do remember presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy playing second base and wearing a T-shirt and shorts that day. He was working in New York as a book editor at that time. After a tough catch, his pants split up the back. He had no other shorts to replace them with, so he just played the rest of the game that way.