By Emily J Weitz
“The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and could be good again.”
- James Earl Jones, “Field of Dreams”
The Artists and Writers Softball Game began in East Hampton 65 years ago as a casual gathering with hot dogs, hamburgers, and most importantly, plenty of booze.
Surely none of the legendary artists involved in those early days, including Jackson Pollock and Willem DeKooning, would ever have guessed that 65 years later the game would still be played, now with rules intact and professional announcers, raising funds for worthy causes like The Retreat and East End Hospice.
To celebrate the 65 years of great creative minds coming together around the baseball diamond… well, technically softball … this weekend, Guild Hall will unveil a new show, “They Played in the Game,” featuring work from artists and writers tied together by a unifying force — the annual Artists and Writers Softball Game.
“I’ve been so impressed,” says Deb McEneaney, the director of development for the annual softball game who was helping to put up the show at Guild Hall last week. “All the artists are coming in, leaning their work up against the Franz Kline’s and the Jackson Pollock’s.”
Much of the work is pulled from Guild Hall’s permanent collection, and is a great opportunity to shed some light on pieces that are often in storage. An untitled Pollock from 1951 is comprised of black ink on Howell paper. “Wall,” an Adolph Gottlieb piece from 1968, is painted on aluminum. Ross Bleckner’s “Untitled” (1991) is oil on canvas, and all of these pieces are in the permanent collection at Guild Hall. Other works, like Franz Kline’s “Untitled” (1953) — which is oil on paper, mounted on board — is on loan from a private collection. Works by Larry Rivers, Jimmy Ernst, Willem deKooning and Esteban Vicente are also among those on display. Books by writers from the game will be available, and artifacts and photos of the writers will be on display throughout the exhibition.
Artist Eric Ernst was born and raised on the Artists and Writers game. His father, Jimmy Ernst, was one of the founding members and Eric remembers when it was barely softball at all.
“There were no rules back when it was just the artists,” recalls Ernst. “The writers brought that in [when they joined in a few years after the game’s inception].”
But what has remained of the game is the feel of a small-town experience. Because with all the glitz and glamour, underneath it all, East Hampton is still a small town.
“There’s still a sense of community responsibility and obligation to give back when one can,” says Ernst. “There’s a question about whether we [as small towns] have lost our innocence, that we are not the small towns we were. But I think there is a real sense of community for those who live here.”
Leif Hope is a big part of why the game has grown in the way it has. Often referred to affectionately as “The Father of the Game,” he has ensured that it remains a small town event for great causes. This year beneficiaries include The Retreat, East End Hospice, Phoenix House, and East Hampton Day Care.
Juliet Papa is a voice you know even if the name escapes you. She is a longtime reporter for 1010WINS and has written several books. She started playing for the writers nearly 20 years ago. But as someone who regularly covers the Yankees and the Islanders, she thought she would lend her skills more usefully if she took on the role of the Mistress of Ceremonies. She agrees that the small town feel of the game is key. There’s an intimacy to it, and from her front row seat, she’s seen some amazing things occur.
“I remember when Bill Clinton showed up, before he was president,” says Papa. “He had just spoken at the DNC, he was a rising star in his party, and everyone was buzzing about his future. He came in in these plaid shorts and asked what he could do. We made him an ump.”
Years later, after serving two terms as president, Clinton still comes back.
“Last year he did a walk-through,” says Papa. “It was a tight game and there were men on base, and then Bill Clinton pops out of the bushes. And I said, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, the former President of the United States.’”
The game is full of moments like that, of the people who have played in the game. And the show at Guild Hall is meant to be a testament to that. The works of art and the books that have been created by participants may not have much in common with one another, except this unifying thread.
“It’s a wonderful thing,” says Ernst. “The game parallels the evolution of the community and the growth and maturity of the art world, if you look at the Hamptons as a manifestation of the New York art world. If you walk through Green River Cemetery, it is a reflection of a unique and wonderful collection of artists and writers, and the idea of having them all gathered in one place is a testament to the region as much as anything. This is where we want to be. Even with all the glitz, it’s still our community and I’ve always felt that way.”
“They Played in the Game” will be on display at Guild Hall at 158 Main Street in East Hampton from June 15 through July 28. The opening reception is this Saturday, June 15 from 5 to 7 p.m. The Artists and Writers Softball Game will be on August 17 at 2 p.m. at Herrick Park in East Hampton. Call 324-0806 for more information.