News & Opinion | August 17, 2022 6:21 am

The Hamptons Changes. Its Annual Softball Game Remains.

Painters, novelists, politicians, ringers. The list of those who have played, umpired or attended the Artists & Writers Charity Softball Game is equal parts iconic and chaotic.

Pele, Christie Brinkley and Regis Philbin all made memorable appearances at Artists & Writers.
Pele, Christie Brinkley and Regis Philbin all made memorable appearances at Artists & Writers.
Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

It was the top of the third inning, and the Artists and the Writers were tied at three.

Taylor Hanson, of pop rock band Hanson, had led off the inning with a single to center field — which he’d punctuated by unnecessarily sliding headfirst into first base — and now Mike Lupica, the author, longtime sports columnist and assistant manager of the Writers, was up with a chance to advance the runner. He took a big cut on the first pitch, which sprayed refuse into the crowd along the third baseline. What the hell?

Oh. He’d been thrown the “turnip ball.” Once a game, Leif Hope (who, some 50 years ago, opened the East End’s first art gallery) manages to replace the softball with a root vegetable. Years ago, in cheekier eras, he’d try for a grapefruit or coconut. Lupica, meanwhile, is known for his fiery play on the diamond; a decade ago, one of his Artist adversaries, an architect named Russell Blue, recalled that watching Lupica “go off the deep end” was one of his “fondest memories.” Blue said to a Southampton newspaper: “It’s hysterical…just watching him turn into a spinning top. Ranting and raving like the losing team’s going to die.”

Wiping bits of turnip off his metal bat, Lupica summoned a smile, gave the pitcher a one-armed hug, and then stepped back into the box. But the game’s announcer joked that the turnip-foul counted as a strike, which seemed to sabotage his focus. He grounded into a double play.

Mike Lupica has Alec Baldwin caught in a pickle; President Bill Clinton greets Neil deGrasse Tyson; Mort Zuckerman prepares to throw a pitch.
Ron Galella Collection, Bobby Bank/WireImage via Getty Images

This Saturday, August 24th, will be the 74th edition of the East Hampton Artists & Writers Charity Softball Game. Aside from an inevitable cancellation in the summer of 2020, the contest has faithfully occurred at Herrick Field in East Hampton, each year, since 1960. The game officially started in 1948 (or in 1954, depending on whom you ask), in the backyard of a modernist sculptor named Wilfrid Zogbaum. It’s the longest-running charity event in a part of the country famous for fundraisers, and supports a lineup of organizations that “cover the full circle of life” — an early childhood center, an addiction rehab facility, a retreat for survivors of domestic abuse, a hospice by the sea.

It’s a simple and familiar formula, the annual game for good. MLB has included a celebrity softball contest in its All-Star festivities since 2001; this summer, Bryan Cranston was ejected after dumping a tub of bubble gum all over the field to protest a call, and a WWE wrestler nicknamed “The Miz” won MVP. Pick-up softball is also a popular method for retired players to raise money and awareness for their foundations (without having to hobnob at a gala). They host events in their hometowns, or in the neighborhoods of whichever city they adopted during the player career. C.C. Sabathia, one of the more beloved New York Yankees in recent memory, was even permitted to stage his charity game within Yankee Stadium.

Still: Artists & Writers, oddly, bears little resemblance to these highly-shared, heavily-sponsored evenings. It looks more like a firehouse picnic — a day in the sun in the hopes of pulling in enough cash for a new truck. There are hot dogs and ice cream on hand, and spectators are encouraged to bring their own lawn chairs. The jerseys the players don are arts-and-craftsy, and likely shrink down two sizes after one trip to the dryer. The event’s most devoted sponsor is Dan’s Papers, a free periodical that became a de facto bible for East End goings-on over the last 50 years. When it was first launched, in the early 1960s, founder Dan Rattiner reportedly misprinted the timetable of the local trains. A crowd waited for a train that never arrived, which started a rumor that the Hamptons had a secret subway, which…Rattiner never bothered to debunk.

The continued existence of this event — in this place, in this fashion — is somewhat hard to fathom. It’s a sort of glitch in the American algorithm. The list of names that have participated in Artists & Writers is equal parts iconic and chaotic. From Rattiner himself: “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.”

Yes, that’s President Bill Clinton buried in the middle there, who was the crew chief umpire back in 1988, when he was governor of Arkansas, and has returned many times since. For years, regulars have complained about his infamously tight strike zone. In 2021, they had a chance to bury some of those grievances; Clinton made a surprise visit, looking jocular in a Hawaiian shirt. One would expect to see Secret Service scurrying around in the background of Clinton’s interview with the event’s emcee, David Brandman, but instead there’s just the bathroom line, the tennis courts, and the makeshift cones that signify the home run fence.

Roy Scheider gets loose; Dale Berra (son of Yogi Berra) hams it up with Kristin Davis of “Sex in the City” fame; Christopher Reeve gives the ball a ride.
Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

The low-stakes approachability of an event with such high-profile names speaks to a quiet and reliable flow of life in East Hampton and Sag Harbor that stretches back decades. Well before The Wall Street Journal’s “Mansion” section was reporting on finance wolves and tech lords scooping up $15 million beachfront carbuncles, or later on, the rush by upper-middle families to purchase “sanity-saving” second homes amidst an unceasing pandemic, this was a place where artists, and, well, writers, came to think and to drink. They could be real people here, to whatever extent they desired, and of course, they had the opportunity to mingle with like-minded souls.

Which eventually led to a softball game, a few years after the war. Or so Artists & Writers lore goes. A cabal of abstract expressionists in baseball mitts — Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Philip Pavia, Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell —descended on Zogbaum’s garden, in Springs, a hamlet north of the Montauk highway on the East Hampton peninsula. It was cheaper to live there, and the light coming off the bay was unmatched. They didn’t keep score in those years (they were more concerned with all the “chicken, coleslaw and booze” waiting off to the side, according to Hope), but they cared enough to keep playing.

It took some years before the writers got involved. There’s never been a shortage of them in that neck of the woods; Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Philip Roth and John Steinbeck all lived around Springs over the years. But keep in mind — the tradition was created by surrealists. It’s little wonder they were in little rush to instill order. Eventually, enough writers received invites that the competitors decided to team up by concentration. The game made a permanent move to Herrick, and according to some who contributed to a New York Times profile on its 50th anniversary, “it changed for the worse.”

The game owns sixty years of ludicrous controversies: the Writers, mercilessly competitive (and claiming twice as many wins at the Artists over the years) began a tradition of shipping in ringers — California lawyers, who wrote…best-selling briefs? — to boost their side, and refused to field novelist Sylvia Tennenbaum in 1972, claiming she wasn’t talented enough. She played for the Artists instead. The Artists responded to this gamesmanship by hiring professional softball players and instructing them to present as a welder and collage artist, respectively. Jimmy Ernst caused a star when he had his athletic 13-year-old son Eric substitute for him during a game. (Despite an apprenticeship with a Japanese woodcut artist later in life, the Writers never accepted him as a true artist.)

And perhaps most scintillating of all, Paul Simon’s decision to switch teams. In 1989, Simon connected on a two-run, walk-off single to lead the Artists past the Writers. Christopher Reeve scored the winning run, barreling into Carl Bernstein, who broke Watergate with Bob Woodward in 1974. Not long after, though, Simon was suiting up for the Writers.

Paul Simon and Lori Singer were fixtures at the game. Kurt Vonnegut made at least one appearance.
Ron Galella Collection, Richard Corkery/NY Daily News, Steven A Henry/WireImage via Getty Images

These stories are endless; politicians have split their shorts, models have been given third, fourth and fifth strikes (the moderators shamelessly hoping to see them run to first), billionaires have been rung up and sent back to the dugout. Back in 1998, the fear was that the game had gone too Hollywood, too commercial. The only reason its operators had ever started charging for tickets was to pay the legal fees of some East End artists who’d been arrested for flying the American flag upside down during a Vietnam War protest. This was as serious as it was ever supposed to get; though, to be fair, some of the game’s perennial players started to meet on Saturday mornings in Sag Harbor to stay sharp in the ’70s. Regardless, when did the bout go from an excuse for dozens of creators to cool down at Coast Guard beach, or knock back a few cold ones at the Laundry Restaurant patio, to the sort of marketing event that their handlers regularly made them attend on the publishing circuit?

In reality, such turn-of-the-century concerns never came to fruition. Too many other events — and too many other young stars — have gotten in the way. The TikTok generation isn’t knocking each other over to see a former host of the The Sports Reporters hit his way into a fielder’s choice, with all due respect to the apparently vengeful Michael Lupica. Besides, while former commanders-in-chief are still liable to make an appearance in a given year, the star power in Artists & Writers has waned. The peninsula isn’t exactly a playground for emerging artists anymore. It’s too expensive. The region has long prized those with local roots — East Hampton High School’s mascot name is the Bonackers, a slang term for the working class baymen who’ve lived in the town for 300 years — but it’s hard to make a living, whether sculpting or scalloping, in a town with three (!!!) Ralph Laurens.

So, while big-time artists and writers continue to move into East Hampton, many of them aren’t yet Artists & Writers. It’s their hiding place, a Zoom sanctuary. The nanny can get the groceries. This suits the game just fine. It plows on, its bats beating against the currents of change, and its operators planning more hot dogs, more ice cream and more “turnip balls.” It’s not exactly the National Pastime; it’s something weirder, something harder to explain. This Saturday, they’ll do it all over again. Make sure to test the writers for PEDs…and their purported prose.